'No regrets' on Lodge, but Howard reveals what he loves about Canberra
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'No regrets' on Lodge, but Howard reveals what he loves about Canberra

Former prime minister John Howard doesn’t regret that one of the first decisions he made upon taking office in 1996 was to make Sydney, rather than Canberra, his official home.

But he does concede that many Canberrans were offended by the perceived snub.

Speaking to The Canberra Times ahead of the embargoed release next week of the 1996-1997 cabinet files at the National Archives of Australia, Mr Howard said he was looking forward to seeing the narratives that would emerge from his time in office, 20 years on.

Former prime minister John Howard at the National Archives of Australia.

Former prime minister John Howard at the National Archives of Australia.Credit:Jamila Toderas

“My experience has been in the past that whenever these documents are released there's always some new story or some new angle or new slant on what happened,” he said.

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“I'm certain there'll be some stories like that, [but] not a lot surprises me in politics now.”

He said that while he had announced early on that his official residence would be Kirribilli House in Sydney, rather than The Lodge in Canberra, it was a “misconstruction” that he had never lived here.

“I spent a lot of time living here. I lived here in The Lodge when parliament was sitting and for large swathes of the rest of the year. It's just that I spent a lot more time at Kirribilli House than other prime ministers had done, and there were a number of personal reasons for that,” he said.

“One of them was that I still had one child at school and my electorate was in Sydney, and Kirribilli is very close to where my electorate was. It's more accurate to say that I more extensively divided my time.

“I know that a lot of people in Canberra didn't like that, and I regret that, but I don't think it was a decision that was criticised at all in other parts of the country, I really don't.”

He maintained that he had enjoyed his time in Canberra, and had probably spent more time here, throughout his 10 years as prime minister, than anywhere else.

“If you did a calculation, I probably spent as many nights in The Lodge, if not more, than I did at Kirribilli,” he said.

Former prime minister John Howard was a familiar figure power walking in the streets.

Former prime minister John Howard was a familiar figure power walking in the streets.Credit:Andrew Taylor

“I have very fond memories of spending all of Easter in Canberra because of the autumn weather. The thing I love most about Canberra was that you had four seasons. We would have spent most of our 11 or 12 Easters we had as a family when I was prime minister, in Canberra. It was a great time to play golf.”

And he bristled at the suggestion that his family had stayed anywhere other than The Lodge, the official prime ministerial residence, and that the mansion had ever been run down or in a state of disrepair.

“Of course at The Lodge, where else?” he said.

“I kept clothes, possessions, furniture, everything there during that whole period of time, so I know the state of the building, and to suggest that it had fallen into disrepair, or was falling apart is just ridiculous. It's not right.”

He said he was looking forward to speaking next week to journalists when the first cabinet files relating to his prime ministership will be released on an embargoed basis.

Among these will be files relating to the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, which happened just six weeks after Mr Howard took office.

“That required a response, and we gave a massive, and I believe historical, response to that,” he said.

“One of the things I discovered, and every prime minister discovers, is that there are things that suddenly arise that you had no idea were going to arise."

He said other issues from that time that stood out in his memory included his government’s program to bring the budget back into balance “before the big trade surge with China”, and reforms to industrial relations.

The archives have been giving the media an early glimpse at the files since 1984, after former editor-at-large of The Canberra Times Jack Waterford made a request to the then director-general.

File picture from the 1954 Petrov case involving the disclosure of an Australian spy ring.

File picture from the 1954 Petrov case involving the disclosure of an Australian spy ring. Credit:AFR

This was just three weeks after the National Archives Act had been proclaimed; Waterford reasoned that there should be a process in place for when the much-anticipated files relating to the Petrov Affair would be released in 1985.

The archives obliged, and have been helping journalists find narrative strands buried within the extensive files ever since, ahead of their official release each year on January 1.

In 2011, the act was amended to allow for the release of cabinet files 20 years later, rather than 30 years, and the archives have since been catching up by releasing two years’ worth of documents each year.

Director of reference services Anne McLean has been involved in the process since 2000, and says archives staff spend around two years preparing in the lead-up to an embargoed release.

“One of my roles is to pick a selection of records to take to the media event. I have a good look at everything, I've got a mind for what the media might like to see too. We try to pick something on Indigenous issues, or something on immigration - whatever the big issues are,” she said.

“We see these as the key records of government. These records are the records of the top committee of government and everything else flows from it.”

Sally Pryor is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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