Political Bickering Hindered Canberra's Birth

The Canberra Times

Canberra Yesterday. Today & Tomorrow: A Personal Memoir by John Overall, to be published by The Canberra Times on June 26.

17 June 1995

Sir John Overall has recalled the political bickering which hindered Canberra's birth, says Norman Abjorensen.

Look at any picture of early Canberra and, without any great effort of imagination, you can feel the forlorn and desolate bleakness. Here is an inhospitable, treeless plain, damp and chilly in the sub-alpine winter, unbearably hot and parched in the inland bush fly-infested summer, dotted with little constructions that appear absurdly out of place.

The people too are solemn and dour, quite possibly because they had no wish to be here.

Such old photographs exquisitely describe, in a way that words cannot, an existential angst that for so long was Canberra's unique spirit of place.

It was, for much of its history, the butt of jokes (it still is, but for different reasons), largely about the grandeur of the vision and the smallness of the realisation, a poorly equipped and unspeakably dull country town, built on a series of sheep paddocks, masquerading as a national capital.

This unwanted bastard urchin child of a city has been disparaged and deprecated with vituperative flair: seven suburbs in search of a city, the best-lit paddocks in Australia, its planned areas "graveyards where departed spirits await a resurrection of national pride".

If Sydney was built on trade and Melbourne on commerce, Canberra can lay legitimate claim to having been founded on bickering (arguing being too noble a term to dignify the ferocious pettiness that surrounded its conception, attended its birth and hobbled its painfully long adolescence).

Thieves steal, killers kill and politicians bicker. First, they quibbled "over whether they needed it, then they squabbled over where they might put it, then they cavilled over what it might look like, before losing all interest and somehow wistfully hoping that it would just go away and revert to sheep paddocks.

That Canberra has emerged from this hideous abuse and neglect to become a dynamic, vital and strikingly graceful international city is largely because of to the efforts of two very remarkable Australians the late Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, who provided the political will, and Sir John Overall, first head of the National Capital Development Commission, who provided the wherewithal.

Sir John, now 81, has written about his life's work in a book to be published later this month. He tells of the struggles, the bureaucratic battles, the behind-the scenes maneuvering that went on ceaselessly, relentlessly and unremittingly while somehow Canberra managed to grow from a village into a city.

It was in 1890 that the committee drafting a constitution for a proposed federation of the Australian colonies called for an independent federal capital, but proposed leaving it until an Australian parliament had been elected.

But Sir William Lyne of NSW, the state with the most people, was anxious about the possibility of the smaller states taking control of the siting of the capital and promptly moved to have the draft constitution amended to ensure that the capital was in NSW.

This did not sit at all well with the other delegates, each of whom wanted the capital in his own state. NSW retaliated by refusing to ratify the draft.

A later NSW Premier, Sir George Reid, who became Prime Minister, settled the row with a compromise under which the national capital would be sited not less than 160km from Sydney with the Federal Parliament to sit in Melbourne until the capital was built.

But ever-present jealousy between NSW and Victoria was to overshadow the choice of a site.

Thus, between 1901 and 1907, Albury, Armidale, Bombala, Lake George, Orange-Bathurst and Tumut were all considered as sites and two Royal commissions were held.

To further complicate matters, the two houses of parliament themselves chose different locations before the matter appeared to have been finally settled when the Commonwealth legislated to make Dalgety in southern NSW the site in 1904. (Interestingly, Dalgety was located within the electorate of Sir William Lyne, at that time Home Affairs Minister.)

But this was not at all acceptable to the NSW Premier, Joseph Carruthers, who refused to grant the Commonwealth the 2330 sq km it requested because he be

lieved the site was too close to the Victorian border. He threatened to take the Commonwealth to the High Court for trespass if survey pegs were driven in at the site and he declared he would not sanction any site other than Tumut, Yass or Lyndhurst, which, curiously, was in his own electorate.

The stalemate remained until 1907, when the new NSW Premier, Gregory Wade, a strong advocate of the Yass-Canberra site, won support from the federal Labor leader, Chris Watson, who had originally favoured Dalgety.

The Attorney-General, Littleton Groom, introduced legislation to fix the site in the Yass-Canberra district, but the Bills lapsed when Parliament was prorogued in June 1908.

A ballot was arranged in the House of Representatives in October; this chose Yass-Canberra by 39-33 over Dalgety after eliminateing, in order, Lake George, Albury, Orange, Bombala, Tumut, Armidale, Lyndhurst and Cooma.

A new ballot was then held in the Senate, which had previously voted for Dalgety. This vote was deadlocked 18-all on Tumut and Yass-Canberra until a Victorian Senator changed his vote to YassCanberra.

It seemed agreement was in place but not quite. Alfred Deakin was succeeded by Andrew Fisher as Prime Minister and introduced the Seat of Government Act, fixing Yass-Canberra as the location, but not before a last-ditch effort by Victorian and Western Australian senators to reinstate Dalgety.

Surveyor Charles Scrivener was then seconded from NSW to fix the boundaries of the new Federal Territory and in May 1909 submitted a report which defined an area of 2589 sq km, including the catchments of the Cotter, Queanbeyan and Molonglo rivers as well as the town of Queanbeyan.

However, Premier Wade refused to hand over Queanbeyan and instead offered more land to the west in a compromise that was accepted and the 912-square mile site was finally and formally fixed with the Seat of Government Acceptance Act in 1909.

If that sounds tough going, the best (or worst) was yet to come. As Sir John writes: "If the choice of the site had proved to be fraught with difficulty, the choice of a plan for the capital was to be just as contorted and beset with political problems."

A world-wide competition was launched in 1911 to find the best design, but it was boycotted by the Royal Institute of British Architects and affiliated bodies in the British Empire when it was announced that King O'Malley, the Minister for Home Affairs, would be the final judge, with a panel of professionals to be only an advisory body.

Despite the boycott, 137 designs were submitted but the advisory body, consisting of an engineer, architect and surveyor, could not agree. The engineer and the architect supported the design of a Chicago architect, Walter Burley Griffin. This majority decision was endorsed by O'Malley.

Griffin's plan, writes Sir John Overall, was the only one to incorporate the topography of the hills into the city plan. His design was strongly influenced by two popular architectural movements of the time: the city-beautyful movement, which drew on ideas used in his native Chicago and involved planning and landscaping major buildings around formal water basins, and the English garden-city movement.

While many praised the Griffin plan, it had its critics, who complained that it was both extravagant and impractical, to which O'Malley responded that the Government was not restricted to using the winning design.

A board of departmental officers was appointed to investigate and report on the suitability of Griffin's design, but instead drew up its own proposal.

Despite being criticised by one MP, Dr John Maloney, as "the efforts of a few good little Australian artists to repaint pictures of Tintoretto or Raphael", the Government formally adopted the alternative proposal of the departmental board, effectively scrapping Griffin's plan.

In 1913, there was a change of Government and the board which had axed the Griffin plan was abolished, with the new Home Affairs Minister, William Kelly, inviting Griffin to Australia to implement his design and appointing him director of design and construction with the right to private practice.

Griffin, the dreamer, was not a man equipped to cope with the bureaucratic politics he was diving headlong into, and he encountered severe obstacles from day one, finding himself in conflict with a rigid, hierarchical bureaucracy that resented both Griffin's foreignness and his huge salary.

The public servants declared war, restricting expenditure on Canberra and refusing Griffin access to departmental files he needed.

Public squabbling continued and 150 Australian architects signed a petition opposing the whole plan, raising the volume sufficiently for a Royal commission to be appointed in 1916.

The commission report found in favour of Griffin, saying he had been prevented from carrying out his duties because the department had withheld information from him, usurped his powers and tried to substitute its own design for Canberra.

All this had stifled any progress on the plan, but the outbreak of World War I was another brake on the wheels, diverting both resources and attention to more pressing matters.

A competition for a design for a parliament house was one such casualty, but a number of key roads Commonwealth and Adelaide avenues, part of National Circuit and a railway line to the city were completed before the war forced a stop to virtually all work.

It was not long after the war ended that Griffin ceased his involvement in the development of Canberra after a falling out with the Government over its decision to appoint a new advisory committee on Canberra. Griffin's contract was not renewed and he refused to serve on the committee, chaired by John Sulman, insisting that he retain his old title of director of design and construction. When the new advisory committee was announced in January 1921, Griffin's name was not included and his involvement in the capital had ended.

Sir John Overall writes: "Unable to handle the politics of constructing a National Capital, his vision for Canberra was still just a vision. Not a single building had been constructed under his management."

In June 1920 the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) visited Canberra, accompanied by his ADC,. Lord Louis Mountbatten. More than 40 years later, Mountbatten was again in Canberra and he telephoned John Overall mentioning that he had walked all over Capital Hill looking without success for a memorial stone laid in 1920. He thought the NCDC might know where it was.

Alas, it did not. But a search subsequently unearthed it covered in dust in a tin shed at Duntroon.

The inscription on the stone said simply: "His Royal Highness. Edward Prince of Wales, laid this stone 21 June 1920".

Sir John Overall observes wryly: "Wisely, in view of all that had gone on in the previous decade, it promised nothing nor did it offer any explanation for why it had not been laid."

The end of the war did not mean the end of financial restrictions, and the grand public buildings were postponed in favour of cheaper, provisional ones.

IN 1921, the advisory committee called for the development of Canberra in three stages:

1. The construction of a provisional parliament house, which would allow Parliament to meet in the national capital, and the first movement of public servants to Canberra.

2. The central administration of all departments to be moved, the building of further railway links, and work begun on permanent architectural and engineering works.

3. The construction of permanent monuments and the lake, which was central to the Griffin plan.

Although this plan was adopted in 1921, funding still appeared to be reluctant, with less than half the amount requested being allocated.

It was not until 1923 that Parliament voted for a date for its inaugural sitting in Canberra in 1926 in a building on the slopes of Camp Hill that was to be neither temporary nor permanent.

Griffin strongly objected to the decision, correctly warning that the provisional parliament house would never be torn down and would ruin his plan for a sweeping vista from the permanent parliament building to the lake.

"It was a half-hearted commitment to the National Capital, but it was the first real commitment politicians had made to Canberra in the two decades since Federation," writes Sir John.

Despite the 1926 deadline, the Parliament was not opened until May 1927, and another 50 years were to elapse before plans were announced for a permanent home for the legislature.

As Sir John Overall writes with just a tinge of exasperation: "The vacillation of politicians over the siting of the permanent and the provisional Parliament House buildings has bedevilled all those involved with the development of Canberra since its inception."