Saturday, May 10, 2008

Saturday Morning Musing's - Australia's old Parliament House

This week Australia is celebrating the birthday of Australia's new Parliament House. Opened in 1988, I find the new building monumental, designed to impress people with the power and authority of Federal authority.

I know that we cannot return to the world of its predecessor, now called old Parliament House. But the building occupies a special place in my heart, a memory of a simpler world now wrapped in nostalgia. I do not want to go back to that world, but I could wish that we had retained some of its elements. I thought, therefore, that I should write a short memoir about the place the building occupies in my heart.

I suspect that many Australians would find this past world strange, but also very appealing.

Old Parliament House was built in a sheep paddock in 1927. Intended as a temporary building, it was to last as the seat of Government for just over 60 years.

I first knew of Parliament House as a child because my grandfather was member for New England from 1949 to 1963 when Ian Sinclair took over his seat. So this was the place where Fah worked.

In December 1962 or January 1963 I visited Canberra for the first time. I was 17 and on my way to a hitch-hiking tour of Tasmania before starting University. Today it sounds strange that a 17 year old should be off on a hitch-hiking tour, but this was in fact my second trip. Twelve months before I had spent a number of weeks hitching round Tasmania on my own.

I stayed with the Hohnens. Ross Hohnen had been first registrar at the New England University College and had gone down to Canberra to join the Australian National University. They had an old car - a yank tank - that they lent to me and in which I and one son (Murray?) drove round Canberra.

I had not had my license for all that long and this was a big car, so this was a bit of a challenge. Old Parliament House was one place we visited.This was Canberra before the Lake, so the view from the front steps of Parliament was very different.

In January 1964 I returned to Canberra with my parents. We stayed at the Maiden's place in Forrest. Alf Maiden had been one of dad's first students and they were friends.

I was at University with a growing interest in the Aborigines. ANZUS was on, so as an eighteen year old I was able to go to every session in the archaeology and pre-history stream. It was great.

This was the conference at which Mr Gallus presented the initial results from his digs at Koonalda Cave on the Nullabor, arguing for early evidence of Aboriginal occupation. There was great scepticism among the professionals, outright disbelief. I looked at -in fact handled - some of the material and could see their point. Yet Mr Gallus proved to be right.

In January 1967 I returned to Canberra to start work in the Public Service. People from Sydney or Melbourne who liked the metro life style looked down on Canberra. To me, it was a larger version of Armidale but with a a lake and I thought that it was great!

I have chosen this 1967 snap by R Jancek from the Old Parliament House collection to illustrate this story because it rather neatly captures the world I entered.

In many ways this was a village world. A few minutes walk through the gardens to the right of the picture brings you to the Treasury building where I worked for a number of years. On the left as you walk was the Lobby Restaurant. When it opened, its location made it a favourite place for politicians, lobbyists, public servants, diplomats and the simply curious to have lunch. You never knew who you would see there.

A ten minute walk to to the left, again through gardens past the High Court and later the National Gallery and then across Kings Avenue, brings you to the Edmund Barton building where I worked after moving from Treasury.

Also to the left of Parliament House but further from the Lake was to be found the Hotel Wellington, a favourite watering for journalists and public servants prior to the opening of the National Press Club.

Initially, my contact with Parliament House was still as a visitor, I place I walked or drove past, a place to bring visitors to Canberra. I was too junior a public servant to go there on official business.

My relationship to the place changed after I again became involved again in the Country Party. Active at branch and electorate council level, I was also an active participant in moves to reshape the Party.

Looking back from the perspective of today's National Party, I suspect that many may find it hard to imagine a group of young Country Party radicals.

Our views on individual issues varied greatly, but especially in that period immediately after the election of the Whitlam Government and united by an equal dislike of Labor and Liberal, we were actively committed to the objective of carving a new direction for the Party. We worked through informal groups such as the Country Party Review Committee and the Canberra Research Committee, but were also members of the McEwen House Group, the attempt by then National Director Barry Cassell to establish a Country Party think tank.

During this period I was in and out of Parliament House all the time. There was no security. Walk into Kings Hall, turn left and you were in the lobbies on the House of Representatives side. So long as you looked as though you knew where you were going, the Parliamentary Attendants would ignore you.

We went in for meetings, to distribute press releases, for drinks or just to go to the non-member's bar. Every budget night for several years the economists among us including myself, Ian Wearing and Bob Coombs would gather in Doug Anthony's office to listen to the budget and write his immediate budget response. One year we were very slow, leaving poor Doug hanging round dodging questions while he waited for us to finish!

Things change, and I was forced to make a choice between public service career and political involvement. For better or worse, I chose the public service. Now my involvement with Parliament House became more official.

I still remember the first time I had to brief a minister. I was an acting branch head in Treasury and had to brief John Howard as Treasurer on a foreign investment matter. I was very nervous during the few minutes walk from Treasury. I found my way to Mr Howard's office and waited. However, he made the whole thing very pleasant and easy, something for which I have always been grateful.

Later after I moved to Industry and Commerce, and especially after John Button became Minister, I was in and out of Parliament all the time. Now there was the round of ministerial briefings, appearances before Caucus committees, attendance at Senate estimates hearings or Parliamentary committees.

As anyone who has worked in Parliament House or, for that matter, watched West Wing will know, there is something very seductive in being close to power and the action. Yet looking back, the thing that stands out to me, especially in the earlier days, was just how private that gold-fish bowl world really was.

Everybody knew everybody, there was constant gossip, little could be kept hidden. Disputes and scandals were common knowledge. However, all was controlled by a quite rigid if unsaid law. Private was private, unofficial was unofficial, off-the-record was off-the-record, public was public.

This law was absolutely necessary in a small world where people had to work closely together in physical terms, interacting all the time. As a small example, I often had drinks or dinner with a Parliamentarian and his girlfriend, a Parliamentary staffer. To use the information about the relationship for political purposes would have destroyed a lot more than our relationship.

The law allowed for the growth of trust and friendships that crossed political and professional divides. This is no longer possible to the same degree, although the law itself survives in an attenuated form.

To my mind, the break in the tradition came with the publication of stories about Ian Sinclair's personal life. These stories served no real public purpose other than to attack Ian. However, they started a process that has left reduced trust. I think that we are the worse for it.

A second change in my mind came with the introduction of security restrictions at old Parliament House. Now you had to have a pass to get in. This was not a problem for an official like me, but did narrow access. Two examples to illustrate.

I mentioned that in my Country Party days I was in and out of Parliament all the time. The Party was considering a coalition deal with the Liberals. We were opposed to it. So far as we were concerned the deal would meet immediate political needs and satisfy those in the the constituencies who were blindly anti-Whitlam, but would damage the Party in the longer term by blunting our capacity to do new things.

We prepared a manifesto setting out our views. We then actually photocopied it in Doug's office (he supported the coalition) and distributed it to all MPs! This could hardly happen today. As an aside, we lost. I still think that the coalition decision was a mistake.

As a second example, wearing another hat I was trying to promote the Queanbeyan Festival. We needed a gimmick, so decided to offer a $100,000 reward for the capture of a Yowie. Knowing the system, we distributed the press releases to all the Parliament House boxes on the Sunday. It proved to be a quiet news time, and the story went global. Again, this would be harder today.

In 1988 I visited the new Parliament House for the first time. I had left Canberra, so this was a purely professional visit as a lobbyist. I found it cold and unwelcoming.

I know that things must change. But I do feel very lucky to have known old Parliament House before the changes.


Rummuser said...

I wish that I had been following your blog at that time!

Jim Belshaw said...

So do I Ramana!