Security making our public space less democratic

Security making our public space less democratic

An increased focus on security is making Canberra's public places less democratic, especially the appalling authorised assembly area outside Parliament House, an academic says.

In his latest book Democracy and Public Space, University of Warwick Associate Professor of Public Policy John Parkinson looked at 11 capital cities and how their physical spaces enhanced democracy.

People gather for the National Marriage Day Rally with the message "Husband and Wife Equals Life" on the front lawn of Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday.

People gather for the National Marriage Day Rally with the message "Husband and Wife Equals Life" on the front lawn of Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Canberra came in fourth, after Berlin, Wellington and Ottawa and ahead of Washington DC, Hong Kong, Mexico City, London, Tokyo, Santiago/Valparaiso and Cape Town respectively.

He said democratic access to public spaces was getting worse as security concerns increased.


"This is not just exclusive to Australia; it is around the world, this official suspicion of active publics. All politicians everywhere say we are really worried about decline in participation and growing political apathy, but then when you try to show some caring, out come the riot police. So there are serious mixed messages being given and those mixed messages are being written into the physical landscape," he said.

Professor Parkinson, who once lived in Canberra, was particularly critical of the authorised assembly area outside Parliament House, where protesters are corralled.

"I have never seen anything like it. This authorised assembly area is just – I was about to say a national disgrace, that is probably not far off. It is just appalling that in a democracy protest is confined to this straggly little bit of land 150m away from the building where it can be safely ignored and quarantined," he said.

". . . we treat groups of citizens as a threat, as a contagion to be quarantined, rather than treating it is a normal part of the performance of democratic claim making."

Risk assessments, which were often "blown wildly out of proportion", were just accepted by most politicians in Australia, the United States and Britain. But he noted Canadians were able to protest right up to the front steps of their parliament, the Centre Block in Ottawa.

"It is not treated as some sacred symbol that has to be protected by a priesthood, and armed priesthood at that. It is treated as a civic resource, and by and large Canadians respond to that and treat it likewise," he said.

There were also strong positives and negatives within Parliament House itself.

The committee rooms, where many citizens engaged with MPs, were much more egalitarian than in the US, for example, ?and it was also good that politicians still had offices in the building, unlike in the US, where the Capitol Building was becoming an empty symbol.

The problem was it was hard to get into the working side of the building.

"The building is full of these little rat runs where not only can the members can avoid the public, but members can avoid each other and ministers can avoid back benchers ... The building sends out images of inclusion and egalitarianism, but it is really patchy when it comes to actually delivering that," he said.

Canberra also lost marks for its public transport system, which made it harder for people to be able to get to Parliament House, and for the difficulty in walking to the building.

"It is 3km from Civic to Parliament House and if you try to walk it, you get down to the end of Commonwealth Avenue and you don't know what to do," he said.

"You can't get across Commonwealth Avenue to the ramp up, and you can't see Federation Mall from one side of the road and you can't get at it from the other. There is no obviously foot access anyway."

Professor Parkinson said Walter Burley Griffin had some grandiose ideas about designing Canberra to be a "large amphitheatre for the performance of democracy, whereas actually democracy is a much more personal eyeball to eyeball kind of a thing".

Canberra's distance from Sydney and Melbourne meant it was also physically separated from some of the political debate.

"And that sets up a further distance between rulers and ruled. All the symbolic language of political institutions is isolation, not proximity. It is all about keep your distance, rather than engagement and dialogue," he said.

He said Canberra was a "city built for grand gestures" and "views from the top of Mt Ainslie", and this made it less accessible.

But there were also some strong positives. He believed the authorities made a conscious effort to represent Australians in the city.

He also praised them for ensuring there was good civic space, particularly the parkland around the lake. The city had plenty of public meeting spaces, like libraries and community centres, and the Legislative Assembly building was relatively well used by the public.

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