Social justice – or the Arboretum?

In 2003 Canberra suffered through a most destructive bushfire that killed four people and destroyed more than 500 houses, as well as a considerable amount of pine plantation. In the aftermath the ACT Government of Jon Stanhope decided to construct an arboretum that would be a memorial of the fire and the community spirit and resilience that it brought out. The arboretum was to be funded in part through the insurance payout the Government received for the plantations.

Opinion was divided. Some liked the idea, while others thought it a dreadful waste of money. Designing, planning and developing the arboretum took a lot of time, and there was not a lot to see but dust and dirt. But with the good rains of the last three years there has been a lot of growth, and the new large Arboretum centre, with its wonderful views and sense of space, has become an instant tourist attraction.

Jon Stanhope decided to retire as Chief Minister, and after a decent interim has been appointed Administrator of Christmas Island by the Gillard Government. He appeared on the front page of the Canberra Times a week or so ago in shorts, under a palm tree and in a deck chair, which gave readers a perhaps unfair picture of his job. In the accompanying story he got off his chest some opinions about what he had done.

In particular, he was unhappy at the suggestion that he would be remembered for the Arboretum, and not for his battles to secure social justice. He also remembered unhappily the abuse he received for spending money on public art in the ACT. I remembered the latter part very well. Canberra has more than its fair share of people who think that the only public art of any value is whatever they happen to like, and perhaps an even larger group whose members think that public art is of no value whatever.

Jon Stanhope was an unusual politician and Minister, somewhat Puritan in his social outlook, a Minister for the Arts who knew that the arts were important but seemed to have no great personal feeling for any art form, and preferred football anyway, completely honest, and unmoveable once he had made his mind up. He was easy to respect, but hard to like.

I have heard him make the contrast between the Arboretum and social justice before, and while I can understand why he might feel that way, I can also understand why the majority might feel differently.  ‘Social justice’ is a vague term. It sounds the sort of thing everyone ought to be in favour of. Who could be in favour of ‘social injustice’? But what does it mean in practice?

To me, ‘social justice’ has something of the flavour of ‘rights’ to it, and I am one of those who think that Bills of Rights ought to come accompanied by Bills of Responsibilities. Maybe Jon Stanhope thinks so too, but I would like to know about ‘social justice’ for whom, and why them, and under what circumstances, and so on. At the moment I am hoping for a bit of social justice for those who thought they were doing the right thing in saving for retirement, but even I can see that many different groups of people might want to travel under that banner.

At the moment social justice seems to be the basis for a person, or a group, wanting the rest of society to make the lives of the group better in some material way, usually by the transfer of money. We do a lot of this, and there is a queue. It is tricky stuff, and sorting out claims is not easy. On the whole I tend to be impressed more by those who sorted themselves out, and did not wait for ‘social justice’. And indeed, I can see that some acts of social justice have produced three generations of welfare recipients, and that doesn’t seem in the best interests of those concerned, or the society as a whole.

Perhaps I should devote another essay to this ‘social justice’ issue – and nothing that I have written is intended to suggest that Jon Stanhope was not serious in his belief that his quest for social justice was supremely important. It’s just that I don’t know what it means, or might mean.

But as for the Arboretum, it is already a thing of beauty, and if it can be protected from further fires and future droughts, it may indeed be a joy forever. And it is far and away the biggest piece of public art in Canberra, though not everyone will see it that way. On the whole, the Arboretum is a great success, and Mr Stanhope is entitled to feel that he played an important part in creating it.

I hope that he does so.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Fay Thomson says:

    I’m looking forward to one day visiting the Arboretum. Sounds like a wonderful place for Seniors groups to visit.
    I wonder if the tree names etc are written in Braille for the blind to see?
    Hope many children from all over Australia get to see it with stories and talks beforehand so they can better appreciate.
    Thank you to our government for this forest of trees from over the globe.

  • Margaret says:

    I think the arboretum and social justice are not incompatible. The arboretum is visionary and beautiful. It benefits all. Yes I’d be interested in an essay from you on the issue of social justice.

  • Don Aitkin says:


    I’ll put it on the list!

    I agree that we don’t have to make a choice. It was rather that Jon Stanhope had put the social justice higher than the arboretum in his sense of achievements. And he is entitled to do that, of course. But we are all entitled to our own opinions on which is the more important, and the more achievable, for that matter.

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