Old Parliament House, Part 1

The next day saw us at the old Parliament House. As we entered the building there was a lovely 14-carat gold key on display. It was a gift from the Duke of York (who later became the future King George VI) after he opened Parliament House in 1927. At the time Australia was still consisted one of the great outposts of the British Empire. The key was given to the Speaker of the House of Representatives for safekeeping, as the Speaker was the chief custodian of the Parliament. Now that is a key you don’t want to loose.

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The building was formerly known as the Provisional Parliament House. Interestingly the building was intended to be neither temporary nor permanent as it was thought to last only 50 years. (I would say 50 years would have been permanent to me.) A competition was announced in 1914 to design Parliament House with prize money of £7,000. Shortly after, Australia was engulfed in World War 1 and the competition was cancelled.

Construction for the Parliament House commenced on 28 August 1923 using tradesmen and materials from all over Australian. It was completed in early 1927 with a final cost of £600,000, which was three times over the original estimate. (What is it with our parliament houses always going over budget?)

We made our way into the Chamber to find it is set up to look like any moment the politicians would enter, with Despatch boxes on the central table and a Mace taking pride of place at the end. The Despatch boxes were a gift from King George V to mark the opening of Old Parliament House in 1927. I read that inside the lid of each box there is an inscription signed by the King. (The original Despatch boxes were relocated to the new Parliament House when it was opened.) I was a little disappointed that the lid wasn’t open so I could have seen a copy of the inscription.

There was a tour guide just finishing a tour as we entered the room. As we were looking at the mace she walked by us and said “you can pick it up you know. It isn’t the real one.” Bonus, and of course we did.

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The Mace started out as a medieval weapon of war. The one in use has been made in the traditional way with separate silver parts being connected along the wooden core. It wasn’t has heavy as I was expecting.

I found it a quite special to be able to walk around the Chambers. We could take a close look at everything and even sit in one of the Minister seats. It would have been nice to sit in the Speaker’s chair or the Prime Minister’s chair but these were roped off. I guess everyone would like to do that.

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From the Chamber we walked into the Party Room.

Then into the rooms set aside for the advisers and administrative staff. I found the room full of old memories. No I didn’t work there but all the old equipment I once used brought back memories. I can remember being so impressed with the new electrical typewriter. You didn’t have to take your fingers off the keys to go to the next line. All you had to do was press a button with your little finger as you continued to type. It was just like magic although you still had to put each sheet of paper in by hand. Yes it did make me feel very old when I looked at everything.

The Prime Minister’s office was next. Each Prime Minister decorated the room to their own style. The room we were looking at had been presented as a reflection of when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister. (Bob liked to keep his desk clean) Each Prime Minister (and other senior politicians) could borrow artworks from the art collection of the National Library of Australia to decorate their offices. (This almost came to a crashing stop when a staff member cleared out his predecessor’s rooms and the story goes threw out a painting by Sir Arthur Streeton, “Pastoral.” Ooops.) Bob’s room showed no artwork only the vase in the corner, considering all the artwork he could have chosen from, he chose nothing. I found that very interesting. To me the room look very bland and lacked personality.

The Cabinet rooms were close by. They are said to be the heart of the Australian parliamentary system although they are not mentioned in our Constitution and exists only by convention. The Cabinet room in the old Parliament house is soundproofed, air-conditioned and when it was in use had a special contrivance for getting rid of tobacco smoke. This was said to be a must, as after long sittings of the Cabinet, the room would often have air thick with smoke.

The Cabinet is where senior minsters would meet to discuss and debate the government’s most important legislation and policy decisions. Information on the wall said “The Australian people are not forgotten as the Cabinet travels throughout Australia to engage with the public in Community Cabinet meetings.” That was something I didn’t know.

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After walking the long corridors of Parliament (I never thought I would be saying that) we came across a speaker’s chair. You better believe we took the opportunity to get a photo. It was a little like sitting in you fathers chair. It is so big my feet dangled. I loved it and want one for home. I could really see myself in it watching TV.

The chair was a gift to Australia by the United Kingdom Branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association in 1926. Some of the timbers for the chair have come from 14th century Westminster Hall and some from Lord Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. It was built using traditional medieval methods, so there are no nails or screws and no sandpaper was used to finish off the piece.

The gifting of the chair aroused such interested not only in Australia but also in Britain as well. The English firm Shelley created a motif of the Speaker’s Chair on bone china for the Australian market.

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It is an amazing chair. An interesting fact about the chair is that it is a copy of the chair installed in the Houses of Parliament at Westminster designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. (Among other things Augustus designed not only the chair but also the interior of the Palace of Westminster and the clock tower. The clock tower was named Elizabeth Tower and is the home of the bell known as Big Ben. I thought the tower was Big Ben but it is just the clock.) Augustus designed the chair to take the place of the original one after Westminster was burned down in 1834. Australia were given a copy of that chair, then our chair was used to make a copy after Augustus’s chair was destroyed during the Second World War by German bombs. The copy was made of Australian timber and was a gift to the House of Commons from Australia.

From the Speakers Chair we made out way into the Speaker Suite. The suite was impressive and has been presented as a reflection of when Billy Snedden was speaker. Billy was the last speaker to wear the tradition regalia. (The painting on display is on loan form the National Gallery of Australia.)

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