Twelve million reasons for the Prime Minister to live at The Lodge

Whatever you call it, Canberra is Australia’s capital city. It is the right place for a prime minister to live.

When new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese migrated to The Lodge a few days ago, the season changing and the snow falling on the hills, he restored a little integrity to Canberra’s reason for being.


Albanese was raised in Sydney, and you’d imagine his heart is there. But his job is in Canberra.

The people of Australia provided and paid for a home in Canberra so prime ministers can live in the place chosen more than a century ago as the national capital, the place of the federal parliament.

The idea was to settle the long and silly parochial arguments about the relative importance of Sydney and Melbourne.

Apart from the symbolism, there are at least 12 million other overdue reasons why Albanese’s decision to live in The Lodge is the right one.

No prime minister has seen fit to make The Lodge a full-time home since Tony Abbott’s government spent three years watching the cost of renovating the place blow out to absurd proportions.

It was supposed to take a year and cost a bit more than $3 million. By the time it was finished, the bills added up to a mighty $12 million, thanks to a long series of changes to contracts and plans ordered by the Abbott government.

Painting alone cost $500,000. Legal, design and other consultants got $1 million and another $670,000 went on project management. A new slate roof cost $304,000 and $400,000 was spent upgrading bathrooms.

Altogether, 40 contracts were changed during the work, apparently by senior Abbott government figures.

We know this only because the next prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, ordered an inquiry into the fiasco. Turnbull and his wife Lucy contributed $130,000 of their own money to ensure historic furniture at The Lodge was properly restored.

Anthony Albanese will live at The Lodge full-time.Credit:Department of Finance

Indeed, while the cost was ballooning, bureaucrats were ordered by Abbott’s office to refuse requests by journalists to visit The Lodge or be given information about the work.

“Just say the visit has not been approved and you are unaware of the reasons,” a Finance Department official instructed a colleague by email in March 2014.

“Don’t identify PM&C [Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet] or the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] as the decision makers, just leave it vague.”

We know this because The Canberra Times used Freedom of Information requests to pursue the details of what looked like a cover-up. Perhaps it was merely embarrassment.

Abbott, as it turned out, was never able to occupy The Lodge while he was prime minister, because the work took so long. Turnbull spent time there, but preferred to live in his own mansion on Sydney Harbour when he could.

And then came Scott Morrison.

Just as John Howard and his wife Janette had been the first prime ministerial couple to snub Canberra as a place to live, the Morrisons chose to stay in Sydney and to use Kirribilli House as their family home. Kirribilli was never intended as a full-time prime ministerial residence, but as accommodation for overseas guests and a glorious site for significant events.

Morrison, of course, argued that he wanted to minimise disruption to his daughters’ schooling arrangements in Sydney. It didn’t wash with the large number of other Australians who have to move when their jobs change.

Scott Morrison, seen leaving the Lodge after quarantining there in October 2021, chose to live in Sydney while prime minister.

Scott Morrison, seen leaving the Lodge after quarantining there in October 2021, chose to live in Sydney while prime minister.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

He made it ideological, too, doubling down by deriding Canberra as a “bubble”. It was a nonsense.

Most Canberrans are everyday people living suburban lives, travelling to work on increasingly crowded roads, worrying about their mortgages and holding backyard barbecues during the warmer months.

If there is such a thing as a political bubble, it consists of fly-in fly-out MPs and senators, of whom Morrison was the most senior for a few wasted years.

And so Morrison found himself tagged as “prime minister for Sydney”, causing him and his colleagues political disaster, particularly in Victoria and Western Australia.

Albanese has made a smarter choice. $12 million of renovations will finally be put to use. He will govern from Australia’s capital.

And he’ll experience the seasons changing in one of the more beautiful natural settings in the nation, complete with currawongs singing down the snow.

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