There's something unpretentiously authentically humblingly modestly Australian about Old Parliament House. For 70 years the building served as the hub of democracy in the wide brown land, but now it looks like the Canberra division of God's Waiting Room. Rather than the bustle of important people which once filled the corridors, nowadays it is an army of volunteer guides, most of them superannuated public servents with a fine sense of history and a desire to wear some rather dapper shirts and ties. The occasional squeal is heard in the corridors, and rather than Jim Cairns putting the moves on Junie Morosi, or Hawkie putting them on the lunch lady, it's the sounds from the masses of school children making their pilgrimage to Canberra.
The first thing for most visitors to the House next to the House on the Hill is to check out the House of Reps chamber and the Senate. The two are remarkably easy to access, on either side of King's Hall, which is essentially the front foyer of the modestly sized building. The chambers are tiny, faded green and red leather, and more the feel of a local council chamber than a national parliament. There is a real sense of history there - these were the despatch boxes where Menzies and Evatt stood toe-to-toe, where Her Maj stood to open parliament, where the only joint sitting in our nation's history nearly brought the country to its knees in 1974.
The previous day I found myself lost in the cavernous underbelly of the New Parliament House, with its myriad of generic looking corridors and meeting rooms designed to confuse even the most hardy of potential assassins. Today, though at OPH, I think I could master the building layout well before lunch. The place is small and pokey, with cramped rooms and straight, narrow pathways. By the time the building was decommissioned in 1988, the place must have been teeming with staff, media and pollies, with barely enough room to pass wind without having it causing a scandal through the entire building. Even the rooms for the Prime Minister and Cabinet (Gough, with his utopian, all-of-us-are-one no-inner-and-outer-ministry philosophy needed the Cabinet room especially redesigned) leave little space for private whispers.
Right now OPH is the host to a special exhibition on The Petrov Affair, on which I must admit my previous ignorance, but now feel sufficiently informed to bullshit my way through a Master's Thesis. Without recounting the ins and outs of the incident, it does seem to be one of the most interesting events in Australia's Cold War history. The archives seem to suggest a very different story to the one that is commonly understood. The climax to the Petrov Affair was the dramatic struggle at Sydney airport as Evdokia Petrov was about to return to an uncertain fate in Moscow after her husband's defection a fortnight earlier. The common view is that Mrs Petrov was being forcibly taken home by two burly KGB Agents as a large crowd of protestors gathered, and that she at the time was attempting to claim asylum. It was only when the plane stopped to refuel in Darwin that she actually defected. The exhibition - based on archival information released - suggests that Mrs Petrov was in fact a willing passanger to Moscow, and the KGB agents were there to protect her from the crowd, whom she felt were hostile toward her due to the dynamics of the Cold War. This is based on the premise that Mrs Petrov was not fully aware of her husband's defection at the time. It was only when the plane landed in Darwin that the gravity of the situation was explained and she chose to seek asylum in Australia. What are the chances that popular opinion in this country might actually be contrary to the truth?? Nah, never.
After leaving OPH, I headed straight across the forecourt, although only after recreating Gough's "Well May We Say..." speech at the top of the steps. On the other side is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, in it's fourth decade and looking a little worse for wear. Much as it is a Canberra institution, the Embassy is now a ragged eyesore, with a small tent city having popped up, more as a poor substitute for a Canberra Backpackers than as a political protest. There's the occasional political banner, a few unfocussed slogans about Redfern ("The Holocaust at Redfern"?? Come on...), but a lack of heart and soul. In the middle sits a small bushfire, sending a trail of smoke into the Canberra skies. There were two men I had a chance to speak to, both attending to a makeshift barbeque. A quick chat revealed that neither were in fact decendants of the original inhabitants of the land, and at least one did in fact sported quite a distinctive English accent. The two had been there for just a couple of weeks, and saw the lawns outside OPH as the ideal place to gather their thoughts, as well as their belongings. I managed to resist the urge to comment on the irony of the two Brits in front of me taking up space which was traditionally inhabited by Aboriginal people. I don't think they would have seen the funny side to it.
Enough for now. More later.