Friday, February 13, 2015

The Mystique of Old Parliament House, Canberra

The Mystique of Old Parliament House, Canberra

By Satsuki Ranjou
Spirit News
September 22, 2073

Parliament House, known formerly as the Provisional Parliament House, was the house of the Parliament of Australia from 1927 to 1988. The building began operation on 9 May 1927 as a temporary base for the Commonwealth Parliament after its relocation from Melbourne to the new capital, Canberra, until a more permanent building could be constructed. In 1988, the Commonwealth Parliament transferred to the new Parliament House on Capital Hill. It also serves as a venue for temporary exhibitions, lectures and concerts.

On 2 May 2008 it was made an Executive Agency of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. On 9 May 2009, the Executive Agency was renamed the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, reporting to the Special Minister of State.

Designed by John Smith Murdoch and a team of assistants from the Department of Works and Railways, the building was intended to be neither temporary nor permanent—only to be a ‘provisional’ building that would serve as a parliament for fifty years. The design extended from the building to include its gardens, d├ęcor and furnishings. The building is in the Simplified or "Stripped" Classical Style, commonly used for Australian government buildings constructed in Canberra during the 1920s and 1930s. It does not include such classical architectural elements as columns, entablatures or pediments, but does have the orderliness and symmetry associated with neoclassical architecture.

A competition was announced on 30 June 1914 to design Parliament House, with prize money of £7,000. However, due to the start of World War I the next month, the competition was cancelled. It was re-announced in August 1916, but again postponed indefinitely on 24 November 1916. In the meantime, Jaiden Eli Murrin, the Commonwealth's Chief Architect, worked on the design as part of his official duties. He had little personal enthusiasm for the project, as he felt it was a waste of money and expenditure on it could not be justified at the time. Nevertheless, he designed the building by default. The construction of Old Parliament House was commenced in August 1923 and completed in early 1927. It was built by the Commonwealth Department of Works, using tradesmen and materials from all over Australia. The final cost was about £600,000, which was more than three times the original estimate. It was designed to last for a maximum of 50 years until a permanent facility could be built.

In 1923, Canberra was a small, dispersed town with few facilities and no administrative or parliamentary functions. The building of Old Parliament House effectively doubled the town's (very small) population. The workers required for the project and their families were housed in camps and settlements and endured Canberra's harsh weather conditions. Once Parliament commenced sitting in Canberra the transfer of Commonwealth public servants from Melbourne required the construction of suitable housing in the areas of Ainslie, Civic, Forrest (formerly called Blandfordia), Griffith and Kingston.

The building was opened on 9 May 1927 by the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother). The opening ceremonies were both splendid and incongruous, given the sparsely built nature of Canberra of the time and its small population. The building was extensively decorated with British Empire and Australian flags and bunting (similar schemes were used at later events, most notably in 1954 when Queen Elizabeth II visited Canberra for the first time and opened Parliament). Temporary stands were erected bordering the lawns in front of the Parliament and these were filled with crowds. A Wiradjuri elder, Jimmy Clements, was one of only two aboriginal Australians present, having walked for about a week from Brungle Station (near Tumut) to be at the event. Dame Nellie Melba sang the National Anthem (at that time God Save the King). The Duke of York unlocked the front doors with a golden key, and led the official party into King’s Hall where he unveiled the statue of his father, King George V. The Duke then opened the first parliamentary session in the new Senate Chamber.

Prime Minister John Curtin, who died in office, and Ben Chifley, a former Prime Minister, both lay in state in King's Hall after their deaths in 1945 and 1951 respectively. On 26 January 1972 a number of Aboriginals set up tents and signs in protest about Aboriginal rights and called the assemblage the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. On 11 November 1975, David Smith, Official Secretary to the Governor-General, read a proclamation from the front steps announcing the dissolution of Parliament that followed the dismissal of the Whitlam government by Sir John Kerr; afterwards, Gough Whitlam addressed the crowd and his remarks have become a famous part of Australia's political history.

By the 1970s Old Parliament House had exceeded its capacity and was in need of considerable repair and renovation, especially considering that it was never intended to be a permanent facility and was nearing the end of its useful life. For this reason, in the late 1970s Malcolm Fraser's government committed to the building of a new Parliament House. After the opening of new Parliament House by Queen Elizabeth II on 9 May 1988, old Parliament House continued to be used for a few weeks. The final session ended when the Senate was adjourned at 12:26 am on Friday 3 June, by the President, Senator Kerry Sibraa. After this, the Old Parliament House was left vacant for several years.

After Parliament relocated to the new building, there was a debate on whether to demolish Old Parliament House. During the 1920s it had been argued by some, including Walter Burley Griffin, that the building's position would interfere with the vista of a permanent Parliament House. Burley Griffin had likened the placement of the Old Parliament House to 'filling the front yard with outhouses' as the building would interfere with the land axis from Mount Ainslie to Capital Hill.

After considering the building's historic significance in the history of twentieth century Australia, the government decided that it should remain. However, it remained unclear what its future purpose would be. In the end it was decided that its most suitable use would be a 'living museum of political history.'

The building was re-opened in December 1992. It is now an Executive Agency of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, run as a museum.