Parliament House

4 Aug

Somehow, I missed out on the obligatory Year 7 trip to Canberra, and had never visited Canberra until I moved here. So, my very first glimpse of Parliament House was the day I arrived, and visiting it was high on my to do list. My Parliament House tour remains one of my most vivid memories. Five and a half years later, I’ve spent plenty of time there, but it’s never been less awe inspiring than that first trip. After such a long time, I figured there was surely something I could still be taught about Parliament House, so gave up a few hours on a weekend to find out.

Parliament House during the Enlighten Festival

Parliament House during the Enlighten Festival

The first thing I can’t help but notice, every time, is Parliament House’s majesty. Apart from its flag, there’s nothing really huge about it. It’s majestic in that there’s incredible attention to detail, without anything being grandiose or garish.

The second thing is how heavy the doors are. It’s an effort – I’m talking a whole-body-put-your-back-into-it swing – to get in the door to the right of the entrance, which takes me through to the security screening. From there, I’m introduced to plenty of marble, and walk – feeling like a fraud – towards the visitor’s desk to the left of the entrance.

There are two very friendly people at the desk, and I’m handed a brochure with a map. I’m asked if I’m interested in a free guided tour (they’re run every day at 10am, 1pm and 3pm), and yes, I certainly am. There’s still a bit of a wait until the tour starts, so interesting spots are circled on the map to keep me occupied before it starts.

And that’s it. I’ve been directed to go up the stairs to the right, where there’s plenty to see. I veer towards an empty room, where lined up against the wall are all the different samples of granite and marble from all over the world used throughout Parliament House, and little pictures of what’s used where. Just how many different types are there? A lot.

Granitello Nero marble is what’s used for the black shapes on the white marble floors in the foyer where I just was, while Paradise White marble is used throughout all the main entrances (most obviously the front of Parliament House). Paradise White marble is Italian, and used by Michelangelo for his masterpieces.

The black stuff is

The black stuff on the floor is granitello nero marble, while the green/grey on the columns is cipollino marble

Once I’ve marvelled at the marble, I exit the room to see a display featuring the different Orders of Australia. It’s always one of those nerdy points of conjecture – is someone an AO or an AM, and is that higher or lower than an AC? Well, this wall settles that debate. (Actually, so does this website.) An AC (Companion of the Order), followed by an AO (Officer of the Order), AM (Member of the Order) and OAM (Medal of the Order).

Companion of the Order of Australia

Companion of the Order of Australia – note the differences in what men and women get to wear!

Next, there’s a display of all the women who’ve ever entered the Australian Parliament. It’s put together really well, with photos (some more casual than others) of women Senators and MPs, and a short blurb. I spend quite a bit of time looking at each one.

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Here's Kate Lundy

Here’s Kate Lundy

And Gai Brodtmann (with Chris Uhlmann)

And Gai Brodtmann (with Chris Uhlmann) (and my knuckles)

Display of the current women members of Parliament

Display of the current women members of Parliament

Time’s passed quickly (this is what happens when you geek out over marble and granite?), so I head into the Great Hall where the tour is about to start. There’s a range of people on the tour – both international and domestic – and another Canberran makes me feel less like a fraud. Our guide’s first unusual instruction is for us to take as many photos as we like. There are no restrictions on what you can take a photo of on the tour (but I later learn that doesn’t apply to taking photos of the Magna Carta). The second unusual point is that we’re free to walk away from the tour at any point (we might have somewhere else to be, for example), and that he “won’t be offended”. That’s sorted, then!

We take our seats, still in the Great Hall, for a brief history lesson. The first Parliament House was the Parliamentary Chambers in Melbourne, until 1927. Then, the provisional Parliament House – now Old Parliament House – was used. It was designed to be used for 50 years, went a bit beyond that.

In contrast, new Parliament House is designed to be used for the next 200 years (that’s 175 years still left, for those of you playing at home). Other stats include:

  • 329 entries into worldwide design competition
  • 8 years to be built
  • 1 million cubic metres of soil and rock was moved, and 21 metres of hill was removed
  • Parliament House isn’t one building, but 5, each joined by glass link ways

Our guide also explains that Parliament House has a time theme: the red gravel and mosaic at the front represents the Australian landscape and the history of Aboriginal culture, then the European marble in the foyer reflects European settlement.  The Great Hall makes reference to cultivation of the land, and its floor contains jarrah, blackbutt and ebony woods, while the panels are white birch and the balustrades are made from blush box.

At the other end of the Great Hall is a huge tapestry, which is 16 times the size of Arthur Boyd‘s almost identical painting of a Shoalhaven eucalyptus forest (the addition which means it’s not identical is Halley’s Comet streaking through the top half of the tapestry – Halley’s Comet passed while the tapestry was being weaved, but much later than the painting!).

At this point, we’re taken out of the Great Hall and down the left hand side of this part of the building. On the way out, we get to touch a bit of the tapestry (a good and tactile idea which saves the actual artwork).

2013-07-21 13.15On the wall outside the Great Hall is Arthur Boyd’s original painting – pretty stunning, but a great deal smaller.

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Note no Halley’s Comet

We’re now off to the left side of the building, and into the House of Representatives. On the way, we’re advised that a clock we pass is one of 2700 in the building, and that the amount of time the bells ring for divisions was decided by asking the most elderly member of Parliament to stand in the position furthest away in the building, and see how long it took him. (Indeed, the time was increased from three to four minutes in 1988 once the new building was operational. Not so sure about the rest of the story, though!)

Inside the House of Representatives

Inside the House of Representatives

Notice how the colours of the rows of seats change as they get higher?

Notice how the colours of the rows of seats change as they get higher?

Before we go to the Senate, we stop to look at the Members Hall, which sits between the Senate and the House of Reps. Members pass through on the ground floor, where there’s a large water feature – apparently its addition was so that conversations down below cannot be heard by those above!

Water feature - weighs a few tonnes

Water feature – weighs a few tonnes

Above the Members Hall, we can see the flag through the glass roof.

The Senate’s colours are starkly different to the House of Reps. Interestingly, the Senate is the only room in all of Australia with a red and not a green EXIT sign, to keep with its colour scheme.

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Feeling special

2013-07-21 13.47;;'

Like the House of Representatives, the rows of chairs also fade in colour as they go further up

Like the House of Representatives, the rows of chairs also fade in colour as they go further up

Our guide points out that those familiar with the Australian coat of arms know that the emu and kangaroo face each other (and are two animals whih can’t walk backwards). In the Senate, they don’t face each other – instead, the emu is looking at the Government, and the kangaroo is looking at the Opposition.

2013-07-21 14.00

Emu and kangaroo not looking at each other, but rather the Government and the Opposition

Even the lights in the Senate are cool

Even the lights in the Senate are cool

The tour ends here in the Senate. It’s meant to only go for 45 minutes (30 minutes during sitting weeks), but we’re well over the hour, and there’s surely more that the guide could have talked about.

Of course, we’re welcome to keep browsing, so I do. First I visit the Prime Minister, and his Ministers.

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And pay the Opposition Leader a visit, too (his Shadow Ministers are not listed beside him):

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It’s only fitting to spend a few moments with former Prime Ministers:

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2013-07-21 14.21

The most recent Prime Minister’s portrait sits closest to the Main Committee room, and each of them gets moved to the left as new ex-PMs are added, then across to the other side of the hall, and then eventually to Old Parliament House once enough time (and Prime Ministers) have passed.

I stop by the impressive Magna Carta (one of four surviving Inspeximus issues from 1297), but no photos are allowed. (Here’s the online exhibition.)

Here are some pictures of some budget papers instead. Not quite the Magna Carta.

Here are some pictures of some budget papers instead. Not quite the Magna Carta.

I can’t visit our Parliament House without heading up to the roof to visit the flag and admire the views. Like the doors, the lifts in APH are old and heavy (and a little slow – each ride probably takes long enough for a decision to be made!).

The flag is surrounded by perfectly manicured lawns. This view is looking towards Mt Ainslie.

The flag is surrounded by perfectly manicured lawns. This view is looking towards Mt Ainslie. The Captain Cook Memorial Jet shows it was a tad windy!

The flag is one of the tallest stainless steel structures (81 metres) in the world, and the flags (about 13 x 6 metres) are changed monthly because of the damage they receive.

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To the right is the little cart which goes up and down the flag pole so that the flag can be changed

To the right is the little cart which goes up and down the flag pole so that the flag can be changed

Looking down Adelaide Avenue and towards the snow on the mountains

Looking down Adelaide Avenue and towards the snow on the mountains

And then it’s time to leave, back through the marble foyer.

2013-07-21 14.23jhfjh

2013-07-21 14.23

For all that we Canberrans endure (particularly media referring to Government decisions as ‘Canberra’s’ decisions), I’m so proud to have this building – and all that it represents – as part of our town.

Have you been to ‘new’ Parliament House recently? Have you been on a guided tour? What hidden gem have you discovered?

Date: Sunday, 21 July 2013

Cost: Free

Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile

Want more? Parliament House is open daily from 9am to 5pm (and 8.30am to when Parliament rises during sitting weeks). Guided tours (I really recommend this – it’s easy to miss things, otherwise) run at 10am, 1pm and 3pm and take 30-45 minutes. Bookings are recommended/required to watch Question Time in the House of Representatives on sitting days, but are not required for the Senate. For more info, try here.

8 Responses to “Parliament House”

  1. Cf August 5, 2013 at 12:27 am #

    Outside, walk along the walking tracks on either side of the building. One passes through the Formal Gardens. The other past a soccer field among other sports facilities. There is also another track between State Circle and Capital Circle.

  2. Gary Lum August 5, 2013 at 5:02 am #

    I go there three times a year for senate estimates and still get lost 😃

    • Alison August 5, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

      Same here Gary. I go there when I have legislation being debated and I always get bamboozled, particularly in the basement.

      Tara, at the enlighten festival they have done visits to some ‘not open to the public’ areas, including the ‘uncomformity’ in the basement.

      • Gary Lum August 5, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

        I really have trouble finding a car park in the afternoon. I really should take a leave day and explore the place.

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