Leaving aside our concrete bus shelters, there is only one intimate public building in Canberra. Built to human scale, cramped and claustrophobic, just the right colour for Canberra's summer, Old Parliament House embodies not only traditions but a certain Australian take on the world.
In its new incarnation as the Museum of Australian Democracy, there are two flaws with an otherwise wonderful building.
The first is its title. By definition, a museum collects objects of interest. Old Parliament House, by contrast, evokes passions past, historic decisions, acrimonious quarrels and, occasionally, resolution in time of crisis. No objects are involved in any of that. In fact, the memorable objects exhibited in the building are distinctly shabby, whether the messy, squalid quarters of a backbencher or the raucous clutter of the Press Gallery up in an attic. Connoisseurs of retro bad taste would revel in the Prime Minister's hideously ugly bathroom.
The second flaw is the building's line of work. Few other democracies (New Zealand, with its Beehive, is an exception) have abandoned the traditional home of their parliaments. Britain resumed business in the House of Commons after Nazi bombing, while their adversary then superbly renovated the former Reichstag to celebrate re-unification. As for objects, the Germans have deliberately not painted over abusive graffiti left by conquering Russian soldiers. They also commemorate name by name those Members - pure and stout of heart - brave enough to vote against Hitler's Enabling Law in 1933.
Moving Parliament up the hill made all the nation's customary grievances against Canberra come true. Parliament was isolated from the people it served; ministers were secluded in their own wing; mismatched monumentalism intimidated visitors. We all seemed more aloof and more superior.
Nobody uninspired would have tolerated endless hours in confined spaces battling for high stakes against tight deadlines.
When I worked for Senate ministers, I encouraged my bosses to wander down to the cabinet or caucus rooms a few times each day. The point was not exercise, but democracy in action. The ministers talked to their colleagues in the corridors, were lobbied on this or that, passed through a crowd of ordinary Australians in King's Hall, then proceeded up the passage to the House, caucus, cabinet and the Prime Minister. That last passage, I suggested to another minister, was the most interesting few metres in all of Australia. Pitying my naivety, the minister inquired whether I was familiar with the corridor between the stage door and dressing rooms at one King's Cross strip club.
Now the government's statement of expectations proposes that the building should educate and inspire Australians about the strength of their democracy. The relevant minister suggested a comparison with visiting Questacon to appreciate science. Science, though, is founded on facts, and - as America's second president realised - facts are stubborn things. Facts, data, equations, axioms, rules, those may assist a learner at Questacon but none captures the spirit of Old Parliament House.
The old parliament actually was a bubble, or even a cocoon, self-contained and self-referential. Fresh from grand, sedate offices, many permanent heads were disconcerted by bustling cacophony. Tourists in the galleries were often distressed at the bare-knuckle, take-no-prisoners tactics in question time. Foreign dignitaries wondered where we found room to stash everyone. Emphatic swearing was so commonplace as to lack any punch, other than in the hands of a master roughhouse linguist like Paul Keating. Others tried hard: no performance appraisal in a normal enterprise included being told that someone powerful wanted to rip out your eyes and piss in the holes.
Were we workers in the parliamentary vineyard "educated, inspired and engaged", as the government now wants visitors to MOAD to be? The answer is "yes", because nobody uninspired would have tolerated endless hours in confined spaces battling for high stakes against tight deadlines. A friend joked that the guards must have run a cocktail of stimulants through the air conditioning each morning to give staff strength to start another day. You could turn up early in the morning to find your chair still warm from the night before.
My habitat for three years was a showcase of democracy, but democracy red in tooth and claw. School groups might not have appreciated one minister declaring that his predecessor could not have pushed a bit of toilet paper through cabinet. They might have been baffled at a Member in a chicken suit prancing through the House, at a minister the worst for wear hanging on to the dispatch box as if it were a lifebelt, or at the application in the House of the "Beirut principle" (metaphorically tossing a grenade down the aisle to shake up proceedings).
Flashes of humour possessed a cutting edge, especially those designed to demoralise the Leader of the Opposition. The former shearer, Mick Young, was expert at such corrosive mockery because he was genuinely funny. He parodied John Howard kissing babies, vaudeville so deft that everyone in the chamber guffawed, some involuntarily.
Was faith in democracy nurtured, as MOAD is now exhorted to do? Necessarily democracy came entangled with lies, rancour, partisanship, ambition and malice. Rare were those leaders (Lionel Bowen was a memorable example) who seemed not to think about how to push their own barrows or do others down. Rarer again were those who would take a joke. In the midst of all that, though, work was done. Progress was made. Democracy come alive in the building - a point MOAD might remember - was simply the result of participation, engagement, democracy in action throughout the land.
- Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.