Canberra, Wheels within Wheels

From our campervan on an O’Connor campsite we contemplate the capital. Canberra is the East Kilbride of the Southern Hemisphere – which makes sense to Scots familiar with “roundabout city EK” – a purpose built city with lots of roundabouts. Our first day there coincided with Valentine’s Day, so we did the romantic thing … and went to Parliament. As it was a Thursday it was Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Representatives at 2pm. We got ourselves some tickets for that (free of charge) and then joined a guided tour of the building. Both the Senate and the Reps were sitting which meant that both those debating chambers were inaccessible for visiting tourists. However, the tour was nevertheless interesting and I learned a lot about the structure of Australian politics that I hadn’t known before. I won’t bore you with the details but it’s roughly a mix of the US and the UK systems.

The new parliament, most of which is underground. It has a grass roof.
The founding stone

Outside the parliament we saw two tents: one group staged a bible reading marathon. Each to their own …

and the other group were sacked sailors, previously employed by BHP, the biggest mining company in Australia. The company has sacked many of its shipping crews and replaced them with cheaper Chinese labour to run its ships. The protester we spoke with claimed that BHP doesn’t even feed some of its new Chinese crew. I haven’t researched this, but it was briefly mentioned in parliament later by a Labor MP.

We picked an interesting session to observe. On the way into the chamber we queued for security and got chatting with a youngish man sporting the largest man-bun I have ever seen. He claimed his hair came down to his bum, which I didn’t doubt. He had an air of someone wired about him and I did think he was über-eager to talk with us. I felt that he was not really interested in us but was feigning interest nonetheless. Still, we got split up from him as we were directed to enter the chamber through different doors.

Beautiful marble in the entrance hall

Before PMQ started, individual MPs used the time to make 90 second statements about issues that were important to their constituencies. A laudable thing to do but hardly anyone was listening, apart from Roddy who clearly was listening. He noticed that all MPs spoke about things like stadium floodlights in their constituency and other sporting innovations. This annoyed him slightly, as he is not the sporting type and would have preferred a better mix of spending and something weightier, I guess. A sign of the importance of sport in Oz life, though.

A gallery of important MPs and PMs

When PMQ started, it began with a punch. The leader of the opposition, Shorten, asked the first question and the PM Morrison demonstrated his vigour and energy in the way he responded. I was quite blown away by the immediate force that came across. There was, of course, an imbalance of discussion as it was PMQ, so the majority parties got the chance to talk whereas the opposition only asked some of the questions.

View from the roof of the new parliament towards to old parliament and the war memorial in the distance.

Only ten minutes in, a man in the public gallery shouted out against the government’s continued policy of using coal as the main energy source – an issue close to my green heart. He was swiftly bundled off by security but then a woman stood up, also shouting about environmental issues. The MPs briefly looked up when this happened but continued business regardless. It quickly became apparent that this was a sort of whack-a-mole flash-mob with people all around the three sides of the public gallery standing up, shouting about coal and then being picked up by burly security guards. And then, I had been waiting for it, our man-bun also stood up. I am sure that he chatted with us to appear like an ordinary tourist and to win our approval of him and his cause retrospectively. Being appalled at the Australian nonchalance towards environmental issues and the power of the fossil fuel lobby, I didn’t need convincing but I wonder how much impact this action had. The session was not interrupted, the flash-mob has not been mentioned in any news that I have seen, and the issues raised were not discussed. It was an effort but maybe a different tactic would be better. Remember how we used to demonstrate in the 1980s? The human chain, the Menschenkette, in Germany, demonstrating against the US’ stationing of their Pershing rockets all over Germany. The many sit-ins at the Waldheide in Heilbronn against same Pershings, “Atomkraft Nein Danke” demonstrations, the 1986 US bombing of Libya, etc. Somehow demonstrations stir people up and are visible. Still, they made a point, even though some visitors were infuriated by the protesters. I think that a parliament in a democracy has to be strong enough to take this sort of thing. When voices are suppressed in a democracy, then we are in trouble. If anything, some of the protesters had very weak voices, my man-bun included, a little voice projecting should have been practised beforehand.

“Our” PMQ will go down in temporary history as the longest on record. The PM has been accused of stretching it out in order to waste time and avoid a discussion on the main point the Leader of the Opposition made repeatedly, to launch a royal commission into abuse in the disability sector. Perhaps the roundabouts are symbolic for the wheels within wheels in politics, in any country.

A huge dot mosaic outside the parliament
The painting the mosaic is based on.

The new and the old parliament are hugged by all the most important civic buildings such as the High Court of Australia, as well as the National Portrait Gallery and the National Art Gallery. We were drawn to the visiting exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelities, “Love & Desire”, on loan from the Tate in London. Wow! It was bloody expensive to get in but it was worth it. The colour and the detail in those paintings is breathtaking. The social commentary on poverty during the Industrial Revolution was insightful as was the evaluation of the situation many contemporary women found themselves in. Some shone a very critical light on the entrapment of women in an arbitrary social structure and false morals, but others applauded the newly found confidence of many women. The final rooms were dedicated to the famous mythical stories such as The Lady of Shallot (I had no idea that the original is so huge!) and Ophelia. A wee taste:

In the evening my husband whisked me off to an Indian street-food place in the CBD to be romantic, which we are, and then we crawled back, kinda tired after all these new impressions.

Canberra is very bicycle friendly
We also did a wee cruise on the lake
The Sydney and Melbourne buildings represent the old CBD
Buses have bike racks at the front.
Cool 1960s bus shelters
Multiculti festival

Our stay in Canberra coincided with the National Multicultural Festival in the CBD. The streets were packed with food stalls from all corners of the globe and Canberra was on its feet, celebrating and stuffing its face and listening to the throbbing tunes from the many stages around the city. Maori song and dance next to Spanish Gipsy kings type songs, Indigenous Didgeridoos and modern singer-songwriters next to country music. A parade through the town formed the climax. The samba group was a hard act to follow, especially for the small gang of Scottish bagpipers, but they gave it their all, as did the Hare Krishnas, the Chinese, the Indonesians, the Arabs and the Nepalese. Warm feelings for my fellow beings ensued and I felt quite squishy with all the emotion.

Roddy gave the parade a miss, but opted instead to climb up to the Telstra tower which dominates Black Mountain, a 50 mins walk from our campsite. Ah you can’t do them all, but here are his photos:

Telstra Tower
The view from the top

It’s difficult for a planned city to establish the vibe and atmosphere like an old, naturally grown town. Symbolism is used not just in the design of the Parliament but also in street art and the architecture of the city itself with the aim of representing the capital of Australia as a meeting point and an outreach point to the whole of this huge nation. I thought that this symbolism was mostly successful and interesting. I find, though, that so much use of concrete and the artifice of the design leads to the lack of a naturally evolved heart. Canberra is a very friendly and liveable city, I am sure, but I am not in love.

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