Old Parliament House is architecturally a ''load of junk'' and much of it should be knocked down, according to the former head of the ACT's peak development body.
Tony Powell, commissioner of the National Capital Development Commission between 1974 and 1985, said a misguided commitment to heritage values meant the building had been preserved despite its lack of real historical importance.
Speaking at a National Trust function at the Albert Hall in Yarralumla on Sunday afternoon, Mr Powell also labelled the territory's heritage protection system the worst in the country and took a swipe at the ACT government, saying its reliance on land sales for revenue meant areas of natural environment of great historic value were being gradually overtaken by developments.
The building now houses the Museum of Australian Democracy, and its director, Daryl Karp, said she could not understand why anyone would want to get rid of such a fabulous building.
“I think that if you remove this part of our national story, you are losing something very significant in a very young nation. There aren’t that many living examples that take you through the 60-70 years of living history, that taps into the recollection of everyday Australians as well as triggering ideas for future generations,” she told ABC radio on Monday morning.
“I think it is the most extraordinary building that is a really significant icon for all of Australia and I can’t imagine that anyone could even suggest that something with such historical, social significance should be knocked down.”
She said the building was a good example of the architecture of the era, and had been listed by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects to register it as a part of their significant 20th century architectural buildings.
“But I think that more important than the building itself is what it represents, and what it really represents an important part of our political history. It is a really significant symbol, I think, of politics and democracy in action,” she said.
She said visitors enjoyed going through the building.
“Members of the public love the building, love the story that it tells, and it is up to us to make sure that the exhibitions and the elements that are in it continue to draw them back and get them to engage in a really vibrant and lively way. For us it is more than just a building. The building is just one part of what we do,” she said.
Mr Powell said on Sunday that the possessions of politicians and staffers at old Parliament House lacked taste and quality, represented the meagreness of their owners and should be seen only as a lesson on the need to do better in the future.
He said the building lacked historic value because no debates of any particular significance had taken place there, unlike similar buildings in the US.
''No great events happened in the whole period, up until, say, the Whitlam government, and that's the sort of thing that gets publicised all the time, which is of no great consequence,'' he said.
Mr Powell said as commissioner of the NCDC he had argued to the government that the many extensions to Old Parliament House should be stripped off, as in its current form the building blocked land access from new Parliament House to the lake and because the original building was more architecturally attractive, but his proposal was rejected.
''That's an example of where a misjudged idea of heritage importance is blocking the forward development of the whole Parliament House and its precinct as a complex. That's a bad use of heritage as a justification for not doing anything,'' he said.
One audience member commented that Old Parliament House told the story of Australia's past as a colony and the British influence on its development, but Mr Powell said it did not provide a good example of anything.
Mr Powell said the ACT system of heritage protection was poor because the laws allowed ministers to override any arrangements that existed for the protection of artefacts.