Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Melbourne Parliament House Tour: citizen tourists on the loose.

This rather grand building is Parliament House, Melbourne. I was excited at the prospect of taking a tour of it as it would give me something to compare my tour of the Scottish Parliament with. The Edinburgh tour was interesting as much for what it did not say as for what it did. It was, in many respects, like a political campaign that sidestepped uncomfortable issues and 'took hold of the narrative', as current news-speak would put it. With that tour I was aware of a number of the issues that were being glossed over, such as the delays and serious overspend on its construction. However, I know next to nothing about the politics of Victoria and very little about Australia either, except that Prime Minister Tony Abott was pretty widely despised and regarded as an idiot by pretty much everybody I met. This, then, was necessarily a more superficial tour of a parliamentary public relations exercise.

I was in a hurry to catch the 1 PM whistle-stop tour and would never have thought it would have taken me so long to enter the building. The security screening by the team of misanthropic guards took longer than some airports I have travelled through and resulted in the confiscation of my 8cm long flexible camera tripod for reasons they alone will ever know. I stepped into the elegant reception room where a smattering of tourist/citizens were scattered awaiting the tour's imminent start. The man in the loud blue shirt was to become my favourite: true to appearances he made a string of blunt jokes and observations throughout the tour like, "how much? crikey!"

Our guide emerged on the stroke of one, had us leave our bags in a safe storage room, then beckoned us through the barrier. He came over as a smart guy doing a simple but comfortable job. He carefully chose his words so as to avoid sounding as if he favoured one political side or another, yet he also sounded as if he was very aware of the debate and disagreements that characterise a parliament like this. His was a conspicuous neutrality that goes with the job and he gave the impression of someone who had been doing this long enough that it had become second nature to him. Indeed, he managed to sound relaxed and human in this role and even managed a dry sense of humour. 

The first room was being rearranged and didn't look its best. We began with an introduction to the architecture, always a safe bet, unless you the Scottish Parliament, that is. The queen looked down on us as we listened and we also heard how they do weddings here, though it was admittedly expensive, not to say dry as a choice of location. 

This building is divided into an upper and lower chamber, a system directly modelled on the the British parliament. Our guide explained how this lower chamber functions and it basically seems to work tribally with each side closing rank within an oppositional style of government. The sand timer is a nice touch and I am minded to get one for practicing speeches myself. It is so much more visually effective than a digital clock; there is a palpable sense of time slipping away. That was the case with our tour as well: we were up against the clock as this was essentially a 30-minute photo opportunity tour with only time for brief explanations.

We got a look at the gold-leaf clad speaker's mace in the library, the same mace that is featured in this photo and which our guide told us a spicy story about. The story goes that the speaker's mace went missing in the 1891 and rumour had it that it ended up in a nearby brothel that was frequented by politicians, used in mock parliamentary procedures/sex games. To what precise purpose the mace was put he did not elaborate further. It is a nice story, far enough removed from the present to be amusing more than scandalous, and he obviously enjoyed telling it to give the tour some light relief. I have noticed that with dry and potentially boring tours like this one, it is a good strategy for the guide to have one or two tricks up their sleeve like this to inject some life into the tour. The sex theme, in fact, popped up again a little later when we got to the upper chamber. In the discussion of the political affiliations of the members of the legislative council, our guide noted that the upper house is far more welcoming of independents than the lower house. With a slight smile, he seemed pleased to tell us that the State of Victoria elected Fiona Patten of the Australian Sex Party in the last round of elections. Naturally, my new friend in the blue shirt had a lot to say about her!

I was able to take the tour today because the parliament was not sitting. On these off days the building is not completely dead, however, it still forms a backdrop for political interviews. Here the media were lined up waiting for the suit to take the stage in front of the building which grants an air of legitimacy and gravitas to those who stand before it. I remember on the tour of the Scottish Parliament we stopped beside some pretty plain modern concrete steps which our guide told us were often used for interviews. Concrete, I suppose, speaks to the technocrat and in this the aesthetic differences between the two buildings are very significant in building different public impressions of their representatives as individuals and as a whole. Given the choice, if I were a politician I'd take this door any day, but that, I suppose, betrays my soft spot for theatre: the theatre of representative democracy.


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