Parliament House in Canberra on Monday 19 December 2016. A security fence is proposed blocking access to the roof. Photo: Andrew Meares It is the home of democracy in , a gracious and majestic building built into a hill overlooking what was once, many years ago, a sheep paddock.
But nearly 30 years after it was opened Parliament House is showing inevitable signs of wear and tear. It is full to bursting with staff, some of whom are forced to work in the basement, the roof leaks and there are questions about the reliability of the building’s emergency power supply.
There is even talk of closing the Great Hall – the most recognisable room in the building after the chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate – next year as the building’s operators can no longer delay costly repair works on the roof.
The leaky roof has been something of a joke inside the building whose occupants are used to seeing towels and buckets placed on the floor on rainy days.
A couple of years ago, during a particularly vigorous thunderstorm, attendants had to use both in the House of Representatives to mop up the drips that fell from the roof during question time.
Speaker Bronwyn Bishop archly noted leaking was a problem familiar to most political parties. “Now you can see why this building is in need of repair,” she added.
When the Queen opened what for many years was known as new Parliament House, it was one of the highlights of ‘s bicentennial celebrations.
The Romaldo Giurgola??? designed building was hailed as an extraordinary example of architecture and design that would “impress, excite, even thrill ordinary visitors and give them an enriching and uplifting experience”.
Giurgola’s guiding principle of putting the people first was seen even in the way visitors would experience the building as they entered it.
“The main approach to the building, crossing the great forecourt, entering through the impressive modernistic portico into the main foyer and up to the public level, provides a feast of visual and spatial delights unlike anything hitherto seen in n design,” The Sydney Morning Herald reported on the day after the building’s opening.
“One can imagine the delight they will give the general public who, in the provisional Parliament House, had to duck under the main entrance steps to get to the public galleries. In this new building they have been given special consideration and some of the best spaces, with views out to gardens and down into courtyards. No longer are they merely tolerated, but now are actively encouraged to participate in observing the workings of Parliament.”
The great forecourt – with its contemporary depiction of an ancient Western Desert Dreaming – is only one of the areas to benefit from a three-year, $29 million “renewal” program that will deal with some of the building’s most pressing maintenance issues.
Wear and tear on the forecourt’s paving will be repaired, the public carpark will be upgraded so people with disabilities can navigate it more easily and more bicycle racks will be installed.
A further $18.3 million will be spent on the leaky skylights.
All these works must be approved by the moral rights holder of Parliament House, the people whose job it is to maintain the integrity of the building’s design.
As Annabel Crabb, host of the new ABC TV documentary The House, puts it: “If you want to change the font of a sign or a button in a lift, you have to ask for permission. That’s how specialised the building is.”
But few people know how much the 2.6-metre-high fence that is being constructed around the building will cost.
The controversial structure – which was decided on last year following two extraordinary days at Parliament House where protesters forced the suspension of question time and, subsequently, abseiled down the front of the building – will eventually surround the building giving it a different look and feel.
The price tag of the fence will be kept secret because, Senate President Stephen Parry told a committee hearing this year, revealing its cost may help terrorists.
The fence is expected to be covered with foliage to lessen its impact although exactly how a 2.6-metre-tall, hedge-like structure could be said to be less obtrusive is unclear.
For a while there was a rumour that a moat was being considered as part of the building’s security upgrade.
Senator Parry told the committee that was not the case, but one proposal for two ditches near roadways – known as ha-has – had been briefly examined.
“That had some serious technical difficulties and could not be proceeded with,” Senator Parry told the hearing.
“It was not a moat, not around Parliament House, never to be filled with water or crocodiles or anything like that,” he said.