11 April 2024

Health is a serious business, but for some there are more Sirius matters

| Chris Johnson
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Sirius Building, Woden

The Health Department’s Sirius building in Woden could destined for a new name. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

On the 25th of January 2007, John Howard began what would turn out to be his last year as prime minister delivering a National Press Club address in the Great Hall of Parliament House to mark Australia Day, which was the next day.

His speech didn’t go much to the actual commemoration of the national day at all – he had policy to announce.

Howard’s address focussed on water security, launching a $10 billion, 10-point plan on a national scale to improve water efficiency and to address the “over-allocation of water in rural Australia”, with a particular focus on the Murray-Darling Basin.

Additionally, he broadcast his intention to establish a special task force (to be chaired by his old rascal mate Senator Bill Heffernan) to examine the potential for further land and water development in northern Australia.

A key focus would be identifying the capacity of northern Australia to play a larger role in agriculture in the decades to come.

It was a good speech, full of promise for what everyone knew was going to be an election year.

And the subject matter was serious, sparking some hefty scrutiny from the Press Gallery journalists in the Q&A session that followed the address.

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I was there, working then for the West Australian newspaper, and asked about how water policy fitted into the government’s overall plan to address climate change.

However, as is the case with press club appearances (and pretty much any media conference a PM holds), journalists don’t always stick to the subject matter presented in the speech.

They can ask whatever they want and they do. That’s how it should be.

But this was the prime minister, it was in the Great Hall of Parliament, the National Press Club of Australia hosted it, it warranted a fair degree of respect.

Yet, in good old Aussie style, a young and bold reporter from the Seven Network rose to add some light banter to the occasion.

She referred to how the PM had a bit to say about how history was taught in schools. Then she brought the tone down a little.

She presented the Prime Minister of Australia with an attempt at a gotcha question.

“I just wanted to follow up your comments on Australian history and how it’s being taught in our schools. And on this Australia Day eve, I was wondering if I could have your indulgence and just put you through a mini pop quiz and ask whether you could name any of the ships from the First Fleet?” she said.

Howard replied with an uncertain inflection in his voice, “Sirius?”

Reporter: “Can you name them?”

Howard: “I did. I said, Sirius.”

Reporter: “If you drop by the Seven bureau, I’m sure we can give you a gold star.”

Howard: “You’d give me a gold star, would you?”

Reporter: “Or a cold beer.”

Howard: “Thank you. I’ll take both.”

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The PM handled the moment well, even though it was obvious only the name of one of the First Fleet ships had come to mind, and he wasn’t fully confident he even had that one right.

He could have brushed the question off as too silly to answer, but Howard was more classy than that in such circumstances and treated the question and the questioner with dignity.

After the luncheon, however, a bunch of the journos discussed among themselves that one question and the way Howard answered it.

Most of us initially believed that the PM wasn’t saying “Sirius?” but had actually replied, “Serious?” as in, “Are you serious?” with the majority agreeing with that particular sentiment.

That little episode in Australian political history sprung to mind this week with news that the Federal Health Department is seeking staff views on what the new name for its Sirius building in Woden should be.

It seems the Federal Government wants it changed because the First Fleet’s arrival, which marked the beginning of European settlement in Australia, is now regarded by many as the commencement of European invasion.

HMS Sirius was the flagship and was actually named after the star in the Orion constellation.

Some campaigning public servants have objected to the building they work in being in any way associated with colonisation.

It’s becoming more important to some than their actual work in contributing to good health policy.

The government has heard them (or maybe even started the campaign) and is now asking for names that would “be better aligned with the department’s purpose” with a view to a makeover.

But like John Howard all those years ago, we just have to ask, are you “Sirius?”

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These public servants should be doing the work they were employed to do, not engaging in self indulgent woke politics. However some senior emplyees in the Dept of Health have been promoted into positions they clearly cannot handle. To hide their incompetence they have found a cause that diverts attention away from the jobs they so obviously cannot do. If any of them are named Alexander or Charlotte, (also First Fleet ships), they should change their own names. Time for the Minister to step in and do some serious butt kicking.

One of the first fleet ships was named Friendship, must be why we aren’t make international friends.

This is our culture they want to tread. on. We forced to be respectful of one part of Australian history and denied the right to any british history.

This really is Sirius! Since when has it become appropriate for public servants to take it upon themselves to change the name of a public building because the name offends their sensibilities? Is this what we pay our public servants to do? Not to mention all this under a Labor government. The decision has echoes of life under the Howard government and the Liberal party’s mission to whitewash our country’s history.

Throughout Australia there are buildings, streets, rivers, mountains and suburbs named in honour of our colonial past.

The Department of Health buildings in Canberra are named after 6 of the 11 ships of the first fleet. They include the Alexander, Albemarle, Sirius, Scarborough, Fishburn and Penryn. Will these buildings also have their names removed and replaced because some bureaucrat is embarrassed at their colonial association? A plaque containing the names of all of these ships were engraved on the outside of the Sirius building but has since been removed or destroyed, deemed too provocative because of its colonial association.

The streets in the suburb of Red Hill are also named after the ships of the First Fleet and those in Phillip are connected with the 1st, 2nd and 3rd fleets. In NSW, there are nine Sydney Harbour ferries named after First Fleet vessels.

I could go on …

The names of roads around woden have the others, Supply etc.

On one hand the Sirius building was demolished years ago.

On the other hand where does this nonsense stop? Should we ban all Anglo names?

Most things will have Anglo names, as they either didnt exist for Aborignal people, or have since been named by them using Anglo naming.

There was a 50 cent coin released with different ‘names’ for money in Aborignal languages. However most of them are just rock or pebble, ignoring the fact that money wasn’t a thing.

Re-writing history because it doesn’t fit the narative, just does my head in.

HiddenDragon6:52 pm 11 Apr 24

When I read about the incident at the 2007 NPC address, my first thought was that anyone of Howard’s era who had been through the NSW education system would, at the very least, have heard of the Sirius and the Supply, then I remembered this –


Barry Jones’ general knowledge was clearly far too vast for him ever to have had a chance of being PM.

As to the name of that building in Woden, sooner or later, what Ken Henry recently described as the complicated mess of federal and state responsibilities will need to be cleaned up. That process will likely raise some difficult questions about what value is added to health outcomes in Australia by the extensive federal bureaucracy – at which point some occupants of that building might find themselves saying “serious?”, not Sirius.

Allan GAdsby5:47 pm 11 Apr 24

While we are at it, let’s change the suburb of Cook to something less offensive. Surely James Cook was a bad person and is ultimately responsible for all those Poms arriving in Oz to create havoc among the indigenous.

David Watson2:23 pm 11 Apr 24

A great response; learnt something factual. Another contentious initiative of this government to frustrate the majority and promote division in our society

Martin Boling2:03 pm 11 Apr 24

Walter Massy-Greene (as Minister for Health) was the first Federal Minister for Health. How about giving him some recognition?

So… ‘The Greene House’?

Max_Rockatansky1:49 pm 11 Apr 24

An estimated 1 million Australians are descended from the First Fleet.

Many of the streets and locations of the Woden Town Centre are named after the First Fleet.

Too many public servants have too much spare time.

The Sirius Building is on the corner of Worgan St (George Worgan, surgeon on board the Sirius of the First Fleet) and Furzer St (James Furzer, 1st Lieutenant on board the Alexander of the First Fleet).

The Sirius Building is located next to Scarborough House (transport ship with over 200 convicts in the First Fleet) and next to the Alexander Building (transport ship with over 200 convicts in the First Fleet).

Once they change the name of the Sirius Building they will radiate out to change everything else.

Laurence Abrams1:46 pm 11 Apr 24

Maybe those calling for a name change should consider that without those nasty First Fleet colonists they would have no job in the Sirius building. With that attitude the Woke Building may have more appeal as a name.

The author sure took us on s long journey to get to the point.

“It’s becoming more important to some than their actual work in contributing to good health policy.”
Are you sirius?
This article could do with a little less hyperbole

Well, if we did not have the Sirius we would not have lovely Australia, an open democratic prosperous immigrant nation and home to more people of Aboriginal descent than when when the Sirius arrived. As the harbinger of a great nation the arrival of the Sirius is worth conditionally memorialising in a good light.

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