There is more than one element to a banana republic. Paul Keating sounded the alarm seven years ago. he said Australia was fast becoming a banana republic. His warning related to Australia’s foreign debt. But huge debt alone does not make a banana republic. The other element is a decaying public infrastructure. Well might he reissue his 1985 warning.
The recession has caused governments to prune back the amount of money they are spending on public works, particularly public buildings and the ceremonial structures of our cities and towns. Canberra has been especially hard hit. According to the chairman of the National Capital Planning Authority, Joseph Skrzynski, the Parliamentary Triangle is in desperate need of maintenance.
It is not a question of new works, but maintaining existing works. New works, alas, seem out of the question. In 50 or a 100 years people looking at the great public buildings in Canberra and elsewhere in Australia will notice a gap as they look at the foundations stones. Very few stones will carry dates between 1989 and, say, 1995. One can wander around Melbourne or Adelaide today looking at foundation stones and “Est.” dates on buildings and see the gap from 1890 to about 1902.
It is sad, but people have come to accept that new works are unlikely, but that does not mean existing works and existing public areas should be run down, like those in a banana republic.
Mr Skrzynski listed specific examples of deteriorating works in the Parliamentary Triangle. Its seems money from the Federal Government has been spirited away to other things. The NCPA’s budget in 1989-90 was $4.652 million, in 1990-91 $1.5 million and in 1991-92 $1.4 million. It may well be that after self-government the ACT Government was to pick up some of the work not done by the NCPA. If that were the case it is not happening: either the Federal Government has not provided the money or the ACT Government is spending it on other things. Whatever the cause, it is short-sighted indeed for governments to allow infrastructure to decay. It costs more in the long run to fix. Moreover, visitors to the city start to notice. The city becomes shabby, a less pleasant place to visit.
The completion of Parliament House in 1988, helped Canberra become a more attractive city, both nationally and internationally. International conferences such as the chemical weapons conference would not have been possible without it. However, this base will be jeopardised if the Federal Government, through neglect, allows the city’s main attractions and their surrounds to run down.
It would be criminal to allow Old Parliament House, for example, to share the fate of the Orroral Valley and Honeysuckle Creek space-tracking stations. The cavalier disregard for the nation’s heritage in the latter case shows that constant reminding and prodding is necessary to convince governments, gripped by economics, that all that glitters is not gold.
If Mr Keating is serious about Australia’s image and about our identity as a nation of culture and achievement, he must renounce the current political trend of Canberra-bashing and encourage Australians to be proud of their capital as part of the national achievement. But it will require more than words.