By Chris Wallace
This article first appeared in the Canberra Times, Saturday 26 March, 2011
Congratulations on the new job. Yeah, yeah, I know… Wait until six o’clock. Don’t count your chickens until they’ve hatched. But given the number of bad eggs and pervasive aroma of hydrogen sulphide in Macquarie Street right now, it’s not a big stretch to extend the hand of cross-party friendship and offer congratulations on what’s going to be an historically massive victory.
Seems like only yesterday that we were having morning teas at Hyde Park Barracks. In fact, it was a quarter of a century ago. I always ordered the walnuts, quince paste and cottage cheese plate. You were always carrying The Spectator and I’ve got the pictures to prove it. (Who says you’re not a real conservative!)
Anders Ousback owned the Hyde Park Café back then. I never saw Anders but always felt his presence. His spaces were cool but welcoming, uncluttered and beautifully designed but not stripped down to the cold industrial-style spaces so common now. Did you know he was a potter too? Rex Irwin was his dealer. Great produce simply combined was the essence of an Anders Ousback dish. Sydney seemed at its best back then and never better than during an unrushed chat over morning tea at the Hyde Park Barracks.
As you know, we’ve lived in Canberra a long time now, except for the two years after Howard was elected when Michael left DFAT to be deputy-MD of the ASX. We lived in that fantastic Victorian house on a street off The Boulevard in Strathfield. Even Paul liked it – said the proportions were great. And as you know, no-one knows period architecture like Paul.
The house was beautiful, the garden was lush and green in the way you only get in a sub-tropical climate like Sydney’s. But after one backed out of the drive it was hell. It used to take an hour and half every morning to drive the 11 kilometres from Strathfield to Bond Street in the city – the ASX was in the Macquarie Bank building back then – via Balmain where we dropped Christie at Montessori. An hour and half to do 11 kilometres. No need to ask why we’re not still there!
Michael’s version of the story is this. After two years in Sydney I turned to him and said: “I’m going home to Canberra. You can come too if you like.” My recollection is of a brief but completely consultative conversation where we agreed, mutually, that we’d rather be in a liveable city like Canberra, blessed with clean air, a beautiful natural environment, incredible cultural institutions, two hours from both the surf and the snow, with Sydney a brief lunge away if we needed a culture top up – rather be in a place like this than one like Sydney, a city which had already by the late 1990s devolved simply into a support system for cars.
What crystallised it for me was this. I closed my eyes and imagined living in the most beautiful place I could in Sydney: Greycliffe Avenue, Vaucluse, opposite Nielsen Park. It was a lovely thought – until I imagined getting in the car, driving up Vaucluse Road and turning right onto New South Head Road at Rose Bay Convent. The traffic. The endless sea of cars. Life is too short!
BOF, remember back in the era of those Hyde Park Barracks morning teas how Melbourne was a complete joke? Now it’s the cool city. When Christie decided she wanted to broaden her horizons and take herself off to boarding school, did she choose Sydney? No. She went to Melbourne, the cool city with its incredible music scene, cafes, intriguing architecture, extended, meandering arts precinct – a place that privileges people over cars. They say the presence of dragonflies is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem; I reckon the presence of cyclists is the indicator of a healthy urban system. There are plenty of cyclists around Canberra and Melbourne. In Sydney only the maniacal and the suicidal are game.
You’ve got a lot of work to do to make Sydney liveable again. You had your Canberra period. That BA in politics and history from ANU has stood you in good stead. Any Liberal who cites Manning Clark and Don Baker as key influences can’t be all bad.
Now you’re Premier, before you rush into any big decisions, call into Hyde Park Barracks for morning tea one more time. Put The Spectator aside and look around. Think about why that building is so beautiful and why it’s there. It’s there because one of your predecessors running New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, was smart enough to hire a great architect to build lasting things of beauty. Think deeply. If the joke that was Melbourne could be turned around in a generation, Sydney can too. Good luck, BOF.