1 June 2021

Does Canberra need a new, fit-for-purpose multicultural centre?

| Mainul Haque
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Mainul Haque, Yvette Berry, Gungahlin mosque

Mainul Haque with Deputy Chief Minister Yvette Berry at the Gungahlin Mosque. Photo: Supplied.

As Canberra continues to expand rapidly, the city’s infrastructure is struggling to keep pace with the diverse demands of a growing population.

A perfect example is the growing need in the capital for a large, multipurpose community centre.

At the 2020 ACT election, all major ACT political parties (Labor, Greens and Liberals) committed to building such a centre in Canberra. This commitment is even included in the joint parliamentary agreement between Labor and the Greens.

Canberra’s population is expected to reach over 700,000 by 2058. This growth includes increased cultural diversity in the ACT population.

Currently, an estimated 30 per cent of Canberrans are from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds.

It’s estimated that by 2058, nearly half of the ACT population will be made up of people born overseas. Many of them will be over 60 years old. This ageing and diversified population has different socio-cultural needs.

One such significant need is a space for large community gatherings. For example:

  • A typical wedding function for a family of Asian origin would have as few as 100 or over 1000 guests.
  • A community iftar in Ramadan could have 500 or more than 1000 people.
  • Community events such as Eid prayers, Diwali festivals or Lunar New Year celebrations need to cater for several thousand people.

Currently, there is no facility in the ACT that can accommodate large community gatherings. The ageing Albert Hall has passed its use-by date and cannot meet these needs due to its limited capacity.

The Theo Notaras Centre is also not large enough to cater to large community gatherings. Private facilities such as the Hellenic Club or larger hotels are expensive and out of reach for not-for-profit community organisations and families.

Many CALD background families and community organisations use the Queanbeyan Bicentennial Hall for weddings and large community events due to the lack of suitable community venues in the ACT.

This drives business and employment opportunities away from Canberra to Queanbeyan.

I believe the government should take a long-term view and allocate the necessary budget and resources to build a sophisticated, large, multipurpose community centre that the ACT can be proud of and will serve community needs for the long term.

The ACT is the national capital, yet it is the only jurisdiction that does not have a ‘town hall’ where such gatherings could be held. A multipurpose centre could be an attractive building that serves as a de facto town hall for Canberra.

The centre could serve as a venue for civic functions during the day, such as citizenship ceremonies or hosting foreign dignitaries, and as a community space in the evening. Over time, the centre could become a national icon and tourist drawcard for Canberra like other national institutions such as the National Museum and the National Arboretum.

This multipurpose centre should also be large enough to serve as:

  • A large wedding venue catering for around 2000 people in a sit-down dinner capacity with appropriate commercial kitchen facilities.
  • An indoor sporting venue suitable for use by all, including families, children and the elderly.
  • An indoor entertainment venue where local artists can perform and showcase their talent.
  • A conference centre.
  • An emergency shelter during bushfire season.
  • An emergency hospital for use in situations such as those generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A place for large religious gatherings such as Eid prayers, Lunar New Year, Diwali and Easter festivals.
  • A place for children’s parties, seniors’ gatherings and meetings of smaller community organisations in smaller rooms (the centre could have folding walls to create many smaller rooms and become a large venue once those walls are removed).
  • A place where not-for-profit and community organisations can hold their events at a reduced cost and where schools and colleges can hold their formals and many more.

I envisage the centre as a buzzing community space and a key meeting place for families and communities, promoting social harmony. It will also support small businesses and create much-needed jobs for local people.

The National Arboretum is one of the lasting legacies of the former Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, following the devastating 2003 bushfires.

Similarly, the Barr Government now has an opportunity to leave a wonderful legacy by building a large multipurpose community centre/town hall for Canberra.

Mainul Haque is former President of the Canberra Muslim Community Inc, Gungahlin Mosque and Bangladesh Australia Association Canberra, and a steering committee member of the Canberra Refugee Action Campaign. He is an economist and was a Greens candidate for Yerrabi in the 2020 ACT election.

Original Article published by Mainul Haque on The RiotACT.

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