Tuesday, 10 September 2013

More from Old Parliament House

I wandered through the (very narrow) corridors, poking in rooms, past clocks, telephones and typewriters – so much ritual belonging to a bygone era. All the volumes of Parliamentary debates from the House of Representatives and Senate are collected – hmm, I’ll bet they make for fascinating reading...

The speechwriters' office
The Country Party Rooms have an exhibition about various members including Tim Fischer, from Barra Creek, who joined the Narrandera branch of the Young Country Party. The Country Party became the National Country Party which morphed into the National Party and is now simply the Nationals. Apparently, ‘The Country Party was formed to represent the interests of people living on the land and in country towns’, which explains a lot.

Fischer was deputy PM to John Howard – he held the party together during the 1990s with the threat from One Nation dividing the rural support base, and was pivotal to the success of the anti-gun legislation of 1996. There are cabinets full of gifts from firms and communities acknowledging his support (as trade minister) for the growth of Australia’s export markets.

The place is like a labyrinth with rooms opening off corridors. One holds an architectural model of Parliament House in 1927 and 1988. Another is dedicated to the Queen’s royal tour of 1954 when she opened the Federal and State Parliaments and wore a golden ball gown with sprays of wattle (this symbolism began her Coronation dress, which was the first time her white dress had been embroidered with colour; decorative flower emblems represented every country in the Commonwealth).

Many of the doors have frosted glass with the names etched upon them. The government whip and opposition whip’s offices back onto each other across the Speaker’s Walk at the back of the Chamber of the House of Representatives. The rooms were divided to create more space, for receiving members like naughty schoolchildren making excuses for not doing their homework. Politicians gave the whip some imaginative reasons for missing a Division, which was very serious: legislation can be defeated or motions lost for the lack of a single vote.

The Senate Opposition Party Room operated as a sort of gentleman’s club from 1927-37. There was (was??!) little entertainment in Canberra, so here the senators, regardless of which party they were in, talked, read, wrote letters, drank wine, and enjoyed film nights together. It had amenities such as mail boxes and sound-proof telephone booths for senators who didn’t have offices.

The building has little kitchens and bathrooms which are very 70s but were probably considered flash at the time: brown wood and tiles, square furniture and straight lines date the place. Furthermore, the narrow corridors and low ceilings give it the feel of a bunker, trapped and sealed in time.

Susan Ryan, who was a Cabinet Minister in the Hawke Government wrote, “At the beginning of our administration, the standard snacks consisted of white bread sandwiches and lamingtons, the latter very popular with our team, especially the leader. Sometimes during extended meetings party pies and sausage rolls appeared. When we met at weekends the attendants did not come in, and we were left to our own devices.

"Distracted from affairs of state by hunger pangs, one Sunday evening we tried to rustle up a meal. Nothing doing: no local eateries were inclined to provide take-away to the Cabinet of Australia. In the end one of our Comcar drivers, typically down to earth, located a few pizzas and brought them in to us. As we ripped the messy strips of fat and carbohydrate off the cardboard to which they had congealed, we agreed that it was pretty flash being in Cabinet.”

John Smith Murdoch, the building’s architect, also designed much of the furniture, of which there is an exhibition in Suites Seats and Suits. The functional furniture is of the Stripped Classical style – simple lines with limited decorative features – and constructed of Australian timbers, such as Queensland maple or Tasmanian oak and Australian Blackwood.

I like the Blackwood reading slopes for reading papers and the octagonal tables (a departure from the usual strict discipline of right angles and circles) for displaying periodicals – cut off from the outside world in Canberra, this was the only way many politicians could keep in touch with their constituents. There’s also a room of signs – strictly members only etc. – which echoes the bold design and geometric precision, even reflected in the coat and hat stand, and the solid, square bins.

The Senate Government Party Room (with record player and Mozart records) features a hexagonal table representing the original six senators from each of the six states. The brushed aluminium light fittings in this room replaced the original glass fittings in the 1940s.

A couple of politicians are highlighted in displays. Dorothy Tangney became the first female senator in 1943 and served for 25 years, concentrating on social issues and Labour principles such as the needs of returned servicemen, war widows and war brides. Meanwhile, Neville Bonner was the first Aboriginal senator in 1971. He strongly believed that Aboriginal people should work within the parliamentary system to achieve their rights.

The members’ dining room was closed as it was being prepared for a function, but the nearby courtyards are a nice touch, affording glimpses of trees, grass, light and air. Along the carpeted hallways (a natty blue design) are cabinets containing special crockery with a parliamentary crest and a tea service including a set of tongs resembling emu feet. 

The Illuminations by Wendy Fairclough
The halls are lined with information and quotes – this one is telling:
“Throughout Provisional Parliament House there is a very interesting incongruity between the glamour of the seat of power and a concern to be seen as not wasting money on luxuries for members. Despite the refurbishment of the Members Bar in 1974, a member in 1978 described it as looking like a ‘second rate hotel’. There are very few photographs of the Members Bar and even fewer of members patronising it – apparently members did not wish to publicise this image of themselves.”

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