Canberra political tour: A politician's insider tour of Canberra's best-kept secrets

When Fred Daly retired from federal politics he didn't sign a lucrative deal as a television political commentator; he didn't take on an acerbic newspaper column, and he didn't even leave Canberra, choosing to live out his days in the national capital until his death in 1995. Instead, exploiting his intimate knowledge of the national capital, more than two decades ago the avuncular Daly created probably the first and what would turn out to be the last (at least until now) political tour of Canberra.

Daly's colourful, humorous and insightful "Political Discovery Tour" of Canberra began as an organised coach tour and, as his years advanced, evolved into a self-drive itinerary. He recognised that despite Canberra being one of the world's youngest capitals and oft dismissed as a moribund, man-made monument to over-paid and over-indulged politicians and public servants, the city in reality boasts a rich and eventful history.

It's a city redolent of drama, scandal and intrigue that can be traced back to its foundation. Old enough to recall Fred's tour, though never having taken it, I decided, with the help of Dr Peter Dowling, a Canberra academic and historian, to revisit and update it, particularly with a federal election imminent.

Dowling says "people really do underestimate the history of Canberra" and it's time, to borrow an election slogan, to "resurrect [Daly's] tour and bring the history of the capital back to the fore".

One of the authentic characters of federal politics, Daly was elected to Parliament as a Labor member in 1943, serving as a minister in the ill-fated Whitlam Government between 1972 and 1975. Daly's parliamentary career encompassed 10 Prime Minsters from John Curtin to Malcolm Fraser.

While there's no major public statue of Fraser in Canberra (you'd have to go to Easter Island for one of those) we begin our political discovery tour of Canberra, 2016-style, albeit a more modest version of the wonderfully detailed original, at the site of one of the capital's most engaging political monuments.

1. FROZEN IN TIME: CURTIN AND CHIFLEY MONUMENT

This life-sized monument on the edge of the Parliamentary Triangle captures a lost era of Australian public life and values. Daly would surely have loved it. Designed by Peter Corlett and commissioned by the ACT Government, the sculpture is located at Ryrie Park near Old Parliament House.

It's based on a black and white photograph taken of Curtin and Chifley (respectively Australia's 14th and 16th Prime Ministers). It shows the pair on their customary five-minute stroll, sans security detail, between Parliament House to the nearby Hotel Kurrajong, where Chifley invariably stayed when Parliament was sitting.

The sculpture was unveiled by Julia Gillard, Australia's first female Prime Minister, in 2011. Nearby is a statue of Australia's first PM, Edmund Barton, unveiled by Bob Hawke in 1983. Elsewhere, Corlett also created a sculpture of Sir Robert Menzies, the nation's longest serving Prime Minister, located in Commonwealth Park on the opposite side of Lake Burley Griffin. Ryrie Park, Parkes See arts.act.gov.au

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2. STAYING POWER: HOTEL KURRAJONG

Retrace Curtin and Chifley's constitutional with a visit to this historic, 147-room hotel near the aforementioned sculpture. Ben Chifley, who became Prime Minister in 1945, refused to live in the Lodge, preferring to continue living at this then hostel-cum-hotel where he had also resided when in Canberra as Federal Treasurer and Opposition Leader.

There's a replica of Chifley's favourite weathered leather chair on display in the lobby of the hotel. A creature of habit, Chifley, who died from a heart attack suffered at the hotel was said to have ordered the same high-cholesterol breakfast of crispy bacon, poached egg, toast and a cup of tea on each day of his stays, according to Dowling. 8 National Circuit, Barton. See tfehotels.com

3. MEATY MATTERS: OLD PARLIAMENT HOUSE

Head back to beyond the Curtin and Chifley sculpture and on to Old Parliament House, a "temporary" seat of power that ended up serving for more than 60 years before it was replaced. It's rather quaint when compared with the modern behemoth that replaced it on the hill above it.

Inside Old Parliament House – now the fine Museum of Australian Democracy – you can pass through well-preserved and incredibly poky '70s-style offices that now appear wonderfully retro. It's astounding to think Prime Ministers of the day worked in a space not much bigger than the footprint of a small suburban flat.

Yet you don't even need to enter Old Parliament House to glean a sense of its history. To stand on its steps is to stand where Dame Nellie Melba sang at the official opening of the building in 1927 and where, at 4.45pm on November 11, 1975, Gough Whitlam delivered his impromptu "nothing will save the Governor-General" speech following his sensational dismissal by then Governor General Sir John Kerr.

Old Parliament House is also symbolic of the more innocent of Australian politics. Dowling tells the story of how the Prime Ministerial phone number in Chifley's office was similar to that of a Canberra butcher.

The housewives of the capital would ring the number each Friday to place their weekend meat orders and would often misdial what was then a short number. Chifley would politely take down the order and phone it through to the butcher. King George Terrace, Parkes. See moadoph.gov.au

4. COUP CENTRAL: NEW PARLIAMENT HOUSE

When Daly devised his political tour of Canberra in the early '90s, the new Parliament House, with its 4500 rooms and a floor area of more than 250,000 square metres directly behind its predecessor, was indeed new.

Yet even by that time, the building had already been witness to a trio of "political coups": Andrew Peacock versus John Howard, Ian Sinclair versus Charles Blunt and Keating versus Hawke.

Daly would no doubt be interested to learn that was just the beginning, with the building becoming the scene for the toppling of so many subsequent Prime Ministers and Opposition Leaders that a former BBC correspondent famously dubbed Australia, and effectively its capital, as "the coup capital of the western world". Parliament House, Parliament Drive. See aph.gov.au

5. DEEP SECRETS: THE DUGOUT

Even the dogged Daly missed this one in his political tour of Canberra itinerary. Not far from Parliament House is the white and red brick West Block, a Department of Finance building designed by the great principal architect of early Canberra, John Smith Murdoch, in 1924.

Behind the building is "The Dugout", a nondescript construction that these days serves as an oversized gas meter. However, it was originally built to incorporate a bomb shelter during World War II, as Dowling indicates. It also served as Australia's own miniature Bletchley Park since it contained a Typex machine for decoding and sending top secret cables between John Curtin and Winston Churchill relating to vital war effort matters. West Block, Commonwealth Avenue, Parkes. See finance.gov.au

6. HOME AWAY FROM HOME: PARK HYATT CANBERRA

Further on from West Block is one of the capital's most luxurious digs, the 252-room Park Hyatt. It began life as the more humble Hotel Canberra in 1924, having been built to accommodate Members of Parliament and other visitors to the fledgling national capital. The hotel's most notable long-term resident, as Daly explains in his tour, was Labor's James Scullin, who served as Prime Minister between 1929-32. He chose to live here rather than at The Lodge, believing it to be more forgiving on the public purse.

One of the most illustrious foreign guests to have checked in here was the legendary US general, Douglas MacArthur, who stayed at Hotel Canberra in 1942 when he came to the bush capital to address Federal Parliament as supreme commander of the Pacific. 120 Commonwealth Avenue. See canberra.park.hyatt.com

7. POLITICAL ADDRESS: THE LODGE

If you've been on foot for our tour until now you'll now need your car for a drive past of the Prime Minister's residence, newly renovated at a cost of almost $10 million with Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull famously dipping into their own bulbous bank accounts to finish the remaining over-budget work.

The first and youngest PM to live here was Stanley Bruce, who served in the role from 1923-29. But one of the most remarkable aspects of The Lodge – aside from the fact it didn't receive a proper security fence until 1968 – is the number of Prime Ministers who chose not to reside there or were unable to do so.

As mentioned, the Depression-era Labor PM, James Scullin, preferred to live at a hotel as did Ben Chifley, while in recent times John Howard spent many of his days as Prime Minister residing at harbourside Kirribillli House in Sydney. Tony Abbott, meanwhile, had to move out during renovations, choosing to stay not at a hotel or alternative residence but at comparatively spartan lodgings at the Australian Federal Police College in the Canberra suburb of Barton. Adelaide Avenue, Deakin. See finance.gov.au

8. SPIES LIKE US: HOTEL KINGSTON

Head along Canberra Avenue, passing Kingston Oval where Bob Hawke was once almost blinded in a cricket match, where, further on, you'll come across the Hotel Kingston, across from the Russian Embassy. It was thought to have been used as a vantage point by Australian agents to monitor movements there during the Cold War.

Now known as the less grand Kingston Hotel (or "the Kingo" by Canberrans), this pub remains a popular watering hotel. But the Kingo wasn't only the favoured lookout post for Australia's spooks, as the next location on our tour attests. 73 Canberra Avenue, Griffith. See kingstonhotel.com.au

9. GRAVE UNDERTAKINGS: TOBIN BROTHERS FUNERAL DIRECTORS

Near to "the Kingo" is this building that still serves as the home of a well-known Canberra funeral directors. As Daly points out in his tour, ASIO officers, via the Attorney General's Department, somewhat comically, quietly leased the first floor of the unlikely hideout, allowing them to spy on the Soviet Embassy across the road.

"They'd photograph everyone entering and leaving," Daly writes in his tour itinerary, "record vehicle number plates and tap phone lines into the embassy from this vantage point." 75 Canberra Avenue, Griffith

10. RED ALERT: THE FORMER SOVIET EMBASSY

The 1955 Royal Commission into the defection of Vladimir Petrov, third secretary of the Soviet Embassy, found, in what seems today a rather non-revelatory finding, that the mission had been a hotbed for espionage operations.

The embassy was back in the news again in the early 1980s when David Combe, a lobbyist with strong Labor links, was implicated in a scandal when Valery Ivanov, a first secretary of the Soviet Embassy, was considered to have attempted to recruit him as a KGB operative. The incident led to the standing down of Special Minister of State Mick Young and the expulsion of Ivanov by the Federal Government for espionage.

On December 26, 1991, the hammer and sickle Soviet flag was lowered and the new red, blue and white Russian flag was raised following the campaign for independence by then 15 Soviet republics. 78 Canberra Avenue, Griffith.

11. PRESIDENTIAL SUITE: THE REX HOTEL

Even after a recent refurbishment of this 157-room hotel located on Northbourne Avenue – then deemed the classiest and most modern pub in Canberra when it opened in 1959 – it's hard to believe that a US President stayed here. Twice.

As Daly points out in his political tour itinerary, the hotel had to put two beds together in order to accommodate Lyndon B. Johnson's rangy frame, with the room having to be renovated to raise it to presidential standards.

Johnson visited Canberra on two occasions in the mid-1960s, on one occasion crouching, according to Daly, in the back seat of an unmarked police car to avoid anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, on his return to the Rex.

His first visit was to thank Prime Minister Harold Holt for Australia's support of the war in Vietnam. The second was en route to the memorial service for Holt in Melbourne following his disappearance in the surf off Portsea, south of the Victorian capital. 150 Northbourne Avenue, Braddon. See canberrarexhotel.com.au

12. POLITICAL BAGGAGE: THE LAKESIDE HOTEL

Head back down Northbourne Avenue towards Civic and Acton for the last stop on our tour and another notable hotel. Here you'll find this high-rise hotel, nowadays the funky QT Canberra, which operates an exclusive, invitation lounge for Canberra VIPs, including pollies.

When it opened in the 1970s as The Lakeside, the multi-storey lodgings soon become "the" place to stay in the national capital. During the notorious loans affair that led to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, the shadowy Pakistani money broker Tirath Khemlani, checked his luggage into the hotel while in reality he was staying at a cheap motel elsewhere in town.

Khemlani had been asked in 1975 by Rex O'Connor, Whitlam's hapless finance minister, to act as an intermediary in the negotiations of a $4 billion loan from Middle East money men.

Today, the playful QT Canberra has considerable fun with its political heritage with coasters, notepads and keycards featuring photos everyone from Gough Whitlam to Harold Holt, though, sadly, no Pakistani financier. 1 London Circuit, Canberra. See qthotelsandresorts.com

FIVE CANBERRA RESTAURANTS THAT MADE HEADLINES

CHARLIE'S RESTAURANT (NOW PROVINI), CIVIC

It was here on the night of the November 11, 1975, that the Labor Party held a "wake" to mark the dismissal of the Whitlam Government that day. Labor, according to Daly, continued to hold anniversary of the dismissal dinners here until 1985. 50 Bunda Avenue, Canberra. See cocu.com.au

TANG DYNASTY, KINGSTON

It was at this restaurant in late 1988 that Hawke Government minister, John Dawkins, revealed to the Murdoch press his attempt to force the resignation of PM Bob Hawke in favour of Paul Keating. The attempt failed but, as Daly points out, the story exposed the Government's irreparable leadership ructions. 81 Giles Street, Kingston. See tangdynasty-au.com

THE LOBBY RESTAURANT

A favoured noshery from the '70s among capital politicos, on Australia Day, 2012 The Lobby (now an upmarket function centre) was the scene of a security scare during a volatile protest. Attendees Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott were dramatically ushered out and away by bodyguards. 1 King George Terrace, Parkes. See thelobby.com.au

LA DOLCE VITA, KINGSTON

Once a hive of political activity, according to Daly, this restaurant was reportedly where the decision was made in April 1989 to replace Liberal leader John Howard with Andrew Peacock. The former would later make a Lazarus-like comeback, going on to become Australia's second longest serving Prime Minister. 34 Giles Street, Kingston. See ldvkingston.com

WILD DUCK, KINGSTON FORESHORE

In May 2014, Malcolm Turnbull and Clive Palmer were photographed together leaving this restaurant following what was interpreted by the media as a "secret dinner". At the time, Palmer was threatening to block several key Federal Government budget measures. 77-78/71 Giles Street Kingston. See wild-duck.com.au

MAKING CAPITAL: FIVE MORE AMAZING CANBERRA MOMENTS

A PM DISAPPEARS: CURTIN'S MISSING HOURS

During the most difficult days of World War II, Prime Minister John Curtin (see main tour) mysteriously vanished following a parliamentary session and could not be located. A sufferer of depression and stress-related conditions, the wartime PM vanished for hours with none of his staff aware of his whereabouts. Although some believe he filled the time walking around Mount Ainslie, Dowling believes he chose to spend some contemplative time at the Australian War Memorial, which he had only recently opened.

A CAR CRASHES THROUGH THE DOORS OF PARLIAMENT

On August 12, 1992, an Adelaide man turned the Great Hall of the new Parliament House (see main tour) into a de facto carpark. He drove his four-wheel drive vehicle straight through the front doors of the building, scattering tourists. A shotgun and shells were later found in the man's Pajero. Concrete barriers were erected following the incident with security dramatically intensified following September 11.

CHIFLEY DIES AT THE HOTEL KURRAJONG (OR DID HE?)

It's commonly believed Ben Chifley died from a heart attack in room 205 of the Hotel Kurrajong (see main tour) in 1951, when he was Opposition leader, but some contend his pulse was detected at the hospital to which he was rushed. Others speculate as to whether he was alone in the room at the time of his coronary. It's still possible to stay in the room where the former PM spent his final night.

BOB HAWKE IS NEARLY BLINDED BY A BOUNCER

During an annual press gallery versus politicians cricket match at Kingston Oval – another stop of Daly's discovery tour – in 1984, the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, was struck in the face by a rising ball. The glasses he was wearing shattered with the PM, a decent batsman in his younger days, fortunate not to have suffered a serious eye injury. Kingston Oval, located on Canberra Avenue, still functions as a sporting facility.

A WARTIME AIRCRAFT DISASTER KILLS THREE MINISTERS

In one of Australia's worst and far-reaching wartime civilian disasters, 10 people were killed on August 13, 1940, when a Hudson bomber aircraft crashed near Canberra's aerodrome. The death toll included three cabinet ministers with Prime Minister Robert Menzies recalling a youthful Harold Holt, a future PM, from war service in order to fill the resultant ministerial gaps. The airport near which the crash occurred would the next year be named Fairbairn Air Base in honour of one of the ministers killed in the accident.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitcanberra.com.au

GETTING THERE

All of the major airlines operate multiple daily flights to Canberra from Sydney and Melbourne and the other major capitals. Canberra is a three-hour drive from Sydney and nearly a seven-hour drive from Melbourne.

STAYING THERE

The historic Hotel Kurrajong is located close to the key attractions in and around the Parliamentary Triangle. Doubles from $135 per night. 8 National Circuit, Barton. Ph: 02 6234 444. See tfehotels.com

QT Canberra is situated near Lake Burley Griffin and Civic, the capital's CBD area as well as the New Acton food and cinema precinct. Doubles from 1 London Circuit, Acton. See qthotelsandresorts.com

Anthony Dennis stayed as a guest of QT Canberra and Hotel Kurrajong. Thanks to to the National Library of Australia (nla.gov.au) and the National Museum of Australia (nma.gov.au) for assistance in the research of this article.

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