Canberra 1953-1963 — 5th decade

Decade 5: 1953-1963 The Menzies enlightenment
By Crispin Hull
In 1953 as the nation surged forward with a baby boom, immigration boost and great economic development, Canberra, as the planned city and nation’s capital, stood at its greatest peril.
For 40 years very little had been done, so the plan of Walter Burley Griffin had not been wrecked by irrevocably putting the wrong buildings in the wrong place.
But a pro-private enterprise Coalition Government was firmly in power under Robert Menzies. It was a government suspicious of planning because it smacked of too much government, and had similarities with the planned economies of the detested communist regimes.
It seemed that a burst of economic confidence might result in a burst of willy-nilly construction in Canberra as the Government finally determined that the rest of the Public Service should move from Melbourne to Canberra.
The National Capital Planning Development Committee, set up in 1938, was advisory only. By 1954 the Department of the Interior was sending pre-determined decisions to it for mere reference rather than advice. The head of the department, Bill McLaren, opposed Griffin’s lake scheme because it would make two cities. He thought houses should be built in the Parliamentary Triangle. The local advisory committee (four heads of department and five elected) said it was not a planning body.
The department willfully attempted to destroy the Griffin plan – first by eliminating the western basin from the lake plan and then by proposing a bridge across the Molonglo along the Parliament-War Memorial axis.
It had become apparent that Canberra’s national political dominance would be permanent. In 1954 when the Queen came to Australia she made her address to the nation from Canberra. And the focus of national attention that year was the Royal Commission on Soviet Espionage (the Petrov inquiry) which opened in Canberra’s Albert Hall.
The pettiness of the Department of the Interior showed it was not up to the national task. In the end, the department became its own worst enemy. While it was busy trying to destroy the Griffin plan, action on the ground to move the public service to one location and provide office accommodation and housing for them was so slow that it earned the attention of Prime Minister Robert Menzies.
In 1954 14 departments were in Melbourne and only 11 in Canberra. Melbourne had a third as many federal public servants than Canberra. Canberra had 8700 federal public servants in a population of 28,000. The housing shortage prevented departments from moving to Canberra. Either there was no labour or no money to build houses. Three thousand people were on the housing waiting list in 1954.
Three thousand people – many construction workers who were migrants from Europe and others were public servants — lived in nine hostels around the city. All were controlled by the Department of Interior. Hostel life was described as boring and dogged with petty strictures. On required men to wear ties at dinner another banned strapless gowns. Furniture had to conform to a set pattern and wall decorations were controlled. But they were cheap and had social and sporting clubs and light at the end of the tunnel in the eventual awarding of a government home.
Menzies began to see the folly of a split service and poor accommodation for public servants in Canberra.
He had a conversion. Menzies’ daughter Heather Henderson drew attention to the short-comings of the city. She could not rent a house nor get a good block of land. The pavements were in disrepair. Menzies’ wife Pattie urged him to try to take Heather’s baby for a walk. Menzies saw that Canberra needed work. Moreover, he soon began to realise that Canberra was permanent and would always be the capital. “”Once I had converted myself to this faith, I became an apostle, though years were to elapse before major success.” he wrote. “It was imperative to make it a worthy capital; something that the Australian people would come to admire and respect; something that would be a focal point for national pride and sentiment”.
So in 1957 Menzies cut through the departments that had power over Canberra’s development. He proposed the National Capital Development Commission as an over-riding autonomous body with executive powers. While Menzies was overseas, the bureaucrats subjugated the NCDC to departmental control in the draft law. So Menzies had it redrafted to make sure the statutory powers and functions of the new commission were “splendidly comprehensive’’. It was headed by the highly effective and energetic John Overall whose bureaucratic skills matched his architectural vision.
The only drawback was that Menzies allowed himself to be taken in by the ideas of the English planner William Holford. Holford ditched the north-eastern apex of Griffin’s Triangle, allowing it to peter out a jumble of defence buildings. And he advocated a freeway along the northern lakeshore – now Parkes Way – that cuts the city from the lake. Fortunately his plan to have Parliament House on the lakeshore was junked.
Menzies then pushed ahead with the lake with a Budget estimate of a million pounds for initial work. But once again, while he was away, “”the Treasury struck out this item of one million”. On his return he was appalled that Treasury had cowed his Ministers and told Cabinet: “”Well, can I take it that by unanimous consent of ministers the item is now struck in?”
Work began on Scrivener Dam in September 1960 along with Commonwealth and Kings Avenue Bridges and excavation to make the lake deeper than 2.2 metres so mosquitoes would not breed. Overall instructed that excavation work begin at the golf course – thus ending any rear-guard action by golf-loving senior public servants to prevent the task being completed. And 380,000 cubic metres of topsoil was distributed around Canberra. The dam height was to be 556 metres as Griffin had laid down.
So by the end of Canberra’s fifth decade it was apparent that it was to be a capital of vision and distinction, even if it were to maintain a litany of unimaginative, parsimonious critics.