Australian Aeronautical Heritage

What might have been # 1

The last two decades of the twentieth century may come to be regarded – by anyone reading this, at least – as the halcyon years of Australian aviation heritage. This was an era of unprecedented popular interest and government largesse, an era when there were more galleries, heritage centres and museums built, and imagined, than at any other time.

While some were eventually built, most weren’t, with millions of taxpayer dollars being expended on feasibility studies and ill-conceived projects (remember the replica Southern Cross?). This was also a time when local, state and federal governments, together with entrepeneurs and not-for-profits each imagined themselves establishing, and sustaining, ‘world class’ aviation museums capable (according to the consultant’s feasibility study) of delivering regional economic benefits, ad infinitum.

Barely a year passed without some new aviation museum proposal emerging with that old chestnut, the National Aviation Museum, being the most persistent. Indeed, this was a time when it might have still been possible for a Commonwealth Government to assemble a collection befitting that aspiration, that opportunity have since passed by. Then, as now, politicians were quick to recognise the political advantage to be gained from championing these proposals – at least until the election was over.

These proposals faltered for reasons that were varied, sometimes complex, and seldom self-evident. Some were ill-conceived, and almost none succeeded in gaining and retaining bi-partisan political support. The handful of new proposals that did come to fruition then, and remain still (such as the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society, the Qantas Founders’ Museum, and the Temora Aviation Museum), were invariably the ones which haven’t had to lean heavily of governmental [recurrent] funding solutions.

Of the many might-have-been proposals to emerge back then, the 1984 Queensland Transport and Technology Museum at Coomera on the Gold Coast, appeared most likely to succeed. Its costs were fully underwritten by the Queensland Government, and its development was proceeding under the aegis of a respected State institution (viz. the Queensland Musuem). An airfield site had already been purchased, and supplementary collection acquition negotriations were underway (with the likes of Ken Orrman and Malcolm Long). What set this initiative apart from all the others however was the unique fact that it’s champion was not just a pilot with an abiding interest in aviation heritage, but also one of the nation’s most powerful political leaders. This is the only instance of the political stars aligning in this country, to produce such a heady potential. And yet, it too amounted to naught. That alignment however, was to prove fleeting.

News of the $10 million development was first published in Brisbane’s Courier Mail on 27th February 1984, the State’s Mines Minister (remember, this was the Bjelke-Petersen era) foreshadowing that he’d be seeking Cabinet approval to prepare establishment legislation for the new Bicentenary museum which by that stage had already been under development for two years.

DOC140115-0001Consutants GHD had earlier completed a  Feasibility Study for Licensed Aerodrome estimating property acquisition and site infrastructure costs totalling $3.6 million, which included provision for a single 1,000 metre unsealed runway on a thirty hectare site (now occupied by the Coomera Anglican College).

The Bjelke-Petersen bandwagon seemed unstoppable at that time, his comprehensive 1983 electoral victory allowing his National Party to become the first in Australia to govern [at the State level] in its own right. In 1984 he was also awarded a knighthood, and by the following year he’d turned his attentions towards the Australian Prime Ministership (the “Joh for PM” campaign).

By 1987 however his bandwagon had crashed spectacularly with Joh being forced to resign both the Premiership, and his political career, his departure effectively marking the end of the  Coomera Transport and Technology Museum proposal.

Even at this distance it’s difficult to establish  exactly why the wheels fell of the Coomera project, although it is clear  that political support must have also begun waning in 1984, soon after the project had been publicly unveiled. No sooner had the The Queensland Transport and Technology Centre Act received Parliamentary assent – in 1984 – when there followed another piece of related legislation (viz. Queensland Museum (Assimilation of Coomera Technology Centre Act) 1985 ) effectively reversing the former.

Queensland Parliamentary Debates from that time reveal that by September 1985 the Labor Opposition – sensing a vulnerability – had begun probing the reasons for the project’s delayed completion.

“…Is the Premier and Treasurer aware that it has been reported in the
media that a valuable collection of vintage aircraft which has been displayed at Tallebudgera
Creek on the Gold Coast may be acquired by the city of Wangaratta in Victoria because
no firm action has been taken by the Queensland Government to start this project,
which was announced more than 18 months ago? Moreover, now that the aircraft will
apparently fly south, as the birds do, will the Premier and Treasurer explain why the
Government has failed to honour its promise, made in February 1984, to construct such
a museum?”

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