While it sits a bit far back to say it overlooks the Botanical Gardens Old Government House was in the early 1900’s surrounded by gardens, further on than Parliament House, the last house at the bottom of George Street.
Now it is surrounded by QUT and its proximity to Parliament House obscured by a row of less distinguished buildings.
Most students know that during the 1890’s somewhere on its grounds the first Lamington was served. Few notice the plaque commemorating its opening in 1909 as the first building of UQ by the last governor to sleep there,
It was opened by Sir William MacGregor GCMG who one can say with some confidence wasn’t happy to be there. Not that he had anything against the university after all he was its first Chancellor but he was of the opinion that the George Street address made for a better government house than it did a university. He had protested his removal to Victoria Park a place he thought ideal for a university and too far for a governor from Parliament House.
Old Government House has been restored and is about to become the home of the QUT permanent collection of William Robinson. When the present Governor opens the restored Old Government House one suspects she will be happier to be there given she is both an alumni of UQ and like MacGregor with an international career behind her.
MacGregor a medical doctor was part of the British Colonial service when recruited by the Australian colonial premiers in1888 to run British New Guinea for them. Queensland had annexed New Guinea to preempt German colonial ambitions. The Australian colonies paid MacGregor’s bills and the British government, who were unhappy about the whole enterprise, provided a steamboat.
His greatest champion among the colonial premiers was Sir Samuel Griffith whose own house at Merthyr was a bend in the river downstream at New Farm. MacGregor and Griffith shared a concern for aboriginal rights not a common sentiment among their Queensland contemporaries and devised a method of governing New Guinea that required Sir William to explore all the rivers and climb all the mountains to preclude others having first contact, which his colonial experience told him, usually resulted in disaster for the natives.
By writing the regulations MacGregor also prevented the ‘selection’ of land already occupied by native gardens for plantations. An early land rights regulation that, as it turned out, slowed the development of BNG when compared with its northern neighbor Papua where the German colonial government had no such scruples and where they rightly assumed that the best land for plantations was that already native gardens.
MacGregor returned to Queensland as governor in 1909 the last to sleep in Government House. The restored Old Government House looks splendid although somewhat cut of from the gardens the river and Parliament House by the awfulness of QUT red brick but a fitting memorial to colonial governors who gave more to Queensland than the Lamington.
Few of us every imagined we'd live to see the day a black man would be elected to the White House....so when the US voted last year to put Barack Obama in the world's most powerful elective office, I made a vow to be there on the day of his swearing in.
So it was that at midnight the night before January 20 I found myself taking up a poll position in the Washington Mall in readiness for that most remarkable event 12 hours later. I was among the first few hundred of what turned out to be more than 2 million Americans who made the same vow. Many travelled long distances to be a part of this special moment in history but none had travelled as far as I had -- a round trip of 40,000 km, a total of 48 hours in the air for a lightning 3 days visit to Washington.
I told my new-found friends in the Mall that Obama was not just an American President. He had the potential to be President for the whole world. They seemed to like that idea...
The last time I'd been in Washington was 35 years ago and it was a world away. Then, as a callow 18 year old Rotary Exchange Student I'd visited with a good friend, Mary Eisenhower. Mary was the grand daughter of President Dwight ('Ike') Eisenhower and her brother was married to the then President Richard Nixon's daughter Julie. So, that trip in 1973 involved a stay at the White House and sharing a football game, meal and a movie with none other than Richard Nixon, wife Pat, Mary and their families.
Fast forward to January 20, 2009 and my surroundings on this visit to DC were not nearly so plush. There was no Presidential limousine or guards standing at attention. People around me were huddled together, ear muffs, fur caps, gloves, overcoats, scarves, some wrapped in cardboard boxes fished out of dumpsters, some even covered in a sort of alfoil to ward off the excoriating cold.
After a freezing night, we greeted the dawn as the sun rose behind the Capitol building. The symbolism of this 'new dawn' was not lost on any of us who have braved the last 6 hours of sub-zero temperatures and arctic winds. Most of us had lost feeling in our feet having stood in the same spot throughout the night. My chin had actually become numb. Nothing though seemed capable of wiping the smiles off our faces.
When the big moment came another 6 hours later at noon, we made sure Obama knew how much we appreciated the moment.
We hung on every word of his speech.
There were cheers and tears.
When he said, "This nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous" ... people knew this was a President for all people, not just the powerful.
When he said "we must choose our better history" he was appealing to America's better side and not the divisions of the past.
When he said "we will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories" we knew this was a President who would embrace the challenge of climate change and not hide his head in the sand.
When he actually reached out to 3 billion Muslims around the globe and said "to the Muslim World we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect" we thought what a brave thing to say for a man who'd been accused in the election campaign of being a muslim himself.
When he said "we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers" no President in history has address the plurality of the American population so clearly.
When he said that "the world has changed and we must change with it" we knew he was a man of our times. When he said "the question is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works..." he was turning his back on 40 years of American Presidents (Democrat and Republican) running down the role of government in creating a fairer society.
And when he said "America is a friend of each nation and every man woman and child who seek a future of peace and dignity and we are ready to lead once more ," we knew the sabre-rattling days of George Bush were passing into the dust of history.
Some older black Americans just didn’t want to leave the mall after it was all over. They and their parents had lived life times for this moment and they were going to savior it right to the very end.
That was confirmed an hour later when 2 million people, still smiling, were fighting their way out of the Washington Mall to find our way home on foot and by car, bus, train and plane, saw high overhead the whirling blades of the Presidential helicopter taking George W Bush to Andrews Air Force base and on home to Texas.
That night I attended a Ball -- one of dozens held by organizations all over Washington. And accompanying on this special night at this great moment in American history was my old pal from 35 years ago, Mary Eisenhower.
A new day, a new dawn and a new era, enjoyed in the company of an old friend. What could be better.