Allan Takes Aim Blog

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What is Public Art?

Just as the saying goes that beauty is in the eye of the beholder the same thing could be said about art – public or private.

But first let me digress before talking about art. I know there are such things as flying fishes because I’ve seen them. However, if you believed every angler’s story about the one that got away you might be inclined to think the fish had given wing just to escape the fate of ending up first on a cold slab of stone before landing in a hot frying pan with hot chips for company.

They might also have wanted to avoid being transferred from the frying pan to a warm plate with hot chips still for company to be cut into smaller pieces before being consumed with the hot chips in a delicate but ritualistic orgy of eating.

Warm plate aside it might have wanted to avoid the ignominy of being wrapped in greaseproof paper along with hot chips to, be dusted with salt and doused with a liberal lashing of vinegar before suffering a less than delicate ritual mastication sans knife and fork.

Whales as everyone knows are not fish but mammals although they have something in common: they both live in water. But one thing they do not have in common, although perhaps my education in this regard has been defective, is that there are no flying whales. Yet last week, a many mammaried representation of a whale called Skywhale, in the shape of a balloon flew around the skies of Canberra, Australia’s National Capital. This now brings me to the question: what is public art?

As you can imagine, Skywhale immediately became the stuff of legend and in time, no doubt will become the subject of a suitably titled film eg: Terror Strikes Whale Capital. In truth the flying whale was a contribution to Canberra’s Centenary as a piece of Public Art which leads me to ask: which city other than Canberra could come up with such a brilliant idea.

Like every brilliant idea of course, the ferociously expensive Skywhale was hated or liked by many in the community with the former saying the money it cost could, and should, have been spent on something that would have brought lasting benefit to the community. And though Skywhale has gained some fame I suspect it will be fleeting because the only place that Canberrans are likely to see it is on the net which, in turn, raises the question: can it rightly be called Public Art?

The fact is, Canberra has a lot of Public Art even if some of it is not seen as things of beauty and a joy forever. Tourists often comment on it. Indeed it was hope that Skywhale would boost tourism numbers but if visitors will only be able to see it on the net they are unlikely to come to stand and peer patiently at the sky in hope of seeing the much mamarried cetacean balloon make an appearance.

That apart, tourists usually like to get up close and personal to attractions Of course, even if Skywhale does nothing for Canberra’s tourism industry it might well benefit the whale watching industry on the South Coast which gives substance to the old adage: it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.


But let me end on as positive note as I can for Canberra. I hope Skywhale’s fame is neither  fleeting nor made Canberra a laughing stock around the world and also created the situation that tourists will take a view that it is a city not worth visiting.

Comment welcome.

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My latest blog is always available at: To make direct contact e-mail me at:

Canberra on the Beach

As I lay in bed dreaming I could see the palm trees by the lakeside beach swaying in the light Canberra wind, while children on the beach built sandcastles and dozens of Canberra bureaucrats and other overstressed workers lay on their LiLos getting suntanned (lightly of course) as they soaked up their daily dose of vitamin D in the hope of reducing their stress levels and revitalising their aching bodies and minds.

Well what’s wrong with that dream? If Canberrans can get a daily dose of Vitamin D lying on a LiLo at Lakeside Beach tourists can too. Then, alas, I woke up. But I didn’t mind; some of my past dreams came true though more often than not they became nightmares.

But the more I read about the beach the more I realized that I didn’t see any of the things I remembered from my childhood days. I couldn’t see any donkeys for children to take a ride on or a hot dog stand or an ice cream stall or bronzed life savers that teenage girls and those who imagined they were still teenage girls swooned over.

And nor was there a postcard stall perhaps because by the time the idea of the beach comes to fruition instead of a stall with naughty postcards it’s likely a new app for mobiles or whatever piece of technology is the latest must have, will be available so that friends can be sent “naughty pictures” with the message “wish you were here.”

The Lakeside Beach will also have big advantages over those lookalike beaches shown in brochure after brochure. Presumably too, the water that will lap the Lakeside beach will be fresh and so make swallowing mouthfuls of it more pleasant than swallowing mouthfuls of brine in either Biarritz -Europe’s surfing capital, or Bali.

Then the thought struck me that in case you forgot to brush your teeth you could remedy your forgetfulness by carrying toothbrush and toothpaste in your beach bag as well as suntan lotion, budgie snugglers or bikini so that you could scrub the molars with lake water.

But what excited me most about the plans for an urban beach was the idea of having a boardwalk, multi -story hotels, a casino, a forum, a convention centre and a rectangular stadium where the Raiders and Brumbies could display the talent that keeps them atop the league tables. I’d like to suggest also that a tattoo parlour be built on the boardwalk where team members or their fans could get themselves adorned. To complete the ancillary services, I think a Police Station might also be necessary.

Mind you, perhaps it’s presumptuous talking about the Raiders and Brumbies playing in the stadium? Will the Raiders and Brumbies still be in existence when the new stadium is ready or will they have moved to area where support and money is more plentiful? Like other businesses sport now goes to where the money is.

What also came to mind is a particular advantage the Lakeside beach has over the Bali and Biarritz beaches: it is unlikely it will ever be subject to a tsunami. This will be of special interest to Canberrans living near the beach or tourists temporarily resident in nearby hotels as it means they will be spared ever having to evacuate because of a tidal wave.

On the other hand if the Raiders and Brumbies are still in existence during the football season perhaps residents might experience a human tsunami of Rugby League or Rugby Union supporters. Mind you, if only to disclose my personal preferences I wouldn’t mind the occasional tsunami of Soccer (Football) supporters.

No doubt you will have noticed I have made no mention of what in the future might also be considered important tourist facilities. While brothels are still likely to be operating in Fyshwick, Mitchell and elsewhere in Canberra, consideration should be given to making provision for a male and female brothel in the beach precinct.

No doubt the perspicacious among you will notice that I‘ve made no mention of transport services. I do so in this case because Canberra is a hotbed of “planning experts” and so, on the basis that discretion is the better part of valour I left it out.

All comments welcome.

Old events in new costumes

If the organisers hoped the Centenary celebrations would create the impression of Canberra as the Capital of Progress, Innovation, Culture and the Arts I think they will be disappointed. How on earth can this impression be created when many programmed events are old events dressed in new costumes?

In the same way as many programmes on our new TV channels are repeats of programmes as old as Canberra’s main demographic, the Centenary is taking the old saying ‘everything old is new again’ to new heights.

Although I might be growing long in the tooth I have fond memories of birthday parties made exciting and entertaining spontaneously. As I grew older and my tastes changed so did parties. But one thing didn’t change: my hope that the parties would still be exciting and entertaining.

To digress, having worked for decades in the local tourism industry which is hoping the Centenary will fill beds and rattle tills, I trawled the Centenary website hoping to see messages that substantiate the industry’s hopes. I was looking for messages designed to stir the latent jingoism in Australians that would encourage them to cancel an already planned overseas visit for a trip to Canberra.

Sad to say, the messages on the website did little to suggest they would encourage such a thought. Bear in mind that prospective tourists, Australian and overseas, will look at the same site. One hopes they don’t reach the same conclusion as me.

In terms of infrastructure and physicality Canberra is a young city yet the website seems designed to appeal more to an ageing demographic. And so I ask: where are the ideas from young people that some of an older demographic will think zany? They may be there, but if they are they are not obvious, so why expect young people to visit?

This is not to say the photographs on the website are not useful, but I have to say that during my sixteen and twenty five years age span, it was not that I didn’t enjoy some moments of cultural appreciation but in the main my mind was focused elsewhere. I suspect that in this regard things are still the same.

Don Allan blog: Allan Takes Aim; web:

Edited article on line at: published Wednesday 25 July

Both the ACT and NSW Governments huffed and puffed about losing their joint bid for the G20 summit that Prime Minister Julia Gillard will be held on 14-15 November 2014 in Brisbane. Their huffing and puffing was about the loss of tourism opportunities, not that the summit is about tourism, but economics which is why finance ministers and central bank governors from 20 of the world’s major economies will meet at a cost to Australia of a mere $370 million for security, to talk about the global economy.

No doubt there will be some discussion about the global economy. However my feeling is that the G20 summits are less about economics and more about giving the people who have messed up their own economies a holiday junket to compensate them in case they’re not in the same job next year. Take a look at the economies represented and you’ll see what I mean: Oceania, Italy, Germany, France, European Union, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Indonesia, India, Japan, China, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, US, Mexico, Canada and South Africa and UK.

However there’s more to the huffing and puffing than tourism. First: Barry O’Farrell has lost the opportunity to boast of the tourism revenue and jobs the summit would have brought to Sydney when he starts girding his political loins in preparation for his next re-election campaign.

Second, and not to put too fine a point on it, Katy Gallagher, Chief Minister of the ACT’s minority Labor Government, is in the same boat as O’Farrell. However, her needs are more pressing because, unlike O’Farrell, she faces an election on 20 October and voters many of whom think that for too long Labor has taken it for granted that they will re-elect them.

No longer; today the shibboleth is not some catchy slogan or an appeal to old fashioned ideology that makes people feel good but successful policies that will eradicate the depression and hopelessness many families feel as the wonder how they will pay the rent or mortgage, buy food or, as is becoming common even in wealthy Canberra, where they will sleep. Like O’Farrell, of course, the ACT Chief Minister also has lost the opportunity to boast of how the summit would have been a boost to the ACT Economy and jobs.

I’ve used the word Junket to describe the summit: now a brief word about G20’s origins. First proposed in 1999 by Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin as a biannual forum it replaced the G8 as the main economic council of wealthy nations following the 2008 Washington forum.
Then, following the Cannes forum in 2011 the announcement was made that the expanded forum would meet annually instead of biannually. As the cost of attending is met by taxpayers, what else could be expected of politicians for whom feeding from the government money trough has become a right?

There are no prizes for guessing what happened next. Bureaucrats and political apparatchiks who also like feeding from the government trough suggested to the politicians that if the retinue of advisers they took to the summit was expanded it would enhance their importance. What politician could resist such blandishments? And so retinues have grown.
But credit where it’s due: this is known as thinking ahead because, in time, no doubt, the G20 will be superseded by a G30 and a stream of even bigger junkets. And as I peer into my political crystal ball I see the numbers attending the summits rivalling crowd numbers at a grand final as each economy strives to outdo its rivals. And as the summits become bigger so too will their agendas which will mean that more days will be needed to discuss them.

On that basis it seems clear that if the revenue and jobs that, allegedly, will be generated by the 2014 summit in Brisbane are true, the ACT Government should already be thinking about how to secure future G summits for Canberra.

And the group of politicians Canberra voters elect to Government on 20th October should be aware also, that if Canberra is to attract summits they will need to speed the development of necessary infrastructure such as new hotels, attractions and myriad other facilities.

The Chronicle for Canberra’s best community news. Published every Tuesday and online every Wednesday at:

First published ‘The Chronicle’ Canberra, Tuesday 3 July, 2012. Also published online 4 July

Many times during my years in Canberra’s tourism industry I racked my brains about how Canberra could become a destination that adult tourists would visit time and time again. Though the War Memorial and other national institutions might stir the heart of patriots, unfortunately, not all tourists are patriots.

That said, what I thought Canberra needed was something that promised more excitement. In my experience, because tourists expect to remember holidays as exciting I find it hard to imagine many of them on returning home rushing to tell friends and neighbours about their exciting holiday visiting Australia’s national institutions and then urging them to visit the nearest travel agent and make Canberra their next holiday destination. That, I think, would be a big stretch of the imagination.

I raise the subject of tourism because the new multi- million dollar Tourism Australia advertising campaign, which makes no mention of Canberra, has raised the ire of some in the Capital’s tourism industry. Are they wrong? Does the ad have an underlying message they cannot see?

Perhaps the ad does have an underlying message based on the phrase, coined many years ago by the ACT tourism industry, that Canberra is Australia’s best kept secret. On the other hand perhaps the creators of the advertising campaign didn’t know Canberra was the National Capital or that they left Canberra out intentionally so as to prompt the curiosity of potential tourist on the basis that if people thinking of taking a holiday in France or England would probably look at their capitals Paris or London, before making a decision.

If that was the strategy, time will tell if they were right. In particular they will be delighted if they hear reports that not only has Canberra’s accommodation industry gone into overdrive to meet the demand for beds but that Canberra’s institutions, attractions, retail outlets, cafes and restaurants are also being swamped by a demand for information.

But my long experience in tourism also taught me something else. Tourism is a fickle mistress who often dashes the expectations of her suitors. That being the case and in the event the strategy doesn’t work, let me suggest an alternative strategy, the idea of Canberra having a Naughty Quarter that houses the kind of risqué entertainments synonymous with other world capitals. Why, I asked myself doesn’t Canberra have an area like London’s Soho or Montrnartre in Paris, home of the Moulin Rouge and its famous Can-Can girls, not to mention the Folies Bergere and its Bluebell Girls, many of whom are Australians?

This being Canberra, the decision about where to locate the Naughty Quarter would not only be the subject of many planning consultations but also as to whether or not Canberra needed such a quarter. And although planning consultations in Canberra tend to take a long time to be concluded I am optimistic that with an election looming, consultations would be speedy and a decision made quickly.

However, because time waits for no man I have made tentative plans for a grand opening cabaret designed by local company Scallywag Productions, featuring some of Australia’s greatest entertainers and regular performers in Canberra’s Theatre of the Absurd. And so, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado I present: “Canberra Cabaret.”

As befitting the city’s status, no expense would be spared in making this a star studded production. Scallywag Productions has invited famous political juggler Julia Gillard to top the bill and act as Mistress of Ceremonies. And no doubt to, as do other famous Emm Cees, when she introduces each act she will do so with few quips.

To help her a Scallywag’s script writer has suggested she use the following introductions to various acts: Wayne Swan and his economic dance troupe; Bill Shorten and, his knife throwing act The Scalpels; Tony Abbot, as the star of ‘Yes’, a short political sketch; and Christopher Pyne, the famous political escapologist. The script writer also suggested she introduce Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Andrew Wilkie as the Four Stooges; Christine Milne the star of Green for Danger, and, depending on circumstances, Craig Thomson as the Playboy Pollie. I feel sure with such top line entertainment that tourists will visit Canberra again and again and again!
The Chronicle for Canberra’s best community news. Published every Tuesday and online on Wednesday at:

 This is the original of the column published in The Chronicle , Tuesday,

May 24, 2011  

I hope the proposed Australia Forum does not become a case of fools seldom differing. You will see what I mean as you read the extracts of a Canberra Times article of mine, published February 2006.

 “Let’s not compound the mistake originally made with the National Convention Centre. Let’s do it right this time. Let the International Convention Centre offer facilities and technology that national and international clients would expect to find in a sophisticated international city so that when they leave it is not with a sense of relief but a sense of pleasure at having experienced the best the world has to offer.

“The ICC should be a multi – purpose centre able to house major international exhibitions and seat a minimum of 5,000 (the 2,500 seating capacity of the current NCC is not enough) making it a venue attractive to entrepreneurs wishing to stage major shows or sporting events.

“And why not let it house shopping facilities, restaurants and a thirty, or even fifty, story luxury hotel? This is a project in which Canberra business and the ACT Government, if they really think the convention industry essential to Canberra, should be willing investors.

” But let me be more radical. Why not use a feature that, since its creation, has remained virtually unused? Why not build the new ICC in Lake Burley-Griffin? Why not also get away from the conventional lego style block and invest in a radical building that will be an attraction in its own right? And why not service the ICC by a mono-rail that will loop around and link the city to the lake in spectacular fashion.”

That said, and glad as I am of the proposal to build the Australia Forum proposal, a couple of things niggle me. First: when I phoned the National Capital Authority seeking more details about the proposal, I spoke to the planner who said he knew nothing about it. Second: will the forum also host a casino? Third: isn’t the idea of a ballroom and dialogue centre passé? Wouldn’t a disco and IT centre be more appropriate today? Fourth: the illustration in the Canberra Times showed a collection of stand-alone buildings that seemed unspectacular and lacking innovation.

Let me now make the plea that if the Forum goes ahead let it not be like the NCC which, after completion and despite the hype of Canberra having been improved by its presence, soon started to be seen for what it really was, a second rate building that needed pulling down so that the space it occupied could be put to better use.

From the published perspectives in The Times the proposed buildings will have more attraction for builders than clients. And with the Forum Committee comprising mainly academics, bureaucrats and politicians, little wonder that the international dialogue centre takes pride of place. Unfortunately with an Old and New Parliament House, an Assembly and multiple centres of academe, Canberra is already well served with dialogue centres.

And as for being ‘unique,’ Chris Faulks, Chief Executive of the Canberra Business Council who likened the development to Melbourne’s South Bank destroyed that idea when she said ”It’s not just about a Convention Centre, it’s about place-making.’ 

But more surprising to me is that if the powers behind the venture want Canberra to be seen as an important world capital why hasn’t an international design competition been mentioned? I feel sure architects such Ms Zia Hadid, Lord Rogers or Frank Ghery would be delighted to enter such a competition and also feel sure that such a competition would elicit a range of proposals that not only would make a unique Forum but also would meet the demands of convention organisations for many years to come.

The ‘Forum’ should epitomise excellence and also be a Centre that will still have purpose when new technology, new video, and new TV systems knock holes in the convention and exhibition market and other activities that, currently, we think will go on forever.

Finally, if the project goes ahead, let us make sure that Canberra gets the facility it needs, not just another legacy to satisfy the ego of a few influential bureaucrats, business people and politicians in Canberra.

The Chronicle for Canberra’s best community news. Published every Tuesday

Firts published in The Chronicle, Tuesday 14 April 2010

Two things brought toilets to my attention: a letter in The Chronicle from a Mr Grant complaining about lack of a public toilet in Campbell, an issue he followed up on Friday, April 9 as he chivvied Chief Minister Jon Stanhope about it on ABC 666 talk back. Then I heard a brief discussion about toilet on By Design, Radio National, Saturday Morning April 10.

With toilets having captured my attention, I decided to research the subject. The research threw up many surprises. For example I learned that Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet. That honour goes to scientists from the Indus Basin who invented and used flush toilets and sewage systems in 2,500 BC. I also found that the Minoans and Romans had flush toilets and sewage systems. However, when the Roman Empire collapsed the technology was lost.

Happily for us, in the twelfth century AD, Al-Jaziri, an Arab polymath who worked at the Mesopotamian Royal Court, re-invented the flush toilet. But not only was Al-Jaziri responsible for reinventing the flush toilet, his mechanical inventions were so many – some are still in use today – that rightfully he is called: Father of Mechanical Engineering. I think too, that the West also owes Al–Jaziri an enormous debt of gratitude: had it not been for him “beware of global smelling” might well be the great shibboleth of today.

Despite its benefits it took some time before the flush toilet became common again in the West. And while the style of toilets has changed since the days of Al-Jaziri, anecdotal stories of some present toilets evoke echoes of the twelfth century.

Although toilet today also describes a human function and the means of its disposal, in Roman times, the room that some people think the most important in the house was not called toilet but lavatory. Eventually, however, as society became more refined (?), lavatory was superseded by toilet, although a minority of people still prefer the Latin term. I have no intention of opining on which word you should use: that’s a decision you must make for yourself.

However, the relief felt by communities when public toilets were introduced was immense. Unfortunately that relief was diminished when public toilets gained a reputation as hubs where activity, but not that for which the toilets were intended, were practiced. I have no intention of offering an opinion about this either.

That said let me return to Mr Grant’s chivvying of the Chief Minister. Although I didn’t hear their conversation I am assured that, during it, the Chief Minister told Mr Grant that he was impressed by the quality of New Zealand’s public toilets. In support of the Chief Minister, I have to say my research of New Zealand public toilets impressed me also if only because they looked better than when I lived in New Zealand.

During my research I also came across a particularly impressive public toilet in the small township of Kawakawa in New Zealand’s North Island. Designed by famous Viennese painter and architect, Frederick Hundertwasser, this toilet with its grass roof, ceramic tiles, bottle glass windows, mosaic tiling, copper handwork, cobblestone flooring, individual sculptures and a living tree integrated into the design structure, is a work of art.

Following Hundertwasser’s death in 2000, not only has the Kawakawa toilet, his last major project and only structure in the Southern Hemisphere become a mecca for his followers worldwide, it has also boosted Kawakawa’s tourist numbers.

And so, with that in mind I’d like to suggest to the Chief Minister that he launch a public toilet design competition not only for a Campbell toilet but also for other suburbs that want a public toilet or want their current public toilet redesigned and/or rebuilt.

If you think I’m kidding I’m not. If thousands of tourists visit Kawakawa just to look at its public toilet, it seems to me that if Canberra’s newly designed public toilets were placed next to some of our recent public art, tourists would come to Canberra in droves, spend a penny, then depart to tell their friends that Canberra has the world’s best public toilets and the world’s best public art gallery.

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