There is much to love about Canberra, and even if you’re not a fan of the politicians who frequent and make rules from the nation’s capital, admiration is due to the great parliamentary structures – both old and new – that house them and their support crew.
I frequently pop into Old Parliament House, now renamed and rebadged Museum of Australian Democracy (MOAD, in this city of acronyms), and every time I see something different and learn something new. Recently I popped in to catch Between the Lines exhibition, the politics of 2016 in cartoons, but caught a little tour instead (a fifteen minute Building History tour) and spent most of my visit discovering more about the building itself. Let me share my new found knowledge.
Old Parliament House was always designed as a temporary building, a short-term solution for a cash-strapped government who was keen to move the parliament from Melbourne to the new capital of the nation. The building was designed by John Smith Murdoch, chief architect for the Commonwealth, and was intended to serve its purpose for 50 years and accommodate up to 300 people. (He also designed the Hyatt and East and West Block – Canberrans will recognise the similarities in style, including many a bride who’s had her photo taken on the grand stairs at the Hyatt.)
The building ended up serving as Parliament House for 61 years, from May 1927 to 1988, hosting 16 Prime Ministers and accommodating up to 5000 people as the years passed and the government grew. The building grew too, with a number of changes and additions, all foreshadowed and designed by Murdoch, as were most of the fit out and furnishings, including light fittings. But still, by the end of its days, it was a pretty tight squeeze, a little like sardines.
You can see the original design and changes that occurred over the years in a couple of great scale models, together with a collection of historic photos of the construction. Looking at those, one gains new respect for the workers of days past and what was achieved with little in the way of machinery.
Note the outfit – three piece suits and fob chains, no less. Imagine the heat. At least they wouldn’t have got sunburnt.
The building overran its budget by three times. Some things never change. And that includes the leaking flat roof of the house – that leaked in 1927 and still leaks today.
Walter Burley Griffith, architect of the city, however, was not thrilled at the prospect of a temporary building being plonked in front of Capital Hill, his proposed site – and now current site – of a permanent Parliament House. In fact, he was rather cross and described it as being like ‘filling the front yard with outhouses’ and ruining the vista from Capital Hill to Mount Ainslie.
Actually, it ended up looking quite impressive, in my opinion, and the buildings old and new complement and respect each other, the new appearing to sit on top of the old, adding a layer of modernity while paying homage to the building stones of the past. And the vista is still pretty bloody awesome. Photo of that on my ‘to take’ list.
I even discovered there are two sets of tennis courts, one of either side of the building, are coloured red and green to match the senate and House of Reps. Who knew? I’ve walked there, I’ve played tennis there. Never noticed the colours. The things you learn on tours.
Rather than have the building fall into disrepair, the building was heritage-listed in 1992 and then reinvented in 2009 as MOAD, Museum of Australian Democracy. What a stroke of genius.
It’s a grand old building, nestled in the Parliamentary Triangle. It’s peaceful, simply elegant, its long white-blocked presence quietly understated in its ‘stripped classical’ style, regal without being fancy. And dripping in history. Over the years, it’s seen many a deal and conspiracy, and moments of glory and controversy.
But there’s nothing stuffy about this building, despite its history of pomp and ceremony and housing pollies. Now it serves as a museum accessible to the masses, workers gather for weekly unwinds at Friday night drinks, we chuckle at the cartoon exhibitions, relive our history, marvel at the squashed press gallery, take mystery tours and dine on the roof.
And there is much to keep the very-welcomed kids amused: they run happily across the polished timber floors to try on robes and admire gold maces, and play happily in the kaleidoscope of colours and textures and insights of PlayUp, not even knowing they’re learning.
Check out what’s on. Furnishings, political cartoons, or fancy clothes of days gone by – take your pick.
It will cost you $2 for entry, less for concessions, with lots of exhibitions and activities for free.
Visit to and wrap up of New Parliament House building coming soon.
PS What’s in a name? Canberra
As a bit of an aside, if you’ve ever pondered on the name ‘Canberra’, you may know that it comes from an Aboriginal language and means meeting place, but more accurately, it means the place between a woman’s breasts, that is, that flat spot between the hills. But I hadn’t realised we adopted the pronunciation of ‘Can-bru’ (as in ‘up’, as opposed to ‘Can-bare-a’) from the mouth of Lady Denham, wife of the fifth Governor-General of Australia and not just of Lady Denman Drive fame, who officially announced the new and until then secret name of the nation’s capital from a stone in front of Parliament House in 1913. It stuck from there.