New home for PM not wisest use of funds
Open day at the Lodge in Canberra. Photo: Mike Bowers
In the event of an unexpected visit from an angry Trish Crossin, Julia Gillard will be able to retreat to a panic room, if a new prime minister's residence is built on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.
The panic room, or ''defensible family refuge'', is one of the requirements set out in a design brief for a competition to build a new Lodge in Canberra.
The lucky winner of the competition will take home $80,000 courtesy of the University of Canberra and the Gallery of Australian Design.
As a Canberra resident, I love major government-funded capital works programs; they keep the local economy ticking over and local builders in work.
Australians can be justifiably proud of national buildings constructed since World War II, including the National Library, the National Gallery and (new) Parliament House. But I find it extremely hard to warm to the idea of a new Lodge for the Prime Minister and her successors, and at this stage the federal government has no intention of building one.
In The Canberra Times this week, Father Peter Day, one of the co-founders of HOME in Queanbeyan, which provides accommodation for people with mental illnesses, wrote that it may be time for the people of Canberra to build a similar facility.
Nine of HOME's 19 residents are from the ACT and there is virtually no turnover because the building is designed to offer permanent accommodation.
It is hard to think of a better place than the block of land in Yarralumla being eyed off for a new Lodge to place a world-class home for people with mental illnesses who need permanent support.
There are people in much greater need than the Prime Minister of a new house.
The new Lodge competition organisers contend that the existing building, which opened in 1927, cannot meet ''contemporary needs for family, ceremonial and official use. It has been clear for some time that the building must be replaced by a new prime minister's Lodge, sited and designed to meet the opportunities and challenges of the future''. But, once a planned roof replacement and renovations are completed, the Lodge should continue to serve as a home for our prime ministers.
It is a good-sized two-storey house with a massive garden, swimming pool and a wall for privacy.
One of the main criticisms of the building seems to be that furniture is too fussy, especially for a family with children. If that's true, the problem can be solved much more cheaply than constructing a whole new house.
Office space is limited but the PM is provided with a suite in the ministerial wing of Parliament House.
I've been to the Lodge for a few functions over the years: at a dinner hosted by then prime minister Kevin Rudd (as befits my status) I was seated as far away from the PM as was physically possible.
And of course there's the annual PM's drinks for the press gallery held under a marquee, charmingly similar to a 21st held in someone's backyard, although the Lodge offers delicious finger food instead of a pig on a spit.
Critics have a point about the dining and entertaining areas: there is only limited space for formal receptions, or a dinner for the King of the Spain. Fortunately, Parliament House's Great Hall and the governor-general's official residence are both located within five minutes of the Lodge and can be used to host those sorts of events.
If more space is really needed for official functions, a (sympathetically designed) extension could be added out the back.
It would be a shame to see energies of the public service caught up in building a new residence for someone who has two official houses and their own home.
A more pressing priority is finding homes for those Australians who are sleeping rough, or living in substandard or temporary accommodation.
The Lodge design competition objectives state that: ''The new Lodge and its landscape setting should represent our national aspirations and should also celebrate our design talent.'' A great way to represent our national aspirations might be to commission designs for first-class homes for the vulnerable people who need them most.