Canberra - it's not Washington
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
Justinian in Canberra, Democracy, Politics, Travel

How democracy works ... Hannah Ryan visits Canberra and the Museum of Australian Democracy ... Not much of a spiritual experience, yet there's something endearing about this version of democracy that doesn't take itself too seriously 

Museum of Australian Democracy

WHAT does one do with a free day in Canberra, the third best city in the world

By mid-morning, I'd already taken a stroll around Lake Burley Griffin and peeked into the High Court, and it wasn't yet Floriade season. So I idled over toward Old Parliament House, now known as the Museum of Australian Democracy and accessible for just $2. As luck would have it the guided tour was leaving in five minutes. Who could resist? 

As our tour group - a busload of octogenarians and me - gathered in the centre of King's Hall a white-haired and bearded man named Peter asked if any of us cared about politics. 

"I don't give two hoots about it," he said, as his audience nodded in agreement. He'd only ended up volunteering as a tour guide at the building after his wife found him watching TV at home and decided he had too much free time on his hands. 

The first stop was the senate, where we were treated to a history lesson. How did Australia's Constitution come about? Well, explained Peter, "a couple of blokes sailed up the Hawkesbury." 

(Wikipedia tells me that those blokes included Edmund Barton and other members of the Constitutional Committee; their vessel was the SS Lucinda.) 

The challenge was the reluctant West Australians. Those "blokes" offered them a deal: they would get equal representation by getting the same number of senate seats as the more populous states. It sounds like a good plan, and it was enough to snare the westies. 

But, Peter told us, holding up a indecipherable graphic in a tatty plastic sleeve, the representation of states' interests in the senate is not really a thing. 

"In all the years since then, they've only voted along state lines in here once," he told us, when Tasmania kicked up a stink about the Franklin Dams. Oh well, so much for that plan. 

We trundled into the House of Reps, where Peter explained representative democracy. The point of politicians, he said, is to stand in your place - "so you can go to the beach or watch TV." 

You don't want to be bothered with politics in your everyday life, and they don't want to hear from you on every issue they decide. "So don't send them a text!" 

As for parliament, it's pretty simple. It's just about money, Peter said. They get it from the people, and then divert it into public programs. Easy as pie.

A curious audience member asked what the long thing on the table in the centre of the chamber was.

"This? This is a security device." Peter explained. "It's a mace. It's for hitting people." 

Next to the mace sat books and books of Hansard, which we learned was named for a Mr. Hansard, who Peter said was convicted of treason (a Google search does not confirm this).

Peter relayed what an ABC journalist who'd worked in the House of Reps for over 25 years had told him: that until Clive Palmer came along, he never saw anybody asleep in there. 

Humble: PM's office at OPH

Next we made it backstage to the pollies' offices. Backbenchers were crammed into tiny rooms and ministers didn't fare much better. The PM's office - used until the time of Bob Hawke - was nondescript and humble, with a loo and shower barely up to the standards of an inner west sharehouse in Sydney. 

The PM's desk backed on to windows facing out onto the courtyard outside. "Anyone could have come along with a gun and had a shot," one tour-participant remarked. Peter agreed with a chuckle. 

The tour meandered along for an hour or so, through corridors with tiny kitchens, offices which backbenchers had once shared with each other and their staff, and unremarkable décor. 

My Canberra trip came hot on the heels of a weekend in Washington DC, where boulevards are lined by grand buildings crafted from marble and etched with Latin quotes. The Supreme Court building is described as a "temple of justice." Monuments like the Lincoln Memorial border on the religious. 

My tour of the Museum of Australian Democracy was not a spiritual experience. This is not a democracy that has tickets on itself.

As he led us through the building, from time to time Peter referred with derision to "that place up the hill", which had recently been enclosed by new (and rather ugly) fences. 

That security device is an unsightly departure from the way we usually do things. 

A few days later, I spotted Australia's Melania Trump, Lucy Turnbull, wandering around Martin Place without a security detail in sight. Is this the flip side of a polity that is too busy at the beach to give two hoots about politics? 

I'm not sure, but even if it means that an ex-PM cops a head-butt from a tipsy DJ from time to time, I think I like it. 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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