Paving paradise in an unstoppable quest for dominance at war memorial

It’s no surprise that Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell was on many people’s minds last week - or, at least, the lyrics to her song Big Yellow Taxi.

Mitchell penned her famous environmental ditty after seeing her view of the mountains in Hawaii interrupted by an ugly parking lot “as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart ... this blight on paradise”.

In Canberra’s case, the blight constitutes a planned car park behind the Australian War Memorial, and the paradise - the one that gets paved in the song - is on the base of our own Mount Ainslie.

Artist impression of the planned $498.7 million redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Supplied

Artist impression of the planned $498.7 million redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Supplied

It seems that the war against development and expansion into our precious bushland will never be over, at least not where memorial director Brendan Nelson is concerned.

Not content with the whopping $500 million already pledged to the memorial for its expansion plans over the next decade, the memorial also plans to encroach, stealthily, onto the nature reserve behind it.

Dr Nelson told a Senate estimates hearing last week that the land, which it would appear takes up part of Remembrance Nature Park, would host buildings used by construction workers during the institution's redevelopment and later become a car park of 118 spaces.


He said the memorial wanted to begin works on the temporary construction team builders late this year. And, incredibly, he maintained that the ACT government had already shown support for the move.

"The land that is immediately behind Treloar Crescent, behind the existing Anzac Hall, just across the road, we need to acquire that land. We don't anticipate this will be a problem, the ACT government has been very supportive with this project," he said.

Why does the memorial “need to acquire that land”? And, more to the point, why should the ACT government let it?

The memorial seems to be somehow immune to the usual processes of public consultation when it comes to development, most particularly development that will encroach on public land.

This is in the line with the controversial $500 million, which was announced with great fanfare and little to no public debate or consultation in the lead-up. Dr Nelson has since dismissed all criticism, and said he “made no apology” for the fact that the memorial was receiving so much money when most other national cultural institutions were crying out for even the smallest fraction of that sum.

The ensuing uproar had little effect; when veterans and warfare are concerned, no government, it seems, is willing to say no to even the most ludicrous requests.

But building a car park on a prized slice of bushland in what is, after all, the Bush Capital, is surely beyond the pale.

The placing of the memorial below Mount Ainslie is meaningful, not only for its position on the original Griffin axis, but also because of the symbolism of a grand edifice that, rather than dominating the landscape, sits in a position of humility at the base of a mountain.

Where’s the humility now? Nowhere to be seen in the face of the memorial’s unstoppable drive to dominance.