Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Tours of the house of representatives and the senate in both the old and new parliament houses are free and frequent. But the capacity of the guides is not ideal. At least the rooms were cool, the mercury on the three days of our trip pushing 35 degrees Celcius.

Luckily the trip to Canberra is nowadays about 3 hours long -- the entire length of road is dual carriageway -- so with an air-conditioned cabin, not only does this mean that safety is assured and speed is guaranteed, it also means that you can travel in comfort and not for long.

The split road has meant that the speed limit is uniformly 110 kilometres per hour. Beware the return, however, as most people seem to do this right at the end of the alloted time: Monday evening.

When we arrived it was Saturday afternoon, Australia Day. Fireworks organised by authorites took place at Commonwealth Park, fronting Lake Burley Griffin, with the National Library and the High Court visible on the far shore.

The National Gallery, placed beside the latter building, was not visible from the dark water's verge. But the vertical water fountain, switched on for the final five minutes of the pyrotechnical display, added character and charm to the brilliant, bright lights.

I will go into my misgivings about the tours now, if you don't mind.

Both guides seemed overly proud of our heritage, crassly triumphant, even smug. "This is the only democracy to have been founded without bloodshed," crowed one. My own ideas about nationhood make this kind of statement impossible to stomach. What about the Commonwealth of the 1640s and 1650s? I thought.

Hardly half an hour later, the guide in the new building told us the reason why the Speaker is always accompanied down the stairs of the chamber by colleagues toward the high-backed chair situated at the rear of the green room. The tradition embodied in this charade -- once upon a time being Speaker was extremely perilous -- and in others (the Queen is only allowed into the Reps by invitation due to Charles I's ambush of five members in 1642), negates the primitive demarcation within the tonic date of 1788, which blinds us to everything that came before it.

The history of England is just as much ours as it is the Brits'. The guides pointed to tradition a dozen times each, yet questioned they will unhesitatingly disallow our debt to England.

A similarly blinkered view is held by the staff of the wonderful National Film and Sound Archive, housed in a lovely, stipped classical fabric near the ANU. One showed us footage of the signing of federation documents, in Centennial Park, on 9 May 1901. The gaudy costumes worn by the onlookers became a matter of fun.

But without such due process Australia would never have been allowed to become independent. It is within the traditions embodied in pomp and circumstance that we continue to see ourselves as masters of our own destiny.

The orthodoxies of the inner-urban elites are a hindrance to full comprehension of Australia's role in the world. It is time for the sorrowful protests of Modernist artists, poets, and writers to be cast aside and replaced with something wiser and more aspiring.

As I said during a book launch near the end of last year: "The standard post-colonial narrative is no longer useful. In fact, it is positively dangerous."

Apart from anything else, the woman taking us through the new parliament building said that Luke Hansard was the first parliamentary reporter!! I took her aside at the end of the tour and gave her the good oil. But it is a feather in a gale of mediocrity.

If the gatekeepers are semi ignorant, what hope do the vast bulk of Australians have, to keep informed and become enlightened?

No comments: