For me this is one of the most architecturally interesting and satisfying buildings not only in Australia but in the world and is certainly a major contrast to the previous building – Old Parliament House – which was only ever intended to be a temporary home for the Australian Parliament, albeit a temporary home that lasted 61 years. It would be quite unfair to compare the two buildings.
New Parliament House was opened on 9 May 1988 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and is located “atop” Capital Hill. The building is situated perfectly in line with Old Parliament House, the Australian War Memorial and Mt. Ainslie on Burley Griffin’s imaginary line between Mount Ainslie and Mount Bimberi in the distant Brindabellas. I strongly recommend that you go up to the top of Mt Ainslie take in this quite stunning alignment though you also get a good view towards Mt Ainslie from within Parliament House as depicted below.
To say Parliament House is located “atop” Capital Hill is not quite true. It is more accurate to say it is located within Capital Hill.
Australia’s ensemble of politicians in the 1970s and 1980s were a much more modest collection than the current self-serving, opinionated, grandstanding gaggle of mediocrity (and I’m being kind). I say this because it was decided that as Parliament was elected to serve to people and not the other way round, it would send the wrong message by building a parliament on top of this hill lauding over the rest of Canberra.
Consequentially the hill was removed, Parliament built and the hill replaced back on top of it. One can imagine if the same building was constructed today the hill would be raised prior to commencement of work!
The building was designed by New York based architects Mitchell/Giurgola who won a design competition which attracted 329 entries from 28 countries.
Before going into the building and while admiring the outside of the building, which from above is in the shape of two boomerangs, do pay special attention to the following:
The Forecourt Mosaic – located about 50 metres back from the main entrance. This mosaic represents a Possum and Wallaby Dreaming and is made up of around 90,000 hand-cut granite tiles of seven different colours. It is based on a Central Desert dot-style painting by Nelson Jagamara, a leading Aboriginal artist from the Papunya community of the Northern Territory. While it is perfectly acceptable to walk on the mosaic it is not acceptable to rest your camera tripod there-on!
The roof – Access to the roof is now (for security reasons) only via a lift inside the building. As I indicated earlier Parliament is built into the hill and as a result has a grass roof with rather nicely manicured lawns. While you are welcome to walk on the grass your dogs are not. Recalling that you can walk over both houses of parliament imagine the indignity (and your amusement) if your dog were to lift its leg, or worse, as the honourable members debated directly below!
The Flagpole and Flag – when you access the roof you can get up close to the 81-metre high stainless steel flagpole and its 12.8 x 6.4 metres flag (equates to a double decker bus). Do have a look up before you visit the roof – you can see it from lots of locations in Canberra.
Australian Coat of Arms – Above the main entrance door.
The building is one of Canberra most visited attractions with about 1 million visits each year. Despite this, I have been there numerous times and never had a feeling that the place was overcrowded.
Once you have had a look around outside (and I recommend you do that before going inside) go inside noting that you must go through airport style security so please, Dear Reader, no bombs, guns, nail files and the like).
Once you have passed through security you will immediately be in the very grand entrance hall/foyer where you can pick up a free map/ brochure. Free guided tours leave from the information desk here so just ask when the next one leaves. I highly recommend you take one, as I have done a few times now. After the 45mins tour (30 mins if Parliament is sitting) you can return to see things, at a more leisurely pace, that particularly took your fancy on the tour, if anything!
While 90% of materials used in the Parliament building are Australian sourced much of the marble you see in the foyer is from overseas – gifted by Belgium, Portugal and Italy. Look our for fossils in the marble.
Anyone who has been out in the Australian bush or seen pictures of it will not fail to notice how the blue/green coloured marble columns resemble Australia’s native blue gum trees. Lift your head and admire the wonderful inlaid woodwork right around the foyer.
Prior to going upstairs to the main Parliament area, have a look in the Great Hall which is accessed from the back of the foyer. You can also look down into the Great Hall from the next level up. This hall is used for state banquets and indeed can be hired out by anyone – for a rather hefty fee. It was in this hall that Queen Elizabeth II opened Parliament on 9 May 1988. The most notable feature in the Great Hall is a quite remarkable tapestry covering most of the back wall (why it wasn’t extended to cover the back doors, beggars belief). See my separate review on the Great Hall Tapestry.
When you go upstairs, taking the stairs behind the information desk, turn right at the top. Between here and the entrance to the house of Representatives ( equivalent to the British house of Commons and the lower house in other Parliaments) you will pass by various works of art, including that upon which the tapestry in the Great Hall, is based. This display in this area varies from time to time.
At the end of this area and to the left you can enter the House of Representatives Australia’s lower house of Parliament and the one in which the Prime Minister (currently Malcolm Turnbull) sits. If parliament is sitting you can watch from the visitors gallery (don’t come expecting a high quality of debate!) The layout, colour, and accoutrements of this house will be familiar to anyone who has visited or seen pictures of the House of Commons in Westminster, London though I hasten to add the lighter green colour is not due to fading induced by the hot Australian sun. It, and the lighter red in the Senate (upper house), are however representative of a sun-burnt Australia. You will also note that the chambers are also somewhat more roomy than the respective chambers in Westminster.
Having seen enough of the House of Representative you should at this point take the lift up to the roof. Up here you can have a stroll on the lawns that cover Parliament – as far as I know, a unique experience. Great views from here as well. If its cold and or windy bring a jacket!
Having returned from your sojourn on the roof, across the lobby from the House of Representative is the Senate, which I find a nicer looking chamber and well worth a visit. Having said that, apart from a few of our better-known senators, most of the senators (all elected, albeit by a most peculiar type of proportional representation) will be unknown to even most Australians. An interesting bit of triva – my Reader will be aware that exits are normally marked by green, often illuminated, signs and so it was that green signs were installed in the Senate. Indeed green signage is a legal requirement in Australia. After much deliberation Members decided that they could not possibly have anything green in the Senate and the exit signs were changed to red – the only non green exit signs permitted in Australia.
As you cross to the Senate do stop to have a look at the portraits in this area. Here you will find portraits of Queen Elizabeth II – Queen and Head of State of Australia; the Governor-General – the Queens representative in Australia (appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister) and all of Australia’s past Prime Ministers. Also here is the signed apology provided to Aboriginals forcibly removed from their families prior to the 1970s. Do see my separate review – “Sorry” – A Parliamentary Apology.
In the centre of this area, if you look down to the lower level, you will see a water feature. While this is reasonably aesthetically appealing that is not its purpose. Members of Parliament gather in this area and the purpose of the noisy water feature is to drown out their conversations from prying press members and nosy members of the public who would otherwise be able to listen in from above. Look up here and through the glass roof you will see the rooftop flagpole.
Having visited the Senate, continuing on in a clockwise direction you will enter into a “parliamentary history” museum area. The most notable document you will find here is one of four surviving originals of the 1297 Inspeximus issue of Magna Carta. The other surviving originals can be found in the National Archives, London, in the Guild Hall of the City of London and in the National Archives in Washington DC. I have prepared a separate review on the Magna Carta.
When you are finished here, do not be tempted to take the stairs down to the lower level exit but, rather, continue on this level to the front of the building for an amazing view towards Old Parliament House, Anzac Parade, the Australian War Memorial and Mt Ainslie (pictured above). Next up you will come to the Queens Terrace – pop out on the Terrance to see a statue of Queen Elizabeth II. Here you will also find a reasonable café – the Queen’s Terrace Café’ if feeling peckish.
Again, carrying on in a clockwise direction and before going back down the stairs you ascended at the beginning of your tour you will come across a post office. Stamps on letters, post cards, etc posted from here will be cancelled with a Parliament House stamp – evidence to your friends that you were here or a nice cheap souvenir for yourself.
Talking about souvenirs, having descended the stairs you can visit a small souvenir / gift shop just before you exit the building.
While visitors have access to about 20% of Australia’s Parliament (much higher than most countries) if you are lucky enough to be in town when special openings are held you can see lots more and indeed access the Prime Minister’s office. If you miss out on the extended tour, as most people will, do pop down the road to Old Parliament House (which closed when this one opened in 1988). There you can visit the former Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet Room and much, much, more. Highly recommended.
Outside of building – 24hrs Daily though you can only access the roof from inside, during building opening hours
Interior – 9.00am – 5.00pm on non-sitting days 9:00am on Monday and Tuesday and from 8:30am on Wednesday and Thursday to House rise on sitting days.
Check web site more details including access to Question Time.
Entrance Fee– Free
Getting there –
By Car – Free, though timed, carparking is available under the building – follow the signs. Don’t get lost on the roundabouts!
By public transport – ACTION Bus.
On foot – a reasonably short walk from the lake and Old Parliament House.
Address: Capital Hill
Phone: 02 6277 5399