Today, we visited two veritable Australian institutions – Parliament House and the Royal Australian Mint. Both had fantastic tours that enabled the girls to understand their purpose and operations.
I am always proud to visit our Parliament. We have a very stable democracy and parliament is the central institution that ensures this continues. There are many countries around the world where it is forbidden to photograph government buildings, let alone enter them and see where their laws are made.
Before Australia federated in 1901, each state was a separate colony. There was considerable contention as to where the nations’ Capital should be located . There was general agreement that it should not be in Melbourne or Sydney, the two largest cities of the day. Eventually, it was decided that it should be in New South Wales. more than 100 miles (160 kms) from Sydney and in a region of cool climate as that would result in more logical decision making (the thinking of the day).
Australia’s parliament met in Melbourne until 1927 as that city had the better infrastructure and larger buildings from the wealth of the gold rush in the 1800’s. Once Canberra was established, it moved to here in 1927 and was housed in what was to be a temporary building. It relocated to its current building (simply called the ’new’ parliament house’) in 1988. The building was designed by Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp Architects and was opened on 9 May 1988 by Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia. It cost more than A$1.1 billion to build. That’s about $100 for every person (at the time) who was eligible to vote. The principal design of the structure is based on the shape of two boomerangs and is topped by an 81 metre flagpole that sits over the grassed hill into which the building is embedded.
Parliament House contains 4,700 rooms, and many areas are open to the public. The main foyer contains a marble staircase and leads to the Great Hall, which has a large tapestry on display. The House of Representatives chamber is decorated green, while the Senate chamber has a red colour scheme. Between the two chambers is the Members’ Hall, which has a water feature and is not open to the public. The Ministerial wing houses the office of the Prime Minister and other ministers of the Cabinet.
We enjoyed our 50 minute tour of the public parts of the building. Our guide, Stephen, did an excellent job of explaining the way parliament worked to the children (and some adults). We first looked outside to the front to see a pool surrounded with a mosaic taken from an aboriginal painting of ‘Wallaby and Possum Dreaming’ This represents the first of a number of time periods (the past) that flow through the design of the building. Inside, in the entrance hall, is an area with green and white marble pillars that represents a eucalyptus forest and is symbolical of the arrival of Europeans to Australia. The Grand Hall is positioned between the entrance and the two main wings of the building – the chambers of debate. These represent the current period as this is where the laws are made.
The House of Representatives is on the left of the building and is green in colour, symbolising a connection with the British Parliament from where our original laws and some continuing common law originate. This is the ‘house of the people’ with representatives elected on a proportional basis of the population. Because most of us in Australia live in the eastern States, there is a predominance of representatives from Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.
The Senate chamber to the right of the building follows the American model of having a house that represents the states. Each state represents 12 senators and two are elected from each of the ACT and Northern Territory. The concept is to have roughly half the number of senators as there are members of the House of Representatives. The Senate is designed to function as a house of review although the more cynical of us may think that over the last decade, it has acted more as a house of rejection.
At the rear of the building is a large area of prime ministerial offices and cabinet rooms. The idea of the original architect is that this would represent the future – where laws and policies are planned for the future. Again, some cynics may wish for a different future than those created by the government. I guess that if they don’t like their ideas and intentions , they can always vote for a new government (as we do every three years).
The last part of the visit was to to take the lift to the roof. This is actually an open air grassed area over which people can walk freely. Again, it is part of the concept that the people are above the parliament and that politicians are subordinate to those who elect them. There seems to be a number of people in our society who resent the money spent on the parliament building and its processes. They whinge and moan about how much this institution costs and how little they have for themselves. To my mind, we are one of the world’s most successful democracies and the symbols of our nation should be grand and prestigious. I feel very proud of this important symbol of our country.
After lunch at the public cafe, we drove over to visit the Royal Australian Mint. It is really just a coin making factory and its location was originally on the outskirts of Canberra. Now, it’s in the middle of suburbia.
Originally, each colony had its own mint. There was one in an historic building in William Street in Melbourne but, like those in other states, it closed after federation in 1901. For some years, both coins and notes were made in Melbourne at the site which is now the Australian Catholic University in Victoria Parade, Melbourne. The mint moved to Canberra in 1965. Notes are still printed at the Note Printing Branch of the Reserve Bank in Craigieburn, north of Melbourne. Australia was the first country to print plastic bank notes. The technology was developed by the government’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. At first, we printed plastic notes for other countries, but now countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom licence the technology and print their own plastic notes.
We arrived at the Mint just in time for another excellent tour that told us the story of currency in Australia and the types of coins minted here in Canberra. The mint also made medals for the Department of Defence but currently (and thankfully) the volumes of medals now needed are too small for the Mint’s presses to handle. I think, though, that my Vietnam medals may have been produced here at the mint.
The mint was Violet’s favourite place of the day. They had a great activity book for little kids to use and learn from. Audrey, on the other hand liked Parliament House the best. We finished the day with a visit to the Telstra Tower on Black Mountain that gave us an excellent panorama over Canberra and Lake Burley Griffen.