On a recent trip to Canberra I took advantage of an unexpected gap in my schedule to visit Parliament House on the spur of the moment. From all around the city you catch glimpses of the spire, standing at the peak of the cityscape, waving the Australian flag from its tip.
It is a surprisingly impressive building. Disillusioned as I am with politics in general, and the current state of Australian politics in particular, I was somewhat taken aback to be awed by the building itself. It stands alone on the hill, surrounded by sweeping vistas, with a grand avenue approaching it from the front. The gardens around it are gorgeous, and largely native, and there is even peace to be found wandering the paths around the building.
Once you make it inside, there are more grand visions and awe inspiring halls. There are marble columns, gorgeous works of art, high ceilings and sweeping staircases. The whole building seems to stand for magnificence, vision, permanence, and integrity.
There is a small gift shop filled with fascinating books and Australian made goods, including a wide array of Fair Trade chocolate. There is much to be proud of, and I was inspired by the importance of the building, and everything it represents. I never expected to be – in general architecture is not my thing, and government is usually something to mutter over at best, and curse at worst – but here I was, impressed, abashed, and awed.
A kind and helpful guide, who had clearly seen many visitors in this state, told me I could actually see Parliament in session – the Senate was voting, and the House of Representatives had ” a few people in there”. This fascinated me, so off I went. First I went into the senate, which I always feel has a slightly more solid, respectable feel than the House of Reps. Indeed, there was an extreme formality about the language, and as the session went on it was clear that nobody was particularly invested in these proceedings. Senators were chatting, focused on their mobile phones, or roaming the seats, while a few senators put motions that nobody seemed to care very much about. There was certainly no debate, but perhaps this was an off moment. The Greens were there, Labor seemed to put in a solid showing, and as far as I could tell the Coalition was represented by a couple of token watchdogs.
After a while I left the Senate to wander into the House of Representatives. There are layers of security to go through in order to get into either chamber, and they were courteous, polite, and good humored. I was ushered into the visitors gallery, where I sat to listen to the proceedings. There was a politician in full flight, but it only took a moment to realise this was neither debate, nor impassioned support for a cause. This was an opportunity to sink the boot solidly into the opposition. As I crashed back down to earth, I realised that this was a nutshell summary of the way our Parliament now behaves. Rational debate of issues, evidence based policy making, and vision for the country and its future have no place in our government. It is nothing more than a forum for bagging the other guys.
The tone was, pure and simple: “You guys suck!”
“Yeah? Well you suck worse! So nyer!”
As a child I believed that government was a matter of bold visions, protecting and enriching the land and all of its people. Of building a future we could be proud of. Of carefully considering the evidence and making compassionate and visionary policies for the benefit of current and future generations.
As I left, a flock of galahs gave raucous tongue, which summed up my feelings nicely.
We could be, would be, should be so much better than this.