District Historical Society Inc
FOUNDED 10 December 1953 ABN 27 465 970 277
Selling East and West Blocks in the Parliamentary Triangle –
“Divesting assets” or divesting heritage?
Dr Peter Dowling
Canberra and District Historical Society
I recently I took a walk along Queen Victoria Terrace in the Parliamentary Triangle and wandered into the grounds of the East Block building. I found it silent. The wind was blowing the fallen leaves and twigs up against the walls and there were no people coming or going about their business. There was an eerie sense of abandonment about this once busy building. The only occupants that one can notice were the local arachnids busily building their webs into the corner spaces. I didn’t linger too long; there was not much to see. I then continued walking along Queen Victoria Avenue, past the rear of Old Parliament House and stopped at East Block. There was life here; staff and visitors coming and going through the doors and along the hallway to the National Archives collections. In contrast to the silence of West Block there was an air of busy activity and quiet concentration in this building. But all that will soon change. East Block will soon fall silent like West Block and the arachnids will move in. What has happened?
The answer is that the Commonwealth Government has made a decision to sell off these two buildings; or to put it in government speak - divestment of Commonwealth assets. But just what is the Commonwealth Government selling? The short answer is the buildings - the physical fabric. But there is more to these two buildings than some form of bricks and mortar ‘asset’ belonging to the Commonwealth Government. And here I should say that the real owners of the buildings are the people of Australia. The Commonwealth Government, in whose hands they have been since construction, are the caretakers, responsible to manage and care for them on behalf of the Australian people. So they are not just a ‘government asset’ they are an asset of the people.
The two buildings were constructed between 1925 and 1927 along with Old Parliament House (then Provisional Parliament House) to house the essential secretariats of the Commonwealth Government in Canberra. They represent the evolution of government and national democracy in Australia situated in the national capital, Canberra. They are both on the National Heritage Register.
Part of the National Heritage Register’s statement of significance for the two buildings along with Old Parliament House states
The group is an essential and important axial planning element within the Parliamentary Triangle. The planning principles of the group are as established by Walter Burley Griffin, and the architectural resolution of the group is as established within the office of John Smith Murdoch, Director of Works.
[East and West Block are important for their] association with Federation, as part of the Provisional Parliament House group, which formed the essential Government facilities in the early development of Canberra as the Nation's Capital. The Secretariat buildings are a remnant of the relocation phase of the Federal Capital when they represented the seat of Federal Government and political power. The former Secretariat buildings demonstrate a model of Government Administration dating from the earliest periods of developing the National Capital in the mid 1920s.
East Block once housed the Canberra post office (post code 2600 from which all distances throughout Australia to the national capital of Canberra were measured), the telephone exchange for Canberra, the Parliament and the government agencies, and the Department of Trade and Customs. West Block housed the original National Library on its first and second floors, the Prime Minister’s Department, the Treasury offices and the Attorney General’s office. All these agencies were vital to the early years of Canberra as the seat of national government. Within the grounds of West Block is an innocuous little structure now used for the electrical sub-station providing power to the main building? During the Second World War it was known colloquially as the ‘Bunker’ or the ‘Dugout’ and was used as the encoding and decoding of highly secret cables emanating from the Prime Minister’s office. The young women who worked in secret there called themselves the ‘Cable Girls’ and they played a vital part in Australia’s war effort.
West Block has now been sold to Geocon, a local development group, for $6.25 million. Geocon plan to convert the building into a luxury hotel within the Parliamentary Triangle. Senator Cormann, the Minister for Finance, in whose hands the sale of these buildings rests has given assurances that the heritage values, including the physical fabric, the setting, history and cultural significance of both buildings will be protected through covenants and provisions in the sales contracts and Crown leases. But what these covenants and provisions will entail have not been explained or clarified to the public. And even though there is a current heritage and management plan for the buildings how assured can we be that the heritage requirements will be assiduously complied with in the future by the new owners? The present intention for East Block is that the National Archives will be temporarily located in Old Parliament House and then move back into the building following renovations and sale of the building.
Adapting West Block into a hotel will, on the surface, comply with the provisions under the Commonwealth EPBC Act and National Heritage Register and it will allow public access to the building. Other heritage listed nearby buildings of the same vintage – the Kurrajong Hotel and Hyatt Hotel Canberra are privately owned, have undergone substantial renovations over their lifetimes and still retain their heritage values. But these buildings were constructed specifically for accommodation purposes and are outside of the Parliamentary Triangle. So it seems bizarre to the point of grave concern that the East and West Blocks, integral parts of the Parliamentary Triangle and representing the formation of our government in Canberra will now become the only privately owned buildings in the Triangle. I for one think that there has a moral and ethical misdeed done by the Commonwealth Government in the sale of these two buildings.