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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Saturday's Scribe - Inside our Parliament's hidden vaults

Last friday it was a bleak day. The skies were heavy with misty rain, visibility was down to a few 100 feet and it was bitterly cold. We reached a top of 12C from a -1C minimum. I had an invitation from an old friend to acompany him and journalists from The Canberra Times, the capital's premier broadsheet newspaper as they explored the hidden depths beneath our Parliament House. I was advised that this was a "one-off" invitation and that others present were led to believe that I was a Parliament House staffer and I was to deflect any questions as to my role, using 'security reasons' as an excuse (I had done some Risk Management consultancy work for him at Parliament House in the past, so it was not as though I was a 'stranger' to the place) but here was an opportunity to see an aspect of the House that very few have experienced. I could not let the invitation pass unaccepted.

I had lived in Canberra during the construction of what is referred to as New Parliament House and I was aware of the enormity of its construction. I had friends who worked there, one being the Principal Safety Officer, and I was aware that it was the first major construction of its kind that was undertaken where tradesmen were multi-skilled  contractors and sub-contractors and that workplace safety was paramount. There was an ACT Ambulance Services ambulance and crew permanently stationed 'on-site' during construction and it was the first construction of its kind and size to be built in Australia without a single fatal incident on-site.

Of course I jumped at the invitation.

The drive over to Canberra was hazardous, with snow sleeting as I crossed the flats of the Barton Highway, past Jeir Creek Winery, Capricorn Park Stud - resting home in Australia to three times Melbourne Cup winner, Makybe Diva - and up the rise past Kaveneys Road with its gravel quarry surrounded by the groves of olives of small lot hobby farms before the haul across 'the mad mile', a single flat straight stretch before one entered the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).


I arrived at parliament House and went to the staff parking area that had been indicated to me and announced myself to the Australian Protective Services Officers on duty. I was taken into an office in a portable building and issued with my ID for the day, given a temporary parking permit and, as I drive with a National Disability Permit, I was directed to an adjacent car parking spot and told to come back and wait for my escort.

An assistant from my friend's office soon arrived and I was led through a side entrance into the Parliament House structure and taken to my friend's office where a bevy of journalists and a photographer also waited. We sat in a small meeting room and were briefed on safety and security, shown diagrams and given a 'Day Attendance' sheet to sign-off stating that we had been so briefed.

If you are not familiar with Australia's Parliament House, Canberra, it is an amazing structure, a feat of engineering marvel, that is, in the main, built underground and most of the exterior built surface was covered with turf and gardens to complete the image. What you see on top is about one fifth of the total structure.

New Parliament House, Canberra ACT, Australia viewed from the public forecourt precinct

The two Parliament Houses - Old Parliament House on the foreshore
of Lake Burley Griffin and New Parliament House on the rise behind it.
View over the Australian War Memorial and looking down Anzac Parade
from Mt Ainslie

True to my security brief, I was told that I could make no notes of what I was to see and photographs were absolutely forbidden, however, I could use any of the 'public domain' material, which included the images and article set to appear in the Sunday Canberra Times
Inside Parliament's hidden vault

By Sally Pryor, The Canberra Times Staff Reporter
14 May, 2011 12:00 AM

Like much in central Canberra, Parliament House is a triumph of symmetry, all elegant curves and right angles. But the hill into which it is built, Lord of the Rings-style so that we the people may trample the smooth green slopes while our elected representatives toil away beneath, was not always so symmetrical.


In fact, the hill on which the house is perched is something of a trompe d'oeuil; the green slopes running up the sides had, in fact, to be moulded to perfection, and what you can't see is the three large cavities tucked away beneath them. In a rapidly expanding city where all forms of space living space, office space, storage space is becoming ever more coveted and hard to come by, it's odd to imagine there are still these massive, empty voids in the symbolic heart of the nation.

Passing Parliament House as you drive along Canberra Avenue, you would never guess that beneath the velvety green slope is the largest of these spaces.

Known about the place as The Cathedral, it's a massive vault with columns three storeys high, and a solid concrete ceiling. To get there, you have to wind your way through the building's endless, and endlessly functional, basement corridors (they're so bewilderingly alike that they have been given street names), and finally, through a seemingly innocuous locked door.

The place is filled with rubble we were warned to wear flat shoes and has only temporary lighting, but it's still spectacular.


Department of Parliamentary Services secretary Alan Thompson said much thought had gone into this space over the years, although nothing had ever actually been decided.


''Offices could be one, storage could be another, but at this stage, there's no one pressing demand here,'' he said. He admits that the notion of using The Cathedral as function space had been considered, but the cost would probably be prohibitive.

''At this stage we're just well and truly aware that the space is here,'' he said. In the meantime, the second-largest of the voids, behind the staff dining room, is in the process of being converted into office space, to bring some of the staff out from the ''submarine-like'' basement.

When all's said and done, though, The Cathedral is likely to remain empty and magnificent for some time, or at least until Parliament expands significantly in size.

''If you've got the right architect at the time, you could do something very spiffy here,'' Mr Thompson said, looking around. ''There's got to be a purpose first, that's the catch.''

And that sound of weeping you hear is coming from archivists at the many chronically space-deprived national institutions throughout the city.

(The Canberra Times was founded in 1926. Its motto ‘To serve the national city and through it the nation’ reflects on the importance its original owners placed on serving the needs of what was then a town focused around Federal Parliament.)

New Parliament House, Canberra, ACT, Australia, viewed by night

I was truly priviliged to have been allowed this experience and it was one that I will cherish forever, however, I also know that "you get nothing for nothing" in this world and in Canberra's highly politically charged environment that "there is no free lunch"! I'm expecting a call in the next six months to a year, 'cos I recognise that Friday's 'tour' was, in fact, a 'site induction' preparing me for some future consultancy work.

3 comments:

Sharon said...

Interesting, John, I had never heard about the place, I think that even though it is so spacious, I would be quite claustrophobic.

I don't know what happened, either my internet said no, or blogger is at it again. Only the grassy part and the unfinished part showed up. Your words made an excellent description for me!

JohnD said...

Thanks Sharon. You'd be surprised at how 'open' the House is - there are internal green courtyards with flower gardens and even small trees.

I suspect your problem with my images may have been theeir size and your internet's connection being unable to cope with the load.

John Gray said...

great posting john...as usual a crackingly interesting read