Canberra 1943-1953 — 4th decade

Decade 4: 1943-1953 Marking time in mediocrity
Crispin Hull
As Australia looked optimistically to a post-war environment, it became apparent that the Federal Public Service could never be fully efficient while it was divided between two cities.
Labor under John Curtin and then Ben Chifley was sympathetic to moving the rest of the Public Service to Canberra. But little had been done in developing the city since the opening of Parliament in 1927. For the Federal Public Service, more office space was needed. But the city needed more than the offices for the public servants. It needed a drastic improvement in shopping facilities and it needed an effective city administration with input by the people who lived in the city.
The Chifley Government saw that need and set to the task. William Ernest Dunk, as chairman of the Public Board, put a proposal to bring 7000 public servants to the city – with families and those who worked in the private sector to see to their living needs, it would treble the population. But the plan fell through. No-one was directing the plan at the construction end in Canberra. And in December 1949 there was a change of Government. Robert Menzies, a Melbournian in favour of small government, became Prime Minister and bureaucratic transfer to, and expansion in, Canberra ground to a virtual halt.
On another front, however, this decade saw one of the most significant advances for Canberra – the establishment of the Australian National University. It began in the war years with the support of army chief General Thomas Blamey whose staff had convinced him that army health could be improved if a medical school could be set up under Dr Howard Florey the discoverer of penicillin. Florey convinced Curtin. By 1946, when the Bill came before Parliament, the idea had grown to a post-graduate research university with separate schools of medicine, social sciences, physical sciences and Pacific studies.
Again Menzies opposed. He thought Canberra too remote for expensive scientific equipment to be housed; that universities should be state-based and individual rather than national in outlook. Again there was little sign of the pro-education Menzies of later years. By the time Menzies took office at the end of 1949, the foundation stones had been laid and it was too late to go back. Later, the university meant an influx in population and a spurt in housing production.
Imagine Canberra at the end of this decade. By 1953, little had moved since the completion of Parliament House other than the Australian War Memorial. However, there was nothing shabby or make-do about the city. War, Depression and War had simply caused construction to cease rather than for quick, poor quality construction. On the other hand, there was nothing of excellence to distinguish the city – no Academy of Sciences, National Library, High Court, National Gallery, Carillon, Museum, university buildings and so on. Domestically, there were no slums, but there was little distinguished domestic architecture. And Burley Griffin’s plan – though not ridden roughshod over – was still just that: a plan on paper.
In short Canberra, was a place of mediocrity without stated promise. It would require vision, money and determined exercise of political will to make Canberra a capital worthy of Australia.

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