A visit to the Australian Parliament

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As the Conference I was attending finished at lunch time on the Wednesday, I had a free afternoon. We’d decided to visit the Parliament building and, although there are regular free tours, we signed up for a paid tour that would allow us access into more areas of the building.

Parliament was sitting, so the tour didn’t include visits to the Senate and House of Representatives Chambers. However, afterwards we took the opportunity to sit in an watch part of a debate in the House of Representatives.

To get into the building we had to pass through security, although once inside visitors are relatively free to wander around much of the building. The security personnel were also friendly and polite, unlike the stoney-faced individuals you often face in official buildings in England.

The original Parliament building, now known as Old Parliament House, is a short distance away. It’s an Art Deco style structure completed in early 1927. In 1978 it was decided that a new building was needed and an architectural competition was held to select an architect, which was won by  Mitchell/Giurgola, an architectural practice based in Philidelphia, with the on-site work directed by the Italian-born architect Romaldo Giurgola. Work started in 1981 and it was opened on 9 May 1988.

On the forecourt in front of the building  there’s a 196-square-metre mosaic by the Aboriginal artist Michael Nelson Jagamara. It wasn’t possible to get a good shot of the mosaic but there’s a photograph of it on the Parliament website together with some additional information.

After passing through security we entered the foyer where there are  48 marble columns, clad in green Cipollino marble from Italy and creamy pink Atlantide Rosa marble from Portugal, intended to evoke the muted pinks and greens of the Australian landscape as well as the colours of the two Parliamentary Chambers.  The floor has a series of circles, semi-circles and triangles of Paradise White marble and black Granitello Nero limestone from Belgium, full of fossils.

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The Great Hall is used for dinners, receptions and the like. During our visit it was being prepared for a dinner due to take place that evening.

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The Great Hall Tapestry, which is an enlarged version of an Arthur Boyd painting, Untitled (Shoalhaven Landscape), which depicts a bush scene in the Shoalhaven River area in southern New South Wales. It took 13 weavers more than two years to complete and is one of the largest tapestries in the world.

There are lots of works of art exhibited throughout the building, including portraits of all of the Australian former Prime Ministers (although those of the last two are still being painted). This is the portrait of Gough Whitlam, the Labor Prime Minister whose dismissal in November 1975 by the Governer-General, John Kerr, provoked a constitutional crisis.

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This is Tom Roberts‘ painting of the opening of the first Federal Parliament held in the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne in 1901. It’s in the foyer of the Main Committee Room and is known as the “Big Picture” for fairly obvious reasons.

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This is the Main Committee Room itself. The painting on the back wall is Red Ochre Cove by Mandy Martin.

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From the roof there was a long view down the main axis from Mount Ainslie in the south right down to the National War Memorial to the north.

After the guided tour we decided to go and have a look in the Chamber of the House of Representatives. We had to leave our bags and phones behind and pass through another security checkpoint and were then guided onto the balcony where we could watch the proceedings. At first there were relatively few MPs in the Chamber and they didn’t seem to be discussing anything of great importance. But after a while we could see Members drifting in and the Chamber began to fill up. It was clear that an important debate was about to take place. There’s been some controversy in Australia about MPs having dual nationality, which isn’t allowed. There was a motion put forward by the opposition Labor Party and we watched the debate begin to unfurl with contributions from senior Labour members and the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, the latter coming across as rather aggressive and unpleasant. We watched the debate for about half an hour before deciding we’d had a good taste of the action (!), and departed to go down to have a look at the National Gallery Art collection before our evening meal.