Political knots that tie up the Lodge

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The Lodge under construction in 1927.

THE discovery that the current occupants have to leave the Prime Minister’s Lodge because of some lengthy and expensive renovation, long overdue, set me thinking again about the great political difficulty in doing anything really sensible about the place.

Graeme Barrow, one of our excellent local historians, has written a fine book on the Lodge, and finishes with a plea for the Government to build a new one. An excellent area has been reserved for it on Stirling Ridge in Yarralumla, but I’ve never heard a whisper that anyone is thinking of using it. The reasons are mostly political, and I have a solution.

National leaders tend to live in substantial premises, some of real age, like the White House in Washington. The UK’s David Cameron lives at No. 10 Downing Street, which is a rabbit warren of offices that happen to include living quarters for the Prime Minister and his family.

Col. Gaddafi, still alive, but current whereabouts unknown, seems to have had a number of publicly maintained homes, referred to on the television news as “palaces”.

In comparison to those I have seen (not inside), Canberra’s Lodge is a pleasant but rather limited building set in fine grounds. And since I once had the experience of dining there, I can say that it was not then possible to hold a dinner for a larger number of people than 14, or so it seemed.

And though I regret the need for all the security that now surrounds it, one has to point out that since the building is right next to an arterial road, a somewhat more secluded environment would make better sense, and be a little quieter for the inhabitants.

One would not rebuild on the site. The right purpose for the Lodge, once a new one has been built, would be as a residence for visiting heads of state and other dignitaries. My guess is that there will be more and more of such visiting in the years ahead.

In today’s political environment, no Prime Minister is going to push for the building of a new Lodge. The Opposition would have a field day, as would all those with single-issue barrows to trundle around.

Yet you will find some of those who know the place well saying, quietly, that it’s long past time that Australia had a new Lodge that fitted today’s needs better than a house first occupied in the 1920s that has the electrical wiring of the day to show for it.

What is needed is a combination of events. A Prime Minister seeing her or his occupancy of the post coming to an end because of age, or a sense that the mood in the electorate is changing, might discuss the matter with the Leader of the Opposition. The PM could say that he (she) would bear the brunt of the criticism if the Leader of the Opposition would stay out of it – or better still, agree that the time had come.

The PM would say publicly that the building of the new Lodge would take some time, and that he (she) did not expect to occupy it. That would dispose of the sharpest criticism, that the PM was in a self-aggrandising mood. The PM could point out that the land for it had been set aside for this purpose for donkey’s years, and that the present Lodge was becoming more and more inconvenient, because it was simply too small.

Yes, there would be some fuss, but I think it would blow over quickly. The important element would be the agreement of both sides that the work be done, and that the Prime Minister who started it was plainly not going to benefit personally from the decision.

Now, if I haven’t made this clear already, I don’t think this is the time. But I do look forward to the building of a new, modern Prime Minister’s Lodge. It is needed.

Don Aitkin, political scientist and historian, served as vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra from 1991 to 2002.

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