Parliament House, Canberra

We then headed off to Parliament house. With the flagpole on top of the hill we could see our destination long before we were close but then the city was designed to be like that. At the start of the 20th century there was a great rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne over which city would be declared the capital of Australia. It was decided that a new city would be built and in 1902 the search began. It wasn’t until 1908 the Canberra site was chosen to be the new capital.

Being the weekend and still early it was easy to grab a parking spot. It was a good time to arrive. No politicians.

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Once there we did the tourist thing and took the photo that shouts “Look where I am.”

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Parliament House is an impressive building outside and in. The Foyer features black limestone columns, which are full of fossils of sea life that existed some 345 million years ago. I think that was on purpose. If anyone tells a politician that parliament house is full of old fossils the politician can say with a smile “Yes it is, the foyer is lined with them.”

When work started it was the biggest building project undertaken in Australia since the Snowy Mountain Hydro-electric scheme (which was started in 1947 and was completed in 1974. The Hydro scheme consists of sixteen major dams seven power station one pumping station and 225 kilometres of tunnels pipelines and aqueducts so it was big.)

Parliament House was opened on the 9th of May 1988 and at the time it was the largest building in the Southern Hemisphere. Why so big, it is hoped that the building will be big enough to last 200 years. There are 4500 rooms contained in the 300 meters long and 300 meters wide building. It cost $1.1 billion at the time it was the world’s most expensive building, although the original budget was for $220 million to build. It has been designed to look like two boomerangs and it took seven years with a workforce of over 10,000 to complete.

We booked in for a tour and were told to come back in an hour. It gave us time to go to the Great Hall to see the tapestry, (which covers most of the back wall of the Hall) and “The King’s Table.” The table is where the guest of honour or host will sit at any banquets given in the Great Hall. It was made in Queensland from Blackwood, Jarrah, Beach Myrtle and Walnut timbers. Maybe if the table had been in a room on it’s own I may have been impressed with it but it stood below the tapestry and the tapestry really took my breath away so I didn’t really notice the table.

Up close the tapestry just looks like a mash of colour but from a distance it comes alive. It measures 20m by 9m and is one of the largest in the world. It hangs around a set of doors and is said to give anyone that passes through the doors a sense of movement through the Australian landscape. This work of art is based on another work of art. An Arthur Boyd painting (Untitled (Shoalhaven Landscape) inspired by the Shoalhaven River) which he painted in 1984. The painting (along with the tapestry) captures the “essential beauty of our country.” Arthur Boyd’s original painting hangs in one of the main corridors of the building.

The Tapestry took 14 full time weavers over two years to make. It was woven in four sections and the yarns that were used were specially dyed to match the colours in the painting.

The weavers have captured Boyd painting with striking accuracy, well all bar for one thing. Haley’s comet passed through the Australian sky when the tapestry was being weaved so with poetic licence, it has been added to the weave but if you didn’t know it was there you could miss it.

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While walking around waiting for our tour to start we found Boyd’s original art piece. It is large and impressive but for me the tapestry wins hands down.

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We saw Queen Victoria’s writing table, which she used on the 9th of July 1900 at Windsor Castle to sign ‘The Bill’ which established the federation of the Australian colonies into a single nation. The Queen signed a duplicate and it sits on her desk, which was gifted to Australia, along with the inkstand and quill pen.

We had a look at the paintings of the former Prime Ministers. Parliament house has over 6500 items and holds one of Australia’s most significant collections of art. No I don’t know if the portraits of the Prime Ministers have been listed as part of “the most significant collections” or not (I wonder how many paintings of our Prime Ministers are yet to be completed. At the moment it seems we are changing them before the paint has a chance to dry on the last portrait.)

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We also saw some of the clocks that are scattered around the halls and rooms. Ok maybe the clock that was a gift from the Netherlands people which was made in 1772 and given to Australia in 1988 doesn’t have all the bells and whistles but it still is a lovely clock.

If you look you will be able to find more than 2,700 clocks throughout parliament house. Each clock is fitted with two flashing lights. Why? It is to alert the parliamentarians that they are required in the chambers to cast a vote or when a quorum is needed. There is a red light for the Senate and a green one for the House of Representatives. The lights will flash and a bell will also ring through speakers located around the building and courtyards.

It was then time for our tour. Our tour guide took us back through what we had already seen but it was nice to have the added information (most of which you have already read) and into the Chambers.

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In the Chambers there are three galleries, which can seat 500 and three soundproof galleries, which can seat 140. The media has a gallery that is behind the Speaker’s Chair all to themselves. The Chamber is where most of the work takes place but there is a second Chamber. The second Chamber doubles the ability for the members to speak on issues, hopefully that also means that double the work getting done.

The members sit in a horseshoe shape, which is decorated in a distinctive shade of green. The shade is to reflect the Australian landscape and the colour of eucalypts. A three-dimensional skylight floods the room with natural light. Our tour guide pointed out the change in shade for the galleries. In the centre of the horseshoe is a large table. On the left the Prime Minister will sit and on the right the Leader of the Opposition. The Mace takes pride of place at the end of the table. We didn’t get to see The Mace. It is only present when the House is meeting and the Speaker is in the Chair but I did take a photo of it from the information boards outside of the room. It looked impressive.

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The chambers for the Senate are the same shape just a little on the red side instead of green. After we left the chambers we walked past The Reflective Pool. It is located in the centre of the building directly beneath the flagpole. The pool is made from a single piece of South Australian Black Imperial granite. It was specially created so the sound of the running water covers any conversations that may take place nearby. Our tour guide told us it was a popular place for the politicians to have private conversation knowing they would not be over heard by “political opponents or pesky journalists.”

After the tour was over we took the chance to grab a coffee and a bit of a sit down before we ventured to the top.

The rooftop was amazing. It gave a lovely view down to old parliament house.

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As good as the view is for me the flag was even better. The flag marks the exact centre of the building and measures 12.8 meters by 6.4 meters (about the size of half a tennis court) and weights in at approximately 15 kg. It is said there is always light on the flag. If not by the Australian sunshine it is lit by floodlights at night. The flagpole is 81 metres high and made out of polished stainless steel from Wollongong.

Looking over the top grassed area I did wonder how designers of the building sold the idea. “We plan to build of a great new building which would be state of the arts and the envy of other countries. Oh and by the way we will bury most of it under a hill.”

The idea behind the rooftop area was for two reasons. Firstly so Parliament House could be open to the public with the lawn continuing down to the road giving the public easy access to it. Sadly with the risk of terrorist attacks in recent years the lawn has been fenced off for security. Secondly, and probably the most important, to remind the politicians that the average person will always be above them. Nice, I like that idea but I don’t think the pollie’s would remember that on a daily basis.

I did feel a lot of pride as I looked up at our flag. I worked overseas for several years and while those countries were great, I still and will always call Australia home.

We had spent a lot longer at Parliament house than we thought we would. But before we called it a day we took a walk to take in the bigger picture.  We do live in a great country.

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