The National Public Service Memorial, commissioned as a Bicentennial project, is an acknowledgement of the contribution made by Australia’s public servants to the good governance of Australia. It sits just to one side of Federation Mall near the East Block building now housing the National Archives of Australia. Although a very quiet part of the Parliamentary triangle, the location is appropriate as East Block was part of the first office accommodation constructed in Canberra to house public servants relocated from Melbourne.
Originally intended to be completed in 1988, the design, siting and funding of the Memorial provoked protracted negotiations between various government departments and agencies. Consensus on the various matters in dispute was not achieved until 1994 at which time construction commenced. Further delays ensued because of the need to find marble of suitable quality to be used for the Memorial. As a result it was not until early 1996 that the Memorial was finally ready to be formally inaugurated by the Governor-General.
Unfortunately the ceremony went unnoticed because of the impending federal election and the subsequent years have done nothing to draw public attention to its presence.
The Memorial is of modest size, standing a little over 3 metres high. When viewed directly from the front it is seen as two elongated and overlapping ovals of thin metal tubing surmounting a marble column which, it turn,
stands on a large square slab of black granite. The overlapping ovals are symbolic of a harmonious and inclusive ideal of public administration. The tubing is chromed to reflect all the light it receives, emitting none of its own, consistent with the public service’s commitment to faithfully mirror in its policy settings not its own views but the needs and aspirations of all Australians. Special care has been taken to ensure that the ovals are precisely aligned with the vertical, leaning neither left nor right.
The Memorial’s design, however, offers a more nuanced view of public administration than is perceived at first glance. When stepping to either side of the Memorial, the visitor sees that the oval structure is open-ended; the perfection seen when standing directly in front of the Memorial is illusory. From the side, ideal of public administration is shown as an imperfectly realised outcome. There are, the Memorial defiantly proclaims, always loose ends. Perhaps it is also, in more light-hearted sense, an acknowledgement of the public servant’s perennial problem of making ends meet. In yet another sense, the design highlights the often cyclical, incrementally advancing nature of public policy.
In a city of public servants, the Memorial deserves far more attention than it receives. With celebrations of the end of the financial year soon upon us, why not make a lunchtime pilgrimage to the Memorial and reflect on its
[ED – The information in this post may, or may not, actually be true.]