July 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Old house

By Mungo MacCallum
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Kevin Rudd personifies generational change in Australian politics, in part because he is the first prime minister not to have served an apprenticeship in Old Parliament House. Rudd entered parliament a mere ten years ago, and the amazing erection on Capital Hill has recently celebrated, if that is the right word, its twentieth birthday. Survivors from the old wedding cake are now thin on the ground; as we used to say of the Anzac Day march, the ranks are thinner, but the faces are still proud. The stories of the old days are rapidly becoming ancient history, if not outright legend. But at least Rudd's predecessors in the modern prime ministerial suite - Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard - were there when they happened. They remembered the days when togetherness was not only normal, but unavoidable.

What's more, all of them lay back and enjoyed it. Hawke, even off the grog, was always a party animal, desperate for the love and approbation of his fellows. Keating was a dedicated factional warrior and powerbroker whose influence depended on being constantly visible. And Howard, the least outgoing, nonetheless realised that he was going to have to network to achieve greatness; to this end his office became the venue for after-session parties at which '50s rock 'n' roll was played and fruit punch - frequently spiked - was served. In any case, such was the overcrowding that none of them could avoid constant contact with their fellows. If Old Parliament House had contained battery hens instead of politicians, it would have been instantly condemned by the RSPCA: even chooks are entitled to a cage each. Backbenchers frequently had to share the minuscule offices, together with their staffers; a single case of halitosis could destroy four careers.

As parliament expanded from its relatively humble 1927 numbers, accommodation was built on the roof, with access from one side of the building to the other via an uncovered catwalk. Annexes were tacked on the sides. Eventually the situation became so desperate that there was talk of resuming the third-floor ladies' lavatory for the latest intake of journalists - because, of course, the infrastructure servicing the parliament grew even faster than the actual institution. Unsurprisingly, people spent as little time in their offices as possible; the place was in a state of continuous movement, which made the commingling of the executive and the backbench, the government and the opposition, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and most of all the politicians and the press gallery, the normal state of affairs. At times this could be inconvenient or embarrassing - and it was certainly chaotic. But there is little doubt that the cross-fertilisation made for good government, and for good journalism.

I used to liken the layout of the building to a politician's mind: full of compartments for wildly different purposes set side by side, messages rushing from place to place with more energy than purpose, frequently ending up in dead-end corridors or spilling into the wrong territory altogether. But another biological analogy is more relevant to the changes that have taken place since the move of 1988. King's Hall, the great entrance foyer of Old Parliament House, where even the public could rub shoulders with those they had elected, was considered the building's heart. On either side of it, the chambers of the Reps and the Senate were its lungs, and the library its brain. The members' offices were the individual cells, with the lobbies and corridors the veins and arteries that connected them.

And that vital organ, the liver, was the non-members bar. It was here that the day's intake was refined and processed and prepared for distribution. It was, naturally, a favourite haunt of the press gallery, but political staffers seeking information also spent a lot of time there. In the evening, members, even ministers, would frequently make an appearance to find out what was really going on. It was hard to imagine the place functioning without it. Yet, within months of the move to the new place, the non-members bar had closed for want of custom. Admittedly, it was inconveniently located in the distant depths of the building, but the real problem was that it was no longer necessary, because now every office, whether occupied by politicians, staffers or journalists, had a bar of its own. Not only that: even the humblest backbenchers now occupied the equivalent of self-contained flats. There was no reason ever to leave them, so they didn't. And even if they did, where would they go? Unlike the jumble of the old building, in which people were jammed in willy-nilly wherever they would fit, the new place had been configured by a large team of anally retentive public servants, determined that there would be a place for everyone and everyone would bloody well stay in it. The executive wing was securely locked off from the rest of the place; backbenchers were separated by function and party. And of course, the press gallery was located as far as possible from anything.

The isolation was studied and deliberate. Ministers no longer had to enter the building through an outside door; they could go directly to their offices from a secure underground car park, thus obviating the possibility of being accosted by a colleague, let alone ambushed by a journalist. The accidental-on-purpose encounters that had been the lifeblood of the old place ceased overnight. Members who had met in the corridors or in each other's offices now found it simpler to communicate by fax, and later by email as they mastered the technology. For a visitor who received a pass to penetrate the building's outer defences, the experience was surreal; even on days when parliament was sitting, you could wander for miles through the corridors without meeting another living being. It was as though someone had dropped a neutron bomb.

The architecture itself is magnificent, as is much of the furnishing; the place would work splendidly as a museum of Australian arts and crafts. But this, surely, is a far cry from its primary function. Just before the opening, the broadcaster Mike Carlton did a show from the Great Hall, in which he became positively lyrical about his surroundings. "The building has a spiritual quality," he enthused. "It sings!" Well, perhaps; but if it does, its songs, like many spirituals, tell of oppression and captivity.

True, it is all very orderly, something which unquestionably appeals to Kevin Rudd's bureaucratically trained mind. But he doesn't know what he has missed, and there are fewer and fewer people around to tell him. Mingling with the lesser beings who keep his government going would not only be good manners; the exposure to a multitude of viewpoints could only improve the quality of his administration. It is at times like these that I feel, yet again, that it was a mistake to put the national capital in Canberra, to create an artificial city devoted purely to the processes of government and the public service. How much more appropriate to have moved to a thriving village in a warmer climate? I refer, of course, to one close to my own heart and hearth: Billinudgel.

Along with its more aptly named north-coast neighbour, Federal, Billinudgel made the short-list when nominations for the capital were called, but suffered the disadvantage of being too far from Melbourne - which, these days, would probably be considered a plus. It is used to celebrity: until a few years ago, it was home to the world's oldest publican, Margaret Alice Ring, who ran the Billinudgel Hotel until her death, at age 102. The Billi, now calling itself the Last of the Good Old Country Pubs, has been taken over by her nephew Ken and, among other good works, sponsors an annual race day. Another legacy of MAR, as she was known, was the World Poker Playing Championship, held in the old church hall; MAR was a keen card player, although in her later years she was reputed to cheat. These days, the pub's clientele includes local workers, bikers, farmers and even the odd journalist. What's more, just about all of them voted for Kevin 07. He would be a welcome visitor in the front bar, and it would do him a power of good.

But if he must stay in Canberra, he should at least mingle with the inhabitants. The veteran journalist Alan Reid used to say: Just because you work in the zoo, it doesn't mean you have to associate with the animals. Well, no; but when you owe your job to them, it doesn't hurt to say g'day occasionally.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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