The Coalition ructions and the Liberal circus plays on but the focus of attention in Canberra this week is upon two interesting matters, each of which has more than a smattering of politics involved, one with a Wagga angle, but which highlights better aspects and the potential for the nation to be proud about our national capital.
The DA’s rural editor, the late George Batten, was a great advocate of Canberra arguing fiercely that it was “our Washington”.
It was important George would say to all doubters, that Australia had a national capital of Canberra’s status.
The column agrees in many ways but The Canberra Times last weekend published a letter deploring the lack of prominence and easy access to one of the most significant memorials in the nation’s history – that of the Canberra Air Disaster of August, 1940, which changed the nation’s military and political history and led to the downfall of the first Menzies administration and its replacement by the Curtin Labor war-time government.
Ten people died in the crash near Canberra airport after the RAAF-piloted aircraft took off for Melbourne. Three of the Menzies cabinet, including James Fairbairn, the Minister for Air and Civil Aviation, and the uncle of Sir David Fairbairn, later to be the first MP for Farrer when it was created in 1949, were dead.
The other ministers who died were Sir Henry Scullett, vice-president of the executive council and Brigadier Geoffrey Street, Minister for the Army, but probably the most significant casualty from the government’s viewpoint was General Sir Cyril Bingham White, chief of the general staff, who had returned to active service at the outbreak of WW2. Canberra airport is now named after James Fairbairn.
The crash affected Menzies personally, particularly the deaths of Street and Scullett who were his close friends.
When it was decided to bring forward a general election rather than have three by-elections, the government was returned narrowly but later fell when two Independents voted to bring it down in late 1941, allowing John Curtin, the great war-time Labor leader, to take over.
In 1949, the young David Fairbairn, took over the family property Dunraven at Holbrook after his return from WW2 military service with a DFC for distinguished service in Britain and New Guinea campaigns; in Britain he located the first V-1 rocket launching site in Germany.
Farrer contained the cities of Wagga and Albury. Fairbairn held it until November 1975, retired and Wal Fife transferred from the state seat of Wagga and won it.
Fairbairn was an imposing figure although his long tenure in Farrer was not easy. Locals referred, unfairly, to his property, Dunraven, as “Dun-nothing” and at one stage my late DA colleague, Simon Terry, got a page one scoop when he learned the Wagga Liberals branch wanted to oppose Fairbairn at pre-selection because it was considered he spent too much time in Albury and ignored Wagga.
What would they have thought of recent happenings as their Wagga seat falls to an Independent?
In those days, the DA’s chief-of-staff, the wonderfully mild-mannered Brian Junck, would assign a journalist at the end of each day’s federal or state electioneering to cover the candidates’ daily routine.
Fairbairn was assigned to me on one occasion and he was very late arriving at our office.
To pass the time I was entertaining my colleagues by imitating Fairbairn’s distinct British-like accent when he arrived at the editorial room door.
He stood there, apparently for several minutes, as my colleagues made frantic gestures; rather than being angry, he clapped his hands, smiled and said “that was a very good show”.
He was, and remained, a valued DA contact.
That brings us to the second matter, another letter, this time in The SMH’s supplement, Traveller, about the wonderfully impressive The Last Post ceremony at the Canberra War Memorial at 4.55pm each day of the year which we have visited on several occasions.
It was introduced by the current Director of the AWM, Brendan Nelson, former Leader of the Liberal Party whom Malcolm Turnbull rolled in 2008 by four votes but who has been doing great rejuvenation of the AWM since he took over in 2012.
The Liberals needed Nelson’s steady but excellent community skills then; he could understand the people’s needs and requirements but the impatient party couldn’t stomach opposition any longer.
The Liberals loss was our gain.
Perhaps Nelson now might convince the government the AWM should take over the care and accessibility for the air disaster memorial.
He obviously knows what the people want even if his former and current political colleagues don’t.