It’s that time again: Christmas drinks at the Lodge for a couple of hundred of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s nearest and dearest friends in the Australian media.
I say “at the Lodge” advisedly. When you go for drinks “at” the Lodge, you rarely go inside the quaint old joint. There’s not actually that much room inside what has become a rather dowdy old pile down at 5 Adelaide Avenue in the Canberra suburb, Deakin.
Even if there was adequate room for all the journos, would she really want us in what is also her home?
It’s worth recalling that Bob Hawke’s Christmas drinks at the Lodge were said to occasionally descend – or ascend – into bawdy sing-songs around the piano.Hazel Hawke undertook renovations at the Lodge in in the mid-80’s to restore it’s 1920’s feel.
Paul Keating, probably wisely, didn’t want us near the joint.
His Christmas drinks for the press gallery progressed to further extremities of the Parliamentary Triangle each year. First it was the government wing of Parliament House, then the National Press Club. Had he won in 1996, they may well have been hosted at the Tuggeranong Hyperdome.
Then came John Howard, a bloke who, despite perceptions to the contrary, was fond of a drink and a chat. His Christmas drinks were always held at (not in) the Lodge where he refused to live.
Here’s another trivial but worthwhile digression: the most memorable Howard Christmas drinks – 1997, perhaps? – were made so when my mate, the photographer Mike Bowers, full of the cheer, stripped to his leopard skin jocks and jumped into the Lodge pool. Howard’s “shooters” – the Australian Federal Police assigned to protect him – were singularly unimpressed, although the PM himself seemed less fazed than others by Bowers in his undies.
I remember vividly Howard, suppressing a laugh and shaking his head in mock anger, saying: “I should’ve known it would be Peter Bowers,” having momentarily transposed Mike and his dad, the esteemed political journalist and equally riotous shit-stirrer, Peter.
This is all by way of talking about The Lodge, which has seen far better days, and Canberra which, as the centenary of its foundation nears, is about to see some of its best.
The Federal Government is about to spend some $2 million on renovating The Lodge. The roof leaks. The wiring is dodgy. Possum wee is said to run down the walls and successive layers of first ladies’ wallpaper is lifting and peeling. It became the discretionary home to Australia’s prime ministers, beginning with Stanley Melbourne Bruce, in 1927.Ethel and Stanley Bruce move into the Lodge May 14, 1927.
But it is neither a great family home nor an adequate venue to entertain dignitaries.
It is folksily comfortable, although not big enough to serve as the type of second 24-hour nerve centre that a PM’s home office needs to be.
It was intended to be “temporary”, like much of Canberra including “temporary” Parliament House that opened in 1927 (and sufficed until 1988). Land was set aside for a permanent Lodge on a beautiful ridge above Stirling Park, overlooking Lake Burley Griffin. But that’s never likely to happen; the authorities have decided most of that park will be conserved – except a really good bit that should be sold to foreign interests for embassies.
It’s too good for our PMs, it seems, but okay for the embassies.
Margaret Whitlam with women of the press. Early 1970s.
So another not-so- good site down by the lake has been proposed, and a competition launched to design a Lodge befitting Australia in its second federated century.
The current Lodge could be turned into a museum.
I think the competition is suitably ambitious: imagine bringing together the best architecture, design and symbolism in such a building, just as Canberra celebrates its centenary.
Dame Pattie Menzies, at The Lodge in 1962, devoted part of each day to answering correspondence. She used The Lodge’s snooker table as her makeshift desk.
Naturally the idea of spending all of that money for a prime minister’s house will be about as popular as plague… or, indeed, Canberra, which has been the subject of national tabloid cringe since the then GG’s wife, Lady Gertrude Denman named it in March 1913.
Which belies the true Canberra’s story, of grit and intrigue – from the traditional owners of the Limestone Plains where the city was built to the tough as nails settlers who displaced them, from Walter Griffin and wife Marion who a world away in Chicago, imagined and then designed their city “for a nation of bold democrats”, to the damaged World War One veterans who lived under canvas to build another version of it.
Canberra broke Griffin’s heart.
The politicians and the planners couldn’t appreciate the profound symbolism of his design, which placed a Capitol – a sort of meeting place for the nation – above the legislature and purpose-built homes for prime minister and head of state. Across his lake, Griffin placed “a casino” – not a Star City-style gambling den, but a Tivoli gardens place of outdoor dining, theatre and entertainment. Alas, the empire-centric planners and politicians didn’t get the plan, and openly undermined it. Then war intervened.
So instead of a Capitol above the legislature, we got a temporary parliament and a dodgy Lodge in the back blocks. Instead of a casino, we got the Australian War Memorial.
The Canberra we got did not embody Griffin’s symbolic celebration of peaceful federation, devoid of the cordite and cold steel that characterised his country’s experience. But Canberra’s landscape does portray the Australia we actually got: a grieving new federation that was stoically nation building in aftermath of the loss of a generation of men.
So, white Australia’s story is sculpted onto Canberra’s monumental urban facade.
But just don’t ask the rest of the country to spend any more money on it, especially the PM’s house.
Tamie Fraser in March 1978 in the office she set up on the staircase landing of The Lodge.
*All photographs reproduced with permission from: “Mrs Prime Minister – Public Image, Private Lives” exhibition, the Museum of Australian Democracy, Old Parliament House, Canberra.
*Cover image: Julia Gillard and Tim Mathieson move into The Lodge. September 26, 2010. Picture: Ray Strange, The Australian.