A PAEAN TO PARLIAMENT
The Canberra Times, 15 October 2019
Every year, thousands of Australians come to visit Parliament House. They’re right to do so. The central building in our democracy isn’t just an architectural marvel, it’s an art-lover’s paradise. Parliament is where history is made. There’s something beautifully Australian about the fact that visitors can take the lift to the roof, and literally walk over the top of their politicians.
When those visitors picked up a copy of Tuesday’s Canberra Times, I suspect they would have raised an eyebrow or two at the opinion piece suggesting that the nation’s parliament was as a bubble within a bubble.
The smooth operation of Parliament House is a credit to its staff – the cleaners and clerks, baristas and building attendants, loading dock staff and servers – all of whom come together day after day to support democracy.
Take David Elder, for example. The former Clerk of the House of Representatives stepped down from his role in August after 38 years, nine prime ministers, 17 opposition leaders, and 14 speakers. His retirement was marked by multiple speeches praising his professionalism, wisdom and incredible knowledge in how to make Parliament function smoothly. As Speaker Tony Smith told the chamber at the time, Elder “served [his] House and our nation with distinction”.
Or Luzia Borges and Anna Jancevski. For more than 30 years, the duo has worked together, outlasting prime minister after prime minister as they cleaned their office with kindness and humour. The cleaners within this building (including Maria Ljubic, once mistaken for the Queen) are often the people that former leaders seek out when visiting Parliament, but are only seen by the wider world when news cameras catch them embracing the politicians they know as friends.
Or the people at Aussies cafe, where owner Dom Calabria remembers orders and names, and keeps the caffeine flowing with an easy smile.
These are just a handful of the hardworking staff who toil to ensure the building is clean, functional and a genuinely pleasant place to work. They are the people that best reflect Italian architect Romaldo “Aldo” Giurgola’s wishes in his design for Parliament House – a place of openness which “does not turn its back on anyone”.
Giurgola’s design was not about creating a “bubble”, but an inviting space for parliamentary workers and visitors alike. He moved to Canberra to oversee the construction, ensuring that the building was constructed to emerge out of Capitol Hill - rather than sitting atop it as an imposing structure - stating that true democracy rises from the natural state of things. As Australian architect Glenn Murcutt noted, "Giurgola designed this building so that you had very good access to the people - so it expressed freedom, it didn't in any way express exclusivity”.
That message has been carried on by the likes of Annabel Crabb, whose documentary, “The House” has been described as an “homage to the ordinary workers who make Parliament House hum”. These people are representative of workers outside the walls of Parliament House, in Canberra and across the country, who do their part every day to make society function. If you complained to them about pre-packaged sandwiches, they’d rightly laugh you out of their homes. Most people have bigger problems, and all of us in Parliament House shouldn’t forget that it’s our job to tackle them.
For those who work in Parliament House - for the government, the opposition, the crossbench or parliamentary services - the work can be demanding. But as our feet crunch across the red gravel towards the front entrance, each of us keenly feel the privilege of serving Australians in the national parliament. I feel lucky to represent Canberra’s northside in the federal parliament, and even more so to do it alongside such talented and dedicated staff as populate the parliament.
In fact, I doubt I'll ever work in a more beautiful building.
Andrew Leigh is the Member for Fenner.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.