Canberra 1963-1973 — 6th decade

Decade 6: 1963-1973 Boom by benign dictatorship
By CRISPIN HULL
The National Capital Development Commission sliced through the bureaucracy and virgin grassland. It got things done.
The lake filled in just a few days in April 1964 (after a prolonged drought) just in time for a national rowing championship. The lake literally united the city which for half a century had been two separate villages.
The NCDC’s task was not only to lay out a capital city basically in line with Griffins plan, but also to house the public servants who came here.
Initially, the NCDC was faced with a reluctant private sector. Canberra was too small. Its growth was low and its stop-start growth pattern had sent others to bankruptcy. The NCDC’s answer was to lure major contractors with bulk contracts for several hundred houses at a time with large economies of scale. Streets were kerbed, guttered, sewered, drained and lit before house construction began. The number of houses in Canberra doubled in the seven years to June 1964. By that time 60 per cent was done by the private sector — with the notable presence of major builder A V Jennings. In those days it seemed the choice was Jennings or a Guvvie.
And the standard was comparatively high. The British public housing model of all being the same was avoided. Different designs and a mix of private and public housing made for better suburbs. Combined with no front fences; the free issue of 10 tree and 40 shrubs per house and the wonderful street trees planned by chief foresters Charles Weston and Lindsay Pryor, made for a much-admired bush capital.
The NCDC adopted a new towns policy rather than cram the existing North and South Canberra. To Griffin’s plan for 75,000 people, it would add 100,000 in the growth areas of Woden Valley and Belconnen. It turned this into the Y plan with North and South Canberra, Woden and Tuggeranong as the stem and Belconnen and Gungahlin as the forks.
In 1963 the first houses were built in the Woden suburb of Hughes and within 12 months 3000 people were living there – among then Interior Minister Doug Anthony. Nappy Valley, it was called. Or “way out in the sticks”. Or North Cooma. But the reluctance of people to move there was overcome by the rapid development of schools, shops, playing fields and a community hall.
Early Hughes resident Margaret Pyke recalls, “There was a special feeling about Hughes from the beginning. People were friendly and with absolutely everything to be established, worked together to raise funds for churches, pre-school, scouts and guides, even school equipment. In no time at all there was a welcoming committee to welcome newcomers, and a social club. Everyone was involved and our suburb became a neighbourhood.’’
One of the quirks of Canberra – a new city with lots of newcomers – is that because everyone comes from somewhere else, no-one is a stranger and a sense of community builds quickly. No-one has to live here for very long to become accepted.
The hardships of previous decades were quickly overcome. In the mid-1960s retail boomed in Canberra. Australia’s first three-storey enclosed mall was built in Civic. Garema Place opened. Commercial office blocks went up in Civic. The Fyshwick industrial area started. For the people of Canberra, mail order and the trips to Goulburn ended. Indeed, the situation reversed – people came from surrounding NSW to Canberra to shop. Soon they would come to Canberra for health, education, legal and other services and entertainment. It changed the way Canberra was viewed.
On the monumental level, Anzac Parade was completed in 1965 – the 50th anniversary of Gallipoli – the National Library was completed in 1968 and plans were drawn up for the Carillon and the Capitan Cook Jet.
The Canberra Theatre centre brought the arts to Canberra.
The ANU continued to develop, drawing the best students from the country with scholarship schemes.
In 1965 Canberra had 87,000 people and was growing at nearly 12 per cent a year. Tourism boomed. The War Memorial got 500,000 visitors a year. A major hotel, the Canberra Rex and a dozen motels made it easier for tourists. Canberra was open to the rest of Australia who – as they visited — slowly began to take pride in their city, even if those who had not come here stuck to the stereotype.
It was a heady decade of growth directed by the benign but powerful hand of the NCDC. It was ubiquitous. The letters “NCDC” appeared in headlines daily in The Canberra Times. NCDC does this or that. No-one bothered spelling out the name in print or on radio or the new television station CTC-7. The city was dotted with vacant spaces between houses with blue-and-white billboards stating “NCDC site for . . . a church, an embassy or whatever.’’
To manage this growth without getting bogged down in protest, consultation, political shenanigans or self-serving profiteering required benign dictatorship.
In the words of NCDC boss John Overall, “You had to have total control to succeed and a multi-disciplinary organisation to handle the action.’’
Initially, residents welcomed the development after years of neglect. But it began to wear thin in the early 1970s and residents, particularly newcomers, began to question the benign dictatorship. In 1971 the NCDC faced its greatest challenge when on the night of January 26 a freak storm dumped 2500 million litres of water in a small area of Woden. A 200 metre wall of water swept through the causeway at the intersection of Melrose and Yamba Drive killing seven people who were swept away in their cars. The NCDC said the road met accepted practice but a new high-level crossing was constructed the following year. The NCDC’s image suffered. The city was getting too large for one all-powerful, unelected institution.
The decade bought great political change at the national level. After the long Menzies rule, four Prime Ministers appeared in seven years. Nearly all of the main action occurred in Canberra, bringing national attention to the city.
The Australian began publishing from Canberra and The Canberra Times – went broadsheet after a friendly takeover by the large national publisher Fairfax from the Shakespeare family. Canberra was being taken seriously as the nation’s political capital.
But locally, there was little democracy – just one federal Member represented the interests of the people of Canberra. For a long time that was the popular Labor member Jim Fraser. When he died in 1970, the Liberals strove hard to win the resulting by-election. Without any consultation or notice Prime Minister John Gorton abolished the system of land rent which underpinned the leasehold system. Under it, residents paid a substantial annual rent (in addition to rates and the cost of the head 99-year lease).
After that, in effect, Canberra had freehold. You paid your price up front and you had indefinite secure tenure because leases would be renewed automatically.
From then on there was no chance of buying cheap land over the counter after blocks of land were passed in at auction – even at those auctions restricted to first home-buyers. People no longer needed to be encouraged to come here with cheap land. The city had generated its own momentum.