Brown Study

Brown Study

7 June 2014

9:00 AM

7 June 2014

9:00 AM

I agree with Lucy Turnbull about Malcolm’s dinner with Clive Palmer. Her father Tom Hughes used to be in politics and had the pleasure of working and eating in the old Parliament House, as I did. As Lucy explained, the old Parliament House was a kinder, gentler place than the new one, members were more sociable and if one ventured out to a restaurant at night, it did not become a scandal of innuendo, intrigue and leadership plots as it does today.

The old Parliament House was like a friendly club. When you opened a door, you bumped into another human being and probably stopped to have a conversation, often with a driver or an attendant, as they knew more than we did about what was going on. But in the new Parliament House, if you open a door you find a corridor, like one of those in The Shining, stretching out as far as the eye can see and with never a soul in sight. It is certainly not made for human interaction and civilised conduct.

The members’ dining room was not what you would call a mardi gras of Bacchanalian excess; it was more like the salon of a faded, European watering hole of the 1890s with its solid furniture, polished silver and starched napkins. The menu was predictable and relied on standbys like lamb chops and two veg or steak and chips. You would never have found baby kale or oregano ragù on the menu and there was no goat’s cheese or café latte within a hundred miles.


But the old House was home; we did not have to go out for a meal. That was in keeping with what we were. In those days members and senators of both parties had once in their lives had normal jobs, unlike today, and the parliament benefited from this rich experience of life; some had actually crashed in aircraft during the war and been prisoners of the Japanese. But those far off days were before the Labor party gave up representing the workers and was taken over by social reformers. We dealt with real world issues like jobs, education where children really learnt something and industries, of which we had quite a few that actually made things. Nowadays members and senators seem preoccupied with what people should believe in, inventing new grounds for complaint that people should have, even if they do not, witchcraft like changing the weather and the joy of closing a mine or a factory because of the latest United Nations edict.

The old Senate was even more of a gracious club than the House. The rich, red leather furniture gave it such a laid back ambience that Jim Killen said it was evidence of life after death. Sometimes we were invited to embassies, which at least was an outing and we could pretend we were in the know. The Brits were polite and the Israelis and the Americans put some effort into it as they were serious about it. The dean of the diplomatic corps was the Brazilian, a nice elegant man had been in Canberra so long that Rio must have forgotten where they had sent him.

But the prize for complete absence of guile or subtlety had to go to the Yugoslav political attaché who was also a spy. I had doubts about this in view of his refreshing frankness when he asked me once over the slivovitz: ‘So, Mr Brown, when will Mr Peacock overthrow Mr Fraser?’ I never saw the Russian ambassador. He was probably shackled to a wall in a basement being tortured by the KGB Resident.

But the real evil of the new Parliament House is the vast array of committee rooms and extravagant space for members, senators and their ever-expanding staff. Not only is this far beyond what is needed, but it provides an engine room for the expansion in the size of government. Committee rooms, conference rooms, vast reception halls and exalted titles mean that everyone involved is engaged in an endless campaign to get governments to do more, extract more money from the people and spend it as fast as they can, before moving on to the next grandiose scheme.

Committees have to do something. They must find a problem and the only solution is a law against it, a tribunal to punish people, money to be raised, staff to be appointed and a programme to educate the public into believing what they clearly do not. The new Parliament House is the shrine to this extravagance and foolishness. The building is so devoid of soul and normal life that when people go out for dinner it is so eccentric it must be a conspiracy.

So I think this is what Lucy was getting at. The present Parliament House is so chilling, so artificial, so devoid of contact with the real world that people want to get out of the place as often as they can. And this nightly migration to the fleshpots, eateries and drinking holes of Canberra is motivated not by conspiracy and leadership plots, but by a natural human desire to be with other human beings and have a bit of the normal life that has now been squeezed out of the parliament. The inmates want human company at dinner, even if it is Clive Palmer. I’ll bet he slurps his soup and spreads his great gut over the table. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, decent human beings like Peta Credlin labour away in that soulless edifice trying to achieve decent things.

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