Taking a walk in Parliament House

Travels down under with D.C. Ranatunga

One day around lunch time we reached Canberra from Sydney covering a distance of 280 km. Dropping in at the City Tourist Centre we picked up some literature particularly to check on the places to see during our two-day visit. Having dumped our bags in the holiday cottage we had booked, we glanced through the brochures and found that there was a guided tour of Parliament House in less than an hour. We rushed and joined the tour party.

"You are free to take pictures anywhere," were the first words we heard from the female tour guide after giving each one of us an attractive visitor guide. My mind immediately went back to a request I made to a member of the staff of our Parliament some time back whether I could come over and take pictures of a few sculpted busts of former statesmen for use in a feature in the Funday Times. I was told I had to first write to the Secretary General and get permission before I came over. What a difference, I thought.
Australia's Parliament House is a relatively new building. Located on a 32-hectare site on Capital Hill, it is a landmark in Canberra. The building was opened in 1988.

The guide explained to us how the building is symbolic of Australia's history. Aboriginal mosaic in the Forecourt depicts a meeting place and symbolises the continent of Australia inhabited by Aboriginal people prior to European settlements. Titled 'Passum Wallaby Dreaming', the painting was done by a leading Aboriginal artist from the Papunya community of the Northern Territory based on a Central Desert dot-style painting. The mosaic is made up of about 90,000 hand-guillotined granite pieces in seven different colours.

The use of marble and timber in the foyer provides a link to the arrival of Europeans to Australia. The 20 timber panels are inlaid with designs of Australian flora.

In the Great Hall the rich Australian timbers, a huge tapestry and embroidery make subtle reference to the settlement and cultivation of the land. The tapestry features an eucalyptus forest in New South Wales. Measuring 20 by 9 metres, it is one of the largest tapestries in the world. It had taken a team of 13 weavers just under two and a half years to complete the work. The embroidery is a bicentennial gift to the nation by the Embroiderers' Guild of Australia. Five hundred embroiderers had taken more than 12,000 hours to stitch it. It is made of cotton, linen and wool with some synthetic fibre.

The Members' Hall designed as a lofty, ceremonial space at the heart of the building is located directly under the flagmast. In this space the north-south land axis of the building bisects the east-west legislative axis that joins chambers of the Senate and House of Representatives. In a way, it is a unique setting to see both chambers under one roof. When Sri Lanka had a bicameral legislature, the House of Representatives was housed in the present Presidential Secretariat building while the Senate was opposite Gordon Gardens in Fort where presently the Ministry of External Affairs is.

We were first taken into the House of Representatives chamber where there is seating for 150 members. Being a Saturday there were no sittings and we were free to move around and see the place. Green is the colour used to furnish the House of Representatives as against red used in the Senate chamber. There is an elevated chair for the Speaker who presides over the proceedings. Immediately below the Speaker is a long table where the Prime Minister occupies a seat to the right of the Speaker. The members of the Government sit in rows behind the Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition sits right opposite the Prime Minister.

At the further end of the table was the stand to place the gold Mace as a symbol of the authority of the House. We sat in the public gallery and listened to the guide. Opposite was the students' gallery which had glass panels in front to prevent any noise made by the students being heard by the Members.

We then moved over to see the Senate chamber where there are seats for 76 Senators who are elected on the basis of 12 per the six (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia) and two from each of the mainland territories - the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. They are elected for terms of six years, with half retiring every three years. Using a system of proportional voting, each state and territory votes as one electoral district when electing its senators.

This system makes it easier for independents and smaller parties to be elected and more difficult for one of the major parties to get a majority in the Senate.

Just as in the House of Representatives, the presiding officer, known as the President sits on an elevated chair. The members of the governing party sit on his right while the non-government members sit on the left. The large table in front of the President is meant for the leaders of the major parties and the clerks who advise the members of the procedure and prepare the formal records of the work of each chamber. The members of the House of Representatives come over to the Senate for the ceremonial opening of Parliament. Additional seats are provided to accommodate them.

At the end of the guided tour we were free to walk around and see for ourselves the paintings and other features in the building and also go up to the roof and enjoy the scenery. It's a fabulous view from the rooftop. Right ahead is the War Memorial – one of Canberra's most popular tourist sites. We had a close look at the 81-metre high stainless steel flagpole. The flag measuring 12.8 by 6.4 metres is approximately the same size as the side of a double-decker bus.

Parliament House is surrounded by 23 hectares of gardens designed to reflect different influences on Australian landscaping. Taking the lift back to come downstairs, we had a snack at the Queen's Terrace Café and spent time at the Parliament Shop which specialises in literature about politics and the operation of Parliament. There is also a wide range of interesting Australian made gifts and souvenirs. Ideas for us to follow.

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