Clement Macintyre "Parliamentary Architecture and Political Culture*"

Papers on Parliament No. 49
August 2008

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In Book 1 of Paradise Lost, Milton writes of the fall of Satan from Heaven (that, in turn, presages the fall of man), and he describes the design and building of Pandemonium. This was the capital of Hell, and it was where an assembly gathered to debate ‘Their state affairs’.[1] Book 1 concludes with an account of their deliberations:

In close recess and secret conclave sat
A thousand demi-gods on golden seats,
Frequent and full. After a short silence then
And summons read, the great consult began.[2]

Milton was not describing the Parliament of Australia (or the 1000 voice 2020 Summit), but he may, however, have anticipated some aspects of it. Without wanting to labour the analogy too far, drawing some parallels between Pandemonium and the Parliament is tempting. Milton’s Pandemonium emerged from the ground after a ‘crew / Opened into the hill a spacious wound.’[3] It was built ‘in an hour’ and ‘with incessant toil’ by ‘hands innumerable’.[4] Then, when the members of the council entered, they swarmed in like bees—as the Great Hall of Pandemonium reduced the figures to the size of insects.[5]

Today we are gathered in a building that emerged from a wound in a hill, a building that was produced by innumerable hands, [6] and parts of it at least, are of a scale that can intimidate and overawe the many who visit it. And while it may not have been built in an hour (though anyone who has seen the time lapse film of the building of the Parliament may be forgiven for thinking it was), the fast tracking construction techniques meant it was built with great speed. Perhaps more obviously, we can make the connection between ‘pandemonium’, a by-word for a rowdy and chaotic environment, and the occasional unruly behaviour of MPs during critical debates or Question Time that is reported so lovingly by the television news and other media.

However, as anyone who looks below the immediate surface and spends more than a few minutes observing the Parliament knows, the image presented on the nightly news of the shouting, conflict and abuse that can sometimes dominate the set piece presentations is an unfair characterisation. The bulk of the work that takes place is done in a more orderly and civil environment. But whether it is pandemonium, or sober and responsible policy setting and law making, there can be no argument that what takes place in this building shapes the patterns and values of the nation. It is where our ‘state affairs’ are debated.

This is self-evident with regard to the laws that are made. Yet, it is also true in the way that debates and ideas that are proposed and contested here help fashion the culture of the Australian people. Inevitably, as the site for these debates and contests, there has been some attention given to the way that the form of this building and the use of space within it helps to determine the character of the activity that takes place in and around it.

Parliamentary buildings occupy a unique place in that they simultaneously reflect and shape parts of the national culture in which they are found. Many are instantly recognisable and are seen as symbols of national identity. Images of the Palace of Westminster and the Congressional buildings in Washington are frequently used as shorthand references to the UK and the USA, as well as to the democratic and legislative processes that take place within them. The buildings used to house any nation’s parliament are frequently seen as representations of aspects of the national identity as well as working buildings. Studies that look at the relationship between the architecture of parliamentary buildings and the character of the political processes of communities regularly make this point: ‘National parliamentary buildings are among the most prominent symbols of government in any polity,’[7] and (to quote from a study of the relationship between architecture and democracy):

By definition parliament buildings are expressions of the relationship between government and architecture. The buildings demonstrate faith in the cultural identity of a nation, serving two symbolic purposes simultaneously: acting as potent symbols of political power internally, that is to the people within a nation, and also providing an external example to foreigners of the confidence in that nationhood.[8]

The importance of this dual role was recognised in the briefing document prepared as part of the competition to design the permanent Parliament House in Canberra. There is a specific reference to the symbolism that the new building should have:

It should become a major national symbol, in the way that the spires of Westminster or Washington’s Capitol dome have become known to people all over the world.[9]

But in building a symbol, the competing architects also had to accept some quite narrow design requirements. As well as its symbolic value and distinctive architectural identity, the new building was expected to satisfy three other key criteria. These were environmental sensitivity, functional efficiency and an engineering feasibility within a given cost. Then, the seating capacity and disposition of the two chambers was specified as was much of the detail of the accommodation of the executive within the building.

Inevitably, the final design produced mixed feelings. The official guides lavished it with praise and described it as ‘one of the most acclaimed buildings in the world’ and ‘a significant architectural achievement’.[10] An early architectural commentary described it as ‘an elegant resolution’ of the design problem and a ‘triumphal result’.[11] Its early reception also stressed its symbolic value. So, in his opening address, the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, talked of how the design and the location ‘must enhance the traditional place of Parliament in our society.’[12] Others were less kind. Tom Uren thought that the use of space—both internal and external—did not work well. Inside there was less engagement between the members, outside there was not the same ‘public open space’ that could be used for peaceful demonstrations and ‘public meetings in front of the national Parliament’.[13] Barry Jones famously said:

The atmosphere is dead: indeed I have been at crematoria that were more fun. There is no life … I suspect that the huge scale of the building … is a psychological disincentive to venturing out … [it does not have] a good debating chamber. Members are too remote to see the whites of their opponents’ eyes.[14]

These are criticisms from two members of the House of Representatives in 1988 who had spent much time in the old Parliament. Similar views were expressed by others who moved from the old, to work in the new building. Michelle Grattan of the Age wrote of the way that the move to the new Parliament had a significant effect on the way that the various groups that worked within it related to each other as, for example, Ministers were more able to find ‘private escape routes’ to avoid the media.[15] The themes that run through most of these and other criticisms are about the chambers, the location of the executive and public access to the space. It is to these aspects that I will now turn.

Debating chambers are, of course, the central part of any parliamentary building. They are the public face of the Parliament and the site in which the fundamental representation of the community takes place. The broadcasting of Parliament means that together with the external view of the building itself, the two chambers—but especially that of the House of Representatives—provide the mental picture that most Australians have when they think of the Parliament. It is in the chambers that the parliamentary performance is found. The Palace of Westminster in London has been described as the ‘stage upon which some of the most extraordinary events in national history have been enacted and remains … the focus of pageant and politics: the pre-eminent “theatre of state”.’[16] It is perhaps harder to make the same colourful claims about a Parliament building that is just twenty years old, but the two chambers in this building certainly carry the same symbolic roles. The importance of the theatrical aspect was acknowledged by the Parliament itself. The Joint Select Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House in 1970 argued that the chambers in the Australian Parliament were ‘public theatres where the people can witness the interplay of political forces in the legislative processes of government.’[17]

In the Westminster parliaments the chambers are deliberately designed for debate and to accommodate conflict. The oppositional seating arrangements assume and encourage the division of members into two distinct groups that face each other. Many students of the Parliament will be familiar with the origins of this arrangement. Long before the current building at Westminster was constructed in the mid 1800s, the members of the House of Commons met first in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey, then from 1547 in St Stephen’s Chapel.[18] Here the seating reflected the ecclesiastic pattern of opposed benches. Charles Barry’s winning design for the new Parliament replicated these same basic arrangements and this model has influenced the shaping of most of the chambers now found in parliaments through the Commonwealth.[19] So entrenched and ‘natural’ is this arrangement of seating that the design brief to the competing architects left little room for variation. The virtues of the Australian horseshoe version of the Westminster seating plan were detailed:

All seats more or less face the chair;
Independents or parties not aligned with either Government or Opposition can be seated in a neutral position; and
A large Government majority can encroach on the opposition side of the Chamber without destroying the basic duality of the Chamber.

and all entrants were told that they ‘must use the seating layouts’ shown in the briefing document. After these requirements were met, competitors were free to determine the shape of the new chambers though again, they were advised that:

the chambers are used for debates, and that a sense of intimacy is highly desirable. The Chambers should not be thought of as auditoria and the room volumes should promote an atmosphere conducive to face-to-face debates.[20]

However, the fact that Barry Jones could not see the whites of his opponents’ eyes suggests that face-to-face confrontation did not remain a priority.

A bigger chamber necessarily changes the mood and the dynamic of the debates. People behave differently in differently shaped space. There are many studies that show how differently configured rooms will ‘induce’ particular patterns of behaviour.[21] There is anecdotal evidence as well. A few weeks ago, commenting on the outcomes of the 2020 Summit, Glyn Davis acknowledged that the meetings in the more formal rooms were conducted with a different feel than those that met in less formal spaces.[22]

Large and more open spaces tend to mean that people speak more slowly.[23] Smaller and more intimate rooms can lead to greater tension. Almost every writer who has discussed the importance of the size of the debating chamber has cited the speech given by Churchill (as did Glyn Davis) ahead of the reconstruction of the Commons chamber after it was destroyed by German bombing in 1941. Churchill argued that the temptation to re-build the chamber so that it was finally large enough to accommodate every member should be resisted.[24] What is less commonly known is that the limited size was a deliberately designed feature of Barry’s bombed chamber. The directions given for the 1835 competition specified that the chamber should not be large enough to give every member a seat. Although there was no ‘direction for how the chambers [the Lords and the Commons] should relate to each other’, entrants were given clear directions that the Commons should retain its ‘oppositional character’ and that there should be ‘seats for only 428 of the 658 members’.[25]

In arguing against rebuilding with a larger chamber, Churchill asserted that the shape and size of the Commons was a crucial force in influencing the character of the debates that had occurred within it: ‘We shape our Buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.’[26] It was important for Churchill that the Parliament, and specifically the Commons, was ‘a strong, easy, flexible instrument of free Debate’. He believed that the way to achieve this was an ‘intimate’ debating chamber with a sense of ‘crowd and urgency’. A small chamber meant that the important speeches were delivered to a congested House and ministers needed to be able to command the space and draw strength from the tension. It also meant that the great majority of debates would not be in ‘the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty chamber’. Admittedly, several back-bench members were less persuaded than those on the front-bench by the merits of re-building without enough seats, but one at least one remarked on the decline in quality of debates during the time that the Commons were forced to meet in the (slightly longer) Lords chamber.[27]

Critics of this argument point out that adversarial environments are not necessarily conducive to the best policy outcomes. Where Churchill saw merits in political tension and ‘urgency’, others have argued that this may lead to fruitless conflict, uncooperative and ultimately, unproductive behaviour.[28] Some have argued that the oppositional form suits some, but not all, members. One of the first to speak against Churchill was Nancy Astor—the first woman to take a seat in the Commons. Arguing against the lining up of government and opposition directly facing each other she said: ‘I do not believe that the fights in the House of Commons helped democracy.’[29] In making this case Astor was identifying one of the key problems with the adversarial system. It can work to disadvantage any member who does not relish, and flourish in, a conflictual environment. Marian Sawyer has usefully made the point that ‘women perceive themselves as doing less well in the adversarial chamber politics characteristic of majoritarian Westminster systems.’[30] She suggests that the physical organisation of the chamber—the layout of the seats with opposing parties facing each other—encourages ‘masculine styles of politics’. This, in theory at least, is more likely to lead to the dominance of those who can assert their strength of will over the collective assembly. Similarly, this arrangement is unlikely to advance the diversity of voices that a truly representative chamber should accommodate. As she proposes, one solution might be to consider arranging the seating not by party allegiance but by region, with members from adjoining constituencies sitting next to each other (as is the case in Sweden) or by lot (as is the case in Iceland).[31]

While it is true that that a differently configured chamber—either semicircular like those in the US Congress and many European Parliaments—or a mixing of the parties, may lead to debates assuming a different character, there is little evidence that parliamentary conflict would diminish. Indeed, it is notable that those parliaments where the tension builds to the point of direct physical confrontation tend to be the so-called ‘consensual’ or ‘non-adversarial’ chambers. Any search for examples of debates that have broken down and led to violence, in fact shows that they are much less frequently found in Westminster style oppositional chambers than they are in semi-circular ones.[32] Some of this might be accounted for by the fact that managed and ritualised conflict is part of the design of the Westminster system. By institutionalising and accommodating conflict in the seating and the oppositional form, the chance of ‘unmanaged’ and more physical conflict is diminished. Part of it, of course, also reflects the very different political practices that operate in different parliaments and the diverse political parties and representatives that varied electoral systems generate.

More generally, there is an intrinsic strength in the adversarial system. We should not lose sight of the fact that debate—the contesting of ideas—is vital if a democracy is to stay strong. If I turn again to Milton, in an essay against censorship he wrote:

out of many moderat / varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly / disproportionall arises the goodly and the gracefull / symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure.[33]

A similar architectural metaphor is used by a contemporary of Milton’s, Andrew Marvell. In a poem reflecting upon the achievements of Cromwell’s ‘attempts to establish constitutional order’,[34] he sees oppositional debate as necessary to give the outcome strength. He wrote:

While the resistance of opposed Minds,
The Fabrick as with Arches stronger binds[35]

In other words, the dynamic of debate is important. Policies that have weathered testing and challenge by spirited opposition are likely to be better refined and better developed and—like Marvell’s arches—more likely to hold up. The challenge is determining the best space and best arrangements within that space to promote productive debate. I will leave it to those who have sat as Members in this Parliament to say whether or not the chambers are too large—but to my eye, even during the major set piece announcements when the chambers are full—there is not the same air of close engagement and productive tension that can be found in more crowded assemblies.

So we can see that in the Australian parliamentary model there is some friction between the belief that the arrangement of space produces a dynamic exchange of ideas, and the idea that this very arrangement may diminish the expression of a broad representation of views. There is, I think, a further tension built into the structure of this Parliament. That is the co-location of the executive and the legislature. The nature of the changing relationship between executive and parliaments is one of the perennial topics of investigation by political scientists in Australia.[36] As with governments in Europe and North America, the Australian story is one of growing executive power at the expense of the Parliament.[37] This is a result of several factors.[38] Principal among these is the scale and scope of policy matters that governments now routinely deal with. A study conducted among MPs and parliamentary officials in the late 1980s showed that 75 per cent of the MPs and 70 per cent of the officials interviewed either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with the proposition that ‘increasing complexity … made it harder for the Parliament to check the Executive.’[39] Moreover, any examination of the responsibilities assumed by governments over time shows an extraordinary and consistent increase in the number of executive decisions and legislative initiatives.[40] Commentaries from more than 25 years ago drew attention to the diminished time that Parliament had to consider bills in detail, and there can be no question that time is more pressured now than it was in the early 1980s.[41]

Added to this very considerable growth in the complexity of policy issues, we have seen a growth in the volume of data that informs and influences policy making, and a much more substantial (frequently international) policy focus required by government. One last key factor that must also be recognised is the way that the media, especially the electronic media, tends to focus principally on the Prime Minister and, to a lesser extent, on a narrow range of ministers, rather than on the parliamentary processes that endorse or refine legislative initiatives. All these factors—with others (I haven’t for example, touched at all on the role of parties)—have meant that the Australian political process has been subject to similar forms of concentration to those seen elsewhere. The executive is able to operate from a position of strength and dominance, and is frequently able to prevail over the legislature and so limit the capacities of the legislature to undertake its classic roles of scrutiny and the maintenance of government accountability.

Then, in Australia, there is one further factor that reinforces the power of the executive. This is the fact that, by deliberate design, the key executive offices are located in the same building as the legislature. This arrangement seems to be a peculiarly Australian practice. Or more accurately, a peculiarly Commonwealth government practice, as the states maintain separate sites for their parliaments and executive offices. The account that is generally given for the co-location of the executive and the Parliament is that there was no alternative when the Federal Parliament re-located from Melbourne to Canberra in 1927.[42] The administrative centres of the federal departments remained in Melbourne for some time and the Prime Minister and ministers found space in the provisional Parliament House—and then just remained there. This accounts for how and why the executive originally found itself working in the parliamentary buildings, but it does not really explain why they remained there for the following 61 years or why they were given their own discrete accommodation in the new Parliament House.

There is no simple answer to these questions. Cost would have been a major disincentive in the years before the Second World War. Then, it may well be that inertia and different priorities combined to discourage the construction of a separate executive building as Canberra grew in the post war years. However, for whatever reason, there seems to have been minimal debate about using the opportunity offered by the building of the new Parliament House to find a new location for the executive offices. The various parliamentary committees that considered the new Parliament House seem to have operated on the assumption that a larger space for ministerial offices would naturally form part of the new building.[43] Perhaps it was simply the case that after so long:

A political and bureaucratic culture had emerged which resisted the resumption of [a] normal ministerial presence amongst Federal bureaucrats.[44]

By the time the design briefs went to the competing architects, the co-location of the executive and the legislature had been turned into a virtue and the claimed ‘advantages’ of this arrangement were listed. In essence, these were saving time on travel and ease of communication between ministers and between ministers and other parliamentarians.[45] So, the executive ‘element’ of the proposed new Parliament House was explicitly defined and had to meet narrow and clear criteria. Chief among those was the need for separation and security. There are echoes here of Milton’s ‘close recess and secret conclave’.[46]

The competing architects were told that ‘Security is of paramount importance’, that the ‘Executive Government element should be a clearly defined zone’, and that connections with other parts of the building should be kept to a minimum. The area had to be ‘secure and self contained’, but not ‘isolated’ as the ‘interaction patterns of Ministers and staff preclude that’. There was to be secure entry to this area from the rest of the parliamentary building, but there was also to be a ‘private entrance for the sole use of Ministers’ with ‘direct and secure access to their vehicles in a location away from public areas’. The schematic diagram that accompanied the written brief had the main public foyer of the Parliament at the furthest point from the executive and showed a ‘very low’ expected pattern of usage or traffic. The next closest to the fringe were the senators and members with low traffic anticipated. The area placed closest to the executive and expected to produce the highest volume of traffic was ‘Refreshments’.[47]

Now there can be no argument that security was of growing importance in the late 1970s—the Hilton Hotel bombing in Sydney had occurred in February 1978—and the design brief was in some ways quite prescient in its anticipation of this as a priority. Yet the stress placed upon it suggests an obvious problem with the assumptions underpinning the conception of the new building. If security was paramount, if it was vital that ministers should have a secure and private car entrance that was remote from public and media gaze, why were they being housed in what is—or what should be—a public building? We know from the design brief that ministers’ suites were expected to be no more than two minutes from the chambers.[48] This, of course means that ministers could be working at their desk and be available for divisions. However, appearances in the chambers constitute a relatively minor part of a minister’s life. To take just the House of Representatives, the number of sitting days when ministers need to be physically in the building averages somewhere between 65–75 a year. In comparison to other parliaments, this is a low number. The average number of sitting days per year for the Commons in the 26 years before 2004–05 was 160 (and peaked at 244 in one year) yet ministers seem able to balance their legislative duties at Westminster with their departmental duties elsewhere in Whitehall.[49]

Many of the problems of co-location have been covered by others. Before the building was complete, Terry Fewtrell had argued that the accommodation of the executive in its own discrete wing of the new building reflected ‘the strength of the Executive vis-à-vis the Parliament in recent times’. Further, he feared that the concentration of the power of the executive would be increased when all the ministers were concentrated into a single area, rather than being spread through the building as had been the case in the Provisional Parliament House.[50] In his study of the relationship between the executive and the Parliament, Greg McIntosh cited Fewtrell’s work and numerous other commentators—a mixture of MPs and external observers—who all expressed concerns about the retreat of the executive to a ‘citadel’ in which they would be less accessible to backbench MPs during their time in the parliamentary buildings.[51] Significantly, several commented that it was not just the formal access that was diminished, but the fact that casual meetings in the corridors became less frequent meant that there was a reduced interaction and exchange of ideas. This was also a problem for the media. McIntosh’s study shows that 61 per cent of MPs agreed that face to face communication had become harder while 94 per cent of those interviewed from the Press Gallery agreed.[52] As we have already seen, Michelle Grattan was one who made similar criticisms.[53]

The lament by many who had worked in the provisional Parliament House that it was no longer possible to bump into ministers while passing through King’s Hall or while having a coffee, is a recurrent theme. The importance of this was recognised in the design brief that called for the maintenance of the easy communication between members and ministers. However, the brief also recognised—as unfortunately we must today—that security is of prime importance, and specified that a secure site for the executive was essential. These competing requirements led to an unfortunate outcome. We now have the executive in a discrete wing within the Parliament House. This means that senators and members are unlikely to pass through this section while going about their normal daily activities and the ‘casual’ access of the media to ministers is restricted. Surely a better solution would have been to acknowledge the reality of the separation and to physically divide the legislature from the executive. This would mean that ministers spent most of their working days in their departments (and would possibly foster greater levels of ministerial responsibility). Then, on those days that the Parliament was sitting, ministers could work from offices distributed through the secure parts of the building and engage more readily with other parliamentarians and the media.

If the Parliament was the site of just the legislature and not also the home of the executive, then I think it would be different place. Having the legislature and the executive housed in their own buildings would allow each to function in a way less inhibited by the presence of the other. If this building was unambiguously the place of the elected representatives of the people rather than being simultaneously the symbol of the government then visitors, elected members, and those who work here in other capacities would view the building in a different light. While I cannot quantify this in any measurable way, it is self-evident that the perceptions of a place change the way that it is used and the way that occupants engage within it.

I have already commented on the lack of casual interaction that was once a feature of a central space such as King’s Hall in the Old Parliament House. All the anecdotal reports that I have received is that the equivalent space in this building—Members’ Hall—does not work in the same way. Like King’s Hall in the Old Parliament, Members’ Hall in this building is the link between the two chambers, but there are two key differences. Firstly, Members’ Hall is not the same pivot point that King’s Hall was in the Old Parliament House. When it is used by members and senators, it as a thoroughfare rather than as a meeting place. Secondly, there is no access for the general public. This means that there is not the same sense of energy and bustle as was the case in the Old Parliament House. Anyone who had the chance to stand in the middle of King’s Hall and watch the interaction of the ministers, members, press and public while the Parliament sat in that building will see a stark contrast with the level of engagement that takes place in Members’ Hall here. The architects intended this central space to be a place where reflection and informal discussion would occur: ‘the literal and symbolic meeting place between the two Houses’.[54] The pool of water reflecting the movement of the clouds and the flag above was intended to connect the members with the outside world. But there must be better ways to get the outside world into the Parliament. This is, I think, one of the unresolved problems. The scale of the building and the number of people working in it mean that the building has assumed some aspects of an insular and enclosed community. This should not be a surprise, as it was clear from the start that this would be in issue. The brief that guided the architects made reference to the building operating with some of the resources of a small self-contained community and, as commentators have pointed out, the building and its working population is bigger than a small town.[55]

Of course some of this could not be resolved by the architects. The decision to place the building on top of Capital Hill meant that the Parliament would always be remote from its own community. It is not easy to step outside the Parliament and mix with the workers and residents of the city here in the way that it is in most of the Australian state and territory parliaments.[56] The building is not physically adjacent to a commercial or residential centre. It is designed to be approached by car. That means that most people who work here arrive by car and enter directly from the car park. Visitors who come by car similarly have the rather drab concrete interior of the car park as their first impression. In fact, the building is best approached by a walk up Federation Mall from the back of the Old Parliament House, but this is scarcely practical for most visitors. The relative isolation of the building means that crowds are less likely to gather spontaneously than in other public places. Having said that, one of the joys of the building is the way in which those who are on foot can choose to ignore the entrance and keep going so that they are walking across (at least part of) the roof of the building. This sense of the people being above the representatives was one of the key conceptual features of the architects and, even now with limited access, it still works—albeit that there have been times when even this is denied because of the ever-present security concerns.

Those visitors who do enter do not, in fact, get to see all that much of the building. It is true that they are certainly likely to be impressed by the foyer and the Great Hall. The scale and finish of these rooms are designed to impress. In Milton’s Pandemonium it was the ‘porches wide, but chief the spacious hall’ that reduced the occupants to the scale of bees as they swarmed within it.[57] In the public spaces of this building people similarly bustle about as though bees in clusters. Visitors can then enter the galleries of the chambers and they can peer over the balcony at the (generally deserted) Members’ Hall. However, not much more than this is on open access. I accept that the world has changed and that appropriate security measures in places such as this are needed but applying a cordon sanitaire to all other areas does nothing to promote the healthy engagement between the citizens and their elected members in this the most symbolic of political spaces. Isolation is not good for democracy.

So, to conclude: parliaments and parliamentary buildings are more than just institutions and places where elected representatives meet and consider legislation. They have a symbolic role as the theatre of state, and the buildings themselves often come to represent or reinforce ideas of national identity.[58] This means that in taking stock of this building over its first twenty years we need to consider not just how well it works as a modern and efficient parliamentary space, but also how well it represents the character of Australian democratic traditions. There can be no argument that the increased space and improved facilities means that it should be a more productive work environment than the Old Parliament. Whether we can be as clear about the more theatrical or symbolic roles is less evident.

In this talk I have considered the way that the space in the chambers works and whether it encourages or acts against productive debates, I have considered the implications of siting the executive in the same building as the legislature, as well as the effect of limited public access. Clearly, these are not things that can be—or, more accurately—will be changed. The chambers will not be re-designed, the executive will not be moved and security concerns will not disappear. Given this, what can be done? I will finish by suggesting some of the goals that possible reforms should be aimed towards. And I do so, not pretending that these will resolve my concerns, but perhaps hoping to spark some debate or further consideration of these issues.

Firstly, some effort should be directed towards enhancing the independence of the House of Representatives and, to a lesser extent, the Senate (lesser for the Senate because it already has a greater level of independence). Breaking the dominance of the parties has been the dream, albeit forlorn and unrealised, of many academic critics. It is unrealised largely because the adoption of reforms depends upon the support of the parties and, not surprisingly, they take a bit of convincing. However, such initiatives as a more formally independent Speaker, distribution of the chairs of committees more evenly, Parliament’s control of an independent budget, better resources for back-bench and non-government members are all obvious steps forward for any Parliament. Similarly, electoral reform for the House would generate a more representative range of voices. One way or another, the more that the elected representatives feel capable of resisting the dominance of the executive, then the more the Parliament will be able to genuinely reflect the ‘interplay of political forces in the legislative processes of government’.[59]

Similarly, if re-locating the executive to a new building is not feasible, then some effort should be made to increase the informal interaction between ministers and other parliamentarians during sitting times. Perhaps a redistribution of the space so that there is a better mix of offices would allow for the casual encounters that were a feature of the Old Parliament House without threatening the security of any member. This might mean that some ministers find it harder to avoid the media—but I don’t see this to be a particular problem.

Lastly, how can this ‘people’s house’ be made more accessible to the public without compromising the security requirements? This has both symbolic and physical dimensions. If the Parliament—that is the elected representatives—can demonstrate their independence from the executive, if there is a greater sense of engagement and open debate, if the executive is less remote in its ‘secret conclave’ then I think that the Parliament may be seen to be more unambiguously an open and accessible place to consider what Milton called our ‘state affairs’. If even some of this can be achieved, then the community may well feel more engaged and able to feel that they are part of our ‘theatre of state’.


Question — I am a resident of Canberra, and I have been watching Parliament’s activities for a few years. You make the argument that the size of the debating chambers cuts down the exchange of ideas. My feeling from watching Parliament for so long is that very little exchange of ideas takes place in the debating chambers. I suspect that most of the ideas come from Senate committees, or other committees. They are more intimate spaces, and that is where exchange of ideas takes place.

Clement Macintyre — It wasn’t so much that the size cuts down on the capacity to generate ideas, but the way in which those ideas are then debated and challenged, and tested. I have not sat in the Parliament, I have not even been on the floor of the chamber in this building, but every time I look at it I get a feeling that it is lacking in a sense of energy even during big and serious debates. There is not the same bite and energy and fire that I think is productive of challenging and testing the ideas that may well come from committees. I probably wouldn’t disagree at all with your main proposition.

Question — You were discussing how the design of the Parliament reflects the democracy which it embodies. But you have only discussed this in terms of the actual sitting chambers and the siting of the executive. I may say that I agree with you completely on the executive, having a lot of knowledge of the South Australian Parliament, which is so different. But you didn’t consider the other parts of the building which are very much integral to its function: the Library, the meeting rooms, the lack of child care in the original design of this building, all reflect also on the democracy which gives rise to it, and also the workings of the building and the interactions of the people there. I wonder if you would care to comment on some of these ancillary facilities.

Clement Macintyre — I was always told by Janine Haines that it was a choice of child care or a swimming pool and the boys won, to quote Janine. I am not sure if that is true, but it is a good story.

I think you are right. It is the informal engagement that often shapes the character of a Parliament as much as the debating spaces, and the buildings are partly influencial in the manner and the nature of that engagement and partly it is the political culture that somehow is intrinsic to the people who are elected. As I was reflecting on things to say today I was told by one senator that she was banned from dancing in the corridor s after one raucous night. I am told that the original bar is closed down and that is where, in the opinion of a number of people, informal engagement and exchange of ideas across political divides would take place. Watching Lateline or something like that and sharing a beer with somebody from the other side of politics, you would be able to get a different feel and a different sense of where ideas were coming from and what lay behind them, and that level of informal engagement perhaps takes place less than it once did.

Having said that, it is inconceivable that we could go back to the Old Parliament House. The number of people working here, you mentioned the Parliamentary Library, and the resources and the facilities available in this building are extraordinary and it would be inconceivable to turn our backs as it were and undo that and I am not arguing for that for a moment. I suppose it is a plea for using the opportunity of the 20th anniversary of the completion of this building to think about how it is working and thinking about whether or not there are ways that we can tweak some of the behaviour patterns that may take place within it.

Question — I am a local and independent tour guide, so I deal with the public in this building. You mentioned about the limited public access. I was wondering whether you had any statistics or had looked at comparative figures of visitors to the actual public galleries of the debating chambers, compared to other systems around the world. It has always been my impression on visiting others that that part is much more open here.

Clement Macintyre — I don’t have figures, but it is good point you make. The design brief said that there should be much larger public spaces around the chambers in this Parliament than was the case in the provisional Parliament House and also mandated the glazing-in of a couple of the galleries so that they could be used for educational purposes without disrupting the proceedings of the house. I think they are excellent initiatives.

Different parliaments in different parts of the world have different characteristics. It is very difficult to get into some of them. I was recently in Rome and went to have a look at the Italian Parliament and got told that it is open for an hour on one Sunday a month or something like that. There is a stark contrast between that and the access that the citizens of Australia have to this building and that is a great thing for us. I think it is one of the most popular tourist attractions, at least in the early years; I think the numbers have declined a bit in recent years in terms of visits but it is clearly a place people come to when they are visiting Canberra. That is all great. I don’t think though that they get to see enough of it, and if you come in as I have done several times myself, as a tourist having a look around, you don’t see Members of Parliament, you don’t see the working spaces, other than peering in from above. I am conscious as I’m saying that that we have to recognise the importance of security but some way or another we should be thinking about ways to make that balance more effectively than it is at the moment.

Question — The question of the role of the physical nature of the building and the way Parliament operates is obviously a very complex one. I am not sure that most of the things you mentioned weren’t happening anyway. When I was first a public servant in Canberra, ministers did have offices in their departments, and I can remember that you would often see the minister. That stopped long before new Parliament House. It stopped because of movements within the government, not because of the structures of Parliament House. So I am wondering whether the building really matters that much or whether what we are seeing is simply the reflection of trends that were already happening.

One final question: Are kids still permitted to roll down the lawns from the top of Parliament House? I can remember when my kids were young they used to have a wonderful time rolling down the grass. You used to be able to go up to the top and they used to roll all the way down. This was a marvellous symbolism and I think made a marvellous comment: that my kids were having a great time rolling over the top of the parliamentarians doing their duties.

Clement Macintyre — I take your point about the ministers. I think it would be a good thing if the ministers were back in their departments a bit more. I am not a local in Canberra but the stories that I hear is that there are nice ministerial offices in many of the departmental buildings and they are not used all that much by the ministers, and I suspect that it would be a good thing both for the departments as well as the ministers if they were used a it more. But if that is not going to happen then I suppose it is my plea for the distribution of ministerial offices throughout this building, rather than having them tucked away in a separate and secure area of their own. I think if we can’t get the engagement of parliamentarians with the public because of questions of security then let’s make sure that ministers can’t hide away from the accredited journalists in the building, and the most junior backbencher who is also here.

Absolutely I agree with you about the roof. I remember as an undergraduate student when the design of this building was announced and when the competition result was announced thinking what a splendid innovation that we would be able to walk over the top of the elected members; the symbolism of that is superb. I am not sure when complete access went but I can report, happily, that I was here a week ago with my young son who was doing somersaults down the grass. He stopped as the police started walking towards him in a meaningful way. So maybe the balance isn’t quite right but there is still some sense of that passage across the top.

Question — I tried to walk up there this morning to see what would happen. I met a barrier and was glared at quite intimidatingly by a security guard, so I didn’t feel that the sort of free and easy access over the top that I used to know was still there, and that’s a pity.

Clement Macintyre — Perhaps there is an echo there of the earlier comment about the building reflecting the patterns of democratic behaviour in Australia, and we have seen changes in recent years that are also being reflected here. It is not something that I enjoy seeing.

Question — We had a lecture some time ago from Sir Bernard Crick, a very distinguished British political scientist, and he told me afterwards that he was convinced that reform of the Westminster Parliament had been greatly inhibited by the neo-Gothic design of the building: dark, gloomy, medieval. It made members think they were subjects of a feudal monarchy; whereas the classical design of the Capitol in Washington encourages members think they are Roman senators, people of great importance, so there may be something in that.

Question — Is the complaint about the design of this building more about modern architecture, comparing it to Westminster, say, and the old Parliament House? I was in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Parramatta this week, designed by the same architect, and the parish priest was complaining about how he wasn’t interacting with the parishioners any more, because of the design of the building. So it is a common problem obviously; beautiful and all as the Cathedral is. I think maybe this is just modernity rather than anything wrong with this particular building.

Clement Macintyre — I hear the comments about the appearance of Westminster and the provisional Parliament House down the hill in front of us here. They are terrific buildings and I love going into them. It is a great joy for me to go into the House of Commons, and every time I get the chance to go into the House of Representatives in the old building the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I think they are very important symbolic places for our democratic forms. This building is too, though. I wanted not to like this building when I first started thinking about it. I have been back to it several times and I have looked at it from different angles and in different ways, sometimes just walking in as an unescorted tourist doing the walk-through and other times coming in with members and having a bit of a hunt around the back. I think most times I come here I like it a bit more, in terms of the architecture and the aesthetics of it. It is an impressive piece of architecture however you look at it. I am just not persuaded that some of the ways in which it is operating on the inside are as reflective of the symbolic values that the architecture displays.

If I could have one wish, perhaps it would be to reconsider the discrete and separate location of the executive. I think that is a do-able and achievable change. The chambers are not going to be redesigned, and security is not suddenly going to cease to be an issue. I would be interested to see what happened if the ministers were scattered through—not so much that suddenly we would get better legislation and all the problems of the world disappear, but I think that the elected members of the Parliament would feel that the Parliament operated in a different way, and a way that suited them a bit more.


*          This paper was presented as a lecture in the Senate Occasional Lecture Series at Parliament House, Canberra on 9 May 2008.

[1]                 John Milton, Paradise Lost, i 775, John Leonard (ed.), London, Penguin, 2003.

[2]           Milton, Paradise Lost, i 795–8.

[3]           Milton, Paradise Lost, i 685–6.

[4]           Milton, Paradise Lost, i 697–9.

[5]           Milton, Paradise Lost, i 767–70.

[6]           Australia’s Parliament House. The Meeting Place of Our Nation. Canberra, Joint House Department, 1989. Page 26 suggests that more than 10 000 workers were employed in the building of the Parliament House.

[7]           Charles Goodsell, ‘The Architecture of Parliaments: Legislative Houses and Political Culture’, British Journal of Political Science, vol. 18, no. 3, July 1988, p. 287.

[8]           Deyan Sudjic and Helen Jones, Architecture and Democracy. London, Laurence King, 2001, pp. 42–3.

[9]           Parliament House, Canberra: Conditions for a Two-Stage Competition. Canberra, Parliament House Construction Authority, 1979, vol. 2, p. 15.

[10]          Parliament House Pictorial Guide. Canberra, Public Relations Section, Joint House Dept., [nd], p. 1; and Australia’s Parliament House: the Meeting Place of Our Nation. Canberra, Joint House Department, 1989, p. 6.

[11]          Haig Beck (ed.), Parliament House, Canberra: a Building for the Nation. Sydney, Collins, 1988, p. 30.

[12]          Bob Hawke, address at the opening of the new Parliament House, cited in Kerry Sibraa, ‘Australia’s New Parliament House’, Parliamentarian, vol. 69, no. 3, July 1988, p. 164.

[13]          Tom Uren, ‘Introduction’ in James Warden, A Bunyip Democracy. The Parliament and Australian Political Identity, Canberra, Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1995, p. viii.

[14]          Barry Jones, Age, 25 October 1988, cited in Greg McIntosh, Rounding Up the Flock? Executive Dominance and the New Parliament House. Canberra, APSA-Parliamentary Fellow Monograph, 1989, p. 44 and James Weirick, ‘Don’t you believe it: critical responses to the new Parliament House’, Transition, Summer/Autumn 1989, p. 9.

[15]          Michelle Grattan, ‘Sharing the Same Kennel: the Press in Parliament House’, in Julian Disney and John Nethercote (eds), The House on Capital Hill. Sydney, Federation Press, 1996, p. 218.

[16]          Christine Riding and Jacqueline Riding, The Houses of Parliament. History Art Architecture. London, Merrell, 2000, p. 8.

[17]          Joint Select Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, 1970; cited in Parliament House, Canberra: Conditions for a Two-Stage Competition, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 29.

[18]          Harry Boardman, The Glory of Parliament. London, Allen and Unwin, 1960.

[19]          Albeit sometimes with a ‘U-shape’ turning of the benches at the end furthest from the Speaker. For a discussion of the rebuilding of Westminster after the fire of 1834 see Alexandra Wedgwood, ‘The New Palace of Westminster’ in Riding and Riding, op. cit., pp. 113–135.

[20]          Parliament House, Canberra: Conditions for a Two-Stage Competition, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 30.

[21]          Roger Baker, Ecological Psychology: Concepts and Methods of Studying the Environment of Human Behaviour. Stanford University Press, 1968; and Paul Carter, Repressed Spaces: the Poetics of Agoraphobia. London, Reaktion, 2002.

[22]          ABC Television, 20 April 2008.

[23]          Goodsell, op.cit., p. 297.

[24]          See for example, Ken Coghill and Despina Babbage, ‘Seating in Legislatures’, Legislative Studies, vol. 5 no. 2, Spring 1991, pp. 15–22, Goodsell, op. cit., pp. 287–302, Gavin Stamp ‘ “We Shape Our Buildings and Afterwards Our Buildings Shape Us.” Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and the Rebuilding of the House of Commons’ in Riding and Riding, op. cit., pp. 149-161; and Jenny Hutchinson, ‘Setting the Scene’ in Julian Disney and John Nethercote (eds), The House on Capital Hill. Sydney, Federation Press, 1996, pp. 1–11.

[25]          Deyan Sudjic and Helen Jones, Architecture and Democracy. London, Laurence King, 2001, pp. 69 and 74.

[26]          Winston Churchill, Hansard, Commons, 28 October 1943.

[27]          Godfrey Nicholson, Hansard, Commons, 28 October 1943.

[28]          Coghill and Babbage, op.cit., p. 17.

[29]          Nancy Astor, Hansard, Commons, 28 October 1943.

[30]          Marian Sawyer, ‘Parliamentary Representation of Women: From Discourses of Justice to Strategies of Accountability’ International Political Science Review, vol. 21, no. 4, 2000, p. 369.

[31]          Ibid. pp. 369–70.

[32]          Clement Macintyre, ‘Designing Debate: the Implications of Parliamentary Architecture’, Legislative Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 1997, pp. 46–7.

[33]          John Milton, ‘Areopagitica: A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England.’ The Complete Prose Works of John Milton. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1953–1982, vol. 2, page lines 11–14.

[34]          David Aers and Gunther Kress, ‘Historical Process and Individuals in Areopagitica’, in David Aers, Bob Hodge and Gunther Kress (eds), Literature, Language and Society in England 1580–1680. Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1981, p. 173.

[35]          Andrew Marvell, ‘First Anniversary of the Government under his Highness the Lord Protector’, lines 96, 97. The Complete Poems. Elizabeth Story Donno (ed.), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972, p. 129.

[36]          For a good overview of the history of the relationship see Jim Chalmers and Glyn Davis, ‘Power: Relations between the Parliament and the Executive’, Parliamentary Library Research Paper 14, 2000–01.

[37]          Thomas Poguntke and Paul Webb (eds), The Presidentialization of Politics: a Comparative Study of Modern Democracies. Oxford University Press, 2005.

[38]          See Michael Keating and Pat Weller, ‘Cabinet Government: An Institution Under Pressure’, in Michael Keating, John Wanna and Pat Weller (eds), Institutions on the Edge? Capacity for Governance. St Leonards, NSW, Allen and Unwin, 2000.

[39]          McIntosh, Rounding Up the Flock? op. cit., pp. 34–36. Members of the media were more forthright: seventy-nine per cent of them strongly agreed or agreed with the proposition.

[40]          Gordon Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988: Ten Perspectives. Carlton, Vic., MUP, 1989.

[41]          Gordon Reid, ‘The Parliamentary Contribution to Law Making’, Politics, vol. 15, no. 1, 1980, pp. 40–41.

[42]          Terry Fewtrell, ‘Parliamentary Order’, Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 44, no. 4, December 1985, p. 324, McIntosh, Rounding Up the Flock? op. cit., p. 17, and Weirick, ‘Don’t You Believe It’, op. cit., p. 44.

[43]          See for example, letter from Edward St. John (Member for Warringah) to The Joint Select Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, 12 September 1968.

[44]          Weirick, ‘Don’t You Believe It’, op. cit., p. 34.

[45]          Parliament House, Canberra: Conditions for a Two-Stage Competition, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 22.

[46]          Milton, Paradise Lost, i 775.

[47]          Parliament House, Canberra: Conditions for a Two-Stage Competition, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 65.

[48]          Beck, Parliament House, op. cit., p. 158.

[49]          House of Commons Sittings since 1979,


[50]          Fewtrell, ‘Parliamentary Order’, op. cit., pp. 325–6. However, see also Fewtrell, ‘Welcome To Our House’, Canberra Times, 9 May 2008, in which he is less concerned about the location of the executive.

[51]          McIntosh, Rounding Up the Flock? op. cit., pp. 18–9.

[52]          McIntosh, Rounding Up the Flock? op. cit., p. 52.

[53]          See note 15 above.

[54]          Beck, Parliament House, op. cit., p. 122.

[55]          Parliament House, Canberra: Conditions for a Two-Stage Competition, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 19 and Beck, Parliament House, p. 21.

[56]          Though one notable exception to this is the Western Australian Parliament which is separated from Perth by a major cutting holding a busy freeway.

[57]          Milton, Paradise Lost, i 762.

[58]          Sudjic and Jones, Architecture and Democracy, op. cit., p. 42.

[59]          Parliament House, Canberra: Conditions for a Two-Stage Competition, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 29.

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