Federal Politics


Two cheers for our centenary

This year's Canberra centenary deserves to be celebrated because of two things that did not happen at the ceremony held on Wednesday, March 12, 1913.

Canberra, on that day, did not get a new name and, amid some pomp, the foundation stones were laid for a so-called ''commencement column'' that never saw the light of day.

The main achievement of the ceremony in 1913 was to assure people that Canberra was not going to be given a new name; in 1913, the area was already called Canberra. The first white people who settled in the area adapted the local indigenous placename.

After Canberra was chosen as the site of the new federal capital city, the nation's politicians were tempted to give it a grander name, in view of its enhanced status.

The government of Andrew Fisher considered a range of possible new names. Fisher's colleague King O'Malley, who was the responsible minister, suggested Shakespeare. Empire City, Royalton, Myola, New London, Austral-Eden, Concordia and Aryan City were among the many other exotic contenders. Amid this cacophony, consensus on a name change was impossible.

With no agreement in sight, the Fisher cabinet did what cabinets sometimes do in such situations. It opted to stick with the status quo.


There was much joy in Canberra at the 1913 ceremony when Lady Denman, the wife of the governor-general, revealed that the original appellation of the area was to be retained.

The actual moment of birth for the new capital occurred half an hour before Lady Denman's announcement, when Lord Denman, Andrew Fisher and King O'Malley laid the foundation stones of a yet-to-be built commencement column. This future monument was going to be a wondrous geopolitical icon. The column, when complete, would be eight metres high. Stones for the edifice would come from Britain, all of the Australian states and from other parts of the British empire, including restive Ireland.

The base of the column would comprise six blocks representing the six states. Above this base would be stonework signifying the Australian federation. This in turn would be topped off by an obelisk that would represent the British empire and would comprise granite imported from Britain. The references to Australia, be it noted, were confined to the lower levels of the monument. It was our destiny, as represented by the commencement column, to play a subordinate role in a monolithic empire.

But from the start, the column had trouble commencing. The task of getting granite or basalt from sites across the world posed a logistical nightmare. Completion of the project was quickly postponed.

Word War I, which began a year after the 1913 ceremony, was the real killer. Mass slaughter over the next four years undermined the pro-British viewpoint that the proposed column extolled. After 1918, work did not progress. Years became decades and nothing still eventuated.

World War II delivered the final blow to the unbuilt commencement column's ethos. In 1942 the United States replaced the British empire as Australia's protector.

While these mighty events were unfolding the three foundation stones lay hidden away on Capital Hill. It was not until the 1950s that the public servants who ran Canberra had time to address this situation. The now forlorn state of the city's sacred stones was not a good look for a national capital.

Something had to be done and yet the concept of the commencement column, of which the stones formed a part, had ceased to be viable.

An examination of archival records indicates that various options to deal with this problem were canvassed. One proposal was for a modified column devoid of imperial references. Another suggestion involved turning the column into a fountain.

In the end, in 1957, a minimalist approach prevailed. There was going to be no column of any kind. The stone laid by King O'Malley, now too vandalised, was removed and a replica installed. A capping was placed on top of the three stones. An access road was built and a notice board appeared. The only other change was in nomenclature. The commencement column's non-existence was finally ended. From now on, the bureaucrats decreed, the scaled-down icon of Canberra's birth was to be known as the Commemoration Stone. This was a neat outcome. It tidied up the problem left behind by the politicians who dreamed up the column in the first place.

So bad results were averted. Had unfettered political imagination had its way in 1913 we would have ended up with Australia's capital being afflicted forever with an exotic concoction of a name and with the city having at its heart an obelisk bidding obedience to a dying empire.

We should be forever grateful for escaping such a fate.

>> Stephen Holt is a Canberra writer and historian. sjholt@fastmail.fm