Friday 20th of September 2019

Keeping the buggers honest - a Democrat's better angels ()

Democrats leader Senator Andrew Bartlett generously takes time out from a doubtless frantic schedule to send some very kind words our way in his NHJ! review. More importantly, AB updates us on the on-going saga of public access to the roof of Parliament House. NHJ! readers will recall what 'A Citizen of Australia' wrote about the symbolism of the roof in Chapter Eight:

[PH architect Romaldo] Giurgola did his best to honour [Walter Burley Griffin's] original intent by designing broad, sweeping lawns so that people could walk right across the top of their elected representatives. Every time I'd catch a glimpse of those lawns when driving about Canberra I'd think of Griffin's vision of our democracy: the people above their parliamentarians. Because Canberra is derided and resented by so many Australians I treasured that positive feeling about my hometown. And I confess that when visitors from overseas and interstate came I felt a little swell of pride in pointing out that symbolism...'

Most now know that this symbolism was lost in mid-2003 (largely as an eventual result of the events of September 11/Bali), when whopping lego blocks were plunked down on the turf like enormous white dog poos, barring external access to Canberra's grassy knoll...sorry, hill. Far fewer of us realise - because we don't have time to troll through Hansard daily, and because these sorts of 'boring' stories about the Dems (ie those without sex, booze, dirt, leadership troubles, splits or Doc Martens) are of no interest to our 'mature' Press Gallery - that at least some Senators are still on the government's case about it. As AB advises:

I draw your attention to the 'debate' in the Senate authorising more works around the outside of Parliament House, as it is germane to your section in the book which dealt with the symbolism of Parliament House and public access to it. The good news is the big white Lego blocks will go. The bad news is other more permanent changes will now be made. Whilst overall they are better than the Lego blocks, they still involve significant changes from the original design. I'm not happy with the changes, although they certainly could be worse and some effort has obviously gone into trying to make the changes sympathetic to the original design (unlike with the Lego blocks).

However, I was more dismayed that something so significant occurred with no debate and no consultation with the community, especially the Canberra community. The feelings expressed in your book very much reinforced my feelings on this matter.

OK, so the more cynical among you might reckon that AB's just pushing his barrow here like any other polly. Well, I urge you to take a few moments, fellow Australian Citizens, to go and check out the relative mountain of solid (and pretty dull, really) Representative hard yakka that lies beneath AB's modest note.

Here's Senator Chris Ellison (Lib) moving what appears to be a pretty bog-standard Public Works motion in the Senate last month. As you can see, it takes the contribution of Andrew 'Keep Them Honest' Bartlett to get OUR Citizen's concerns onto the Public Record - and even then, as he notes, there's bugger-all proper debate before the motion is routinely passed (my bold):

...But the fact is that this motion, and indeed a couple of previous motions which in hindsight I regret not having more focus on before they were agreed to, will, among other things, permanently affect the visual appearance of Parliament House. There are a range of matters that arise from the proposal but they boil down to two main concerns. One is the impact on the appearance of the building and the experience, if you like, of visitors to the building and the public areas of the building, particularly the front entrance and the roof...

Go and read AB's whole speech, and especially check out the letters he wrote to the Speaker and the Senate Prez last month. In the normal scheme of things, we Citizens would never get to see this sort of yakka at all, I suppose because the Press Gallery thinks this isn't newsworthy. On the other hand, when Bartlett got a bit tipsy and made a few judgement lapses not long ago, the meeja were all over him and the Dems like a bad rash.

Sorry to go on about this at length, but this sort of stuff - the nitty-gritty of issues debate that you can only really find in Hansard, and where you can also discover, without the meeja/spin/PR/soundbite distortions, who our Representatives TRULY are - is the bread and butter of democracy to me. As you know I'm more of a Greens than a Democrats voter when it comes to the checks-and-balances business, but as far as the symbolism of PH goes the Dems seem to be trying, at least, to keep our founding fathers' vision of democracy honest. So thanks, AB, and also for pointing us in the right direction.

Incidentally, as something of a Public Record Geek, I'd recommend both the Senate and the House of Reps Hansard websites to all NHJ! readers. Real democratic gems - speeches, exchanges, debates, tablings of reports - go entirely unreported there, every sitting day. To close this post, for example, check out this poetic flourish about democracy from Senator Bartlett's 'Public Works bill' speech - and then lament the fact that to most Australian Citizens the Dems' current leader will probably always remain little more than 'that goose who got a bit drunk n' stroppy that time in the Senate...'. Here, for balance, is what Senator Andrew Bartlett can do when he's given the chance to let rip with a bit of inspiring Senatorial rhetoric:

I am fortunate enough to have visited a few parliaments around the world, and when I think about how people perceive other nations one example I compare with some others is the fabulous vista in the US capital outside the front of their Congress. That single thing gives an impression of a nation, in particular a democratic nation, and the way people perceive that building as a representation of their democracy. We have had the Prime Minister making a big deal of symbols in recent times over the flying of flags in schools, so I do not think we can suggest at all that the symbolism is not significant. How we feel about ourselves as a democracy, how a democracy is represented and how we as a nation are represented are, in significant part, represented by this building.

Ta muchly, mate. And don't we Citizens wish our bloody tunnel-visioned Meeja would occasionally cover THIS kind of Australian Democrats' story too?

20 July PS: Sorry, excuse my bad manners - if you want to drop Senator Bartlett's Senate office a quick thanks for taking time to argue this line, you can do it here. Some lowly PH staffer doubtless had to fiddle about with those letters, perhaps help out with AB's speech, and so on; this is not a party-partisan issue, and having worked as a quasi-political bumf-shuffler myself, I know how much it can boost your sense of civic morale to get an occasional unexpected pat on the back from the public.)