On the Fence: Security and Transparency at Parliament House

At the central confluence of the diverging geometry around which Walter Burley Griffin designed the city of Canberra sits ‘New’ Parliament House. On the occasion of its opening in 1988, Prime Minister Bob Hawke described it as ‘a building for all Australians’. In many ways, the new parliament symbolised a nation coming of age and finding its feet. A nation with a new readiness to debate ideas about its future and how to confront the challenges of a new millennium. Now, just one year shy of its 30th Birthday, the building has settled into the city and its landscape with much of its ‘newness’ having worn off.

The vast complex sits beneath the topography of Capital Hill, a visually striking and innovative scheme in response to a complicated brief. Designed in 1978 by Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp Architects, the iconic façade and flagpole look as modern as they did thirty years ago. The government body responsible for the scheme’s selection praised the design as being accessible for all, allowing children to ‘clamber and play all over its roof.’ Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, known for the glass Louvre Pyramid in Paris, praised the ‘divine simplicity’ of the design. The plan was formed as part of an ingenious resolution to keep the hill for the people, reserving a public space on top of the building which allowed them to walk over it just as they could previously.

Today, the lustre of the once pristine, snowy white marble of the façade has faded, and the building and its occupants are being forced to confront the realities of modern security dilemmas. In November 2016, as the final sitting week of the year drew to a close, the Federal Government rushed through parliament a bill proposing a suite of measures aimed at boosting the security of the parliamentary precinct. The $63 million package featured, most controversially, a plan to erect a 2.6-meter steel fence towards the base of the grass ramps of the building. This is not the first time changes have been proposed or implemented to the building; the grassy inclines close to the summit were first fenced off in 2005. In 2014, the executive wing of the building was barricaded behind tall metal railings, a change that the lead architect of the building, the late Aldo Giurgola, described as ‘offensive and sad’. In explaining the need for the changes Senate president Stephen Parry stated that ‘the world has moved on since the original vision [of the building was articulated]’ and that modern security concerns have trumped desires to preserve the openness of the original architectural concept.

And he may have a point. Australia does indeed face a more complex and pronounced threat of terrorism than it did in 1988. Security agencies such as ASIO and the AFP have highlighted the building as a high-value target for terrorists and as particularly vulnerable to attacks. Of course, the safety of elected officials, their staff and the visiting public must be ensured. However, we must also hold the ideals of our democracy and the freedoms it insists for Australians as valuable. A concerning feature of the recent upgrades to the security at Parliament has been a reluctance to seek public consultation or comment on proposed changes. The plans have been deemed too sensitive to be explained in any detail, and even their specific cost will not be outlined in case this information might aid terrorists. Robert Stefanic, Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services, confirmed this in the last round of Senate Estimates hearings and stated that ‘there is no finalised conservation management plan or principles’ to protect the architectural integrity of the building into the future.

Haphazard security changes, lacking a holistic implementation strategy and sensitivity to their context, are not befitting of the most central institution of our democracy. Security changes should be comprehensively integrated to ensure that they are incorporated into the design of the building, rather than in spite of it. A fine line must be drawn between the security, accessibility, and design integrity of the building.

Parliament House was (taking inflation into consideration) a $2.5 billion investment in a symbol; a symbol that we as taxpayers are still paying for and one that is, over time, being diminished by gradual changes to its original vision for openness and transparency. While it may seem like just a fence to some, it is important to consider that when we begin to sacrifice the integrity of our national symbols – upon which the very validity of our nation and government sits –it shows our enemies that we will sacrifice our values to temper their malevolency.

It is a shame that the very aspects of the building’s design that elevated it from boring and meaningless to an enviable architectural symbol of openness and freedom have now been interpreted as a security liability. Moreover, the lack of any plan to preserve and maintain the building and its design intent shows a distinct lack of respect for the institution it represents, the moral rights of the architects, and the ability of future generations to understand the concepts the building sought to express. The increasing disillusionment with the political establishment isn’t aided when politicians seek to build fences and walls around the very building in which they exercise the power bestowed unto them by the public. Accessibility to the building and its grounds, both physically and visually, should be just as important to our parliamentarians as their own safety.

After all, Parliament House belongs to all Australians, not just those who occupy it periodically.