Parliament House Canberra has a big secret...any one been down there??
In the great yawning vault carved below Parliament, no one can hear you scream
Tony Wright Melbourne Age
March 21, 2009
CANBERRA's Parliament House is a palace of Byzantine secrets, but there is none more mysterious — or bigger — than the lost place dubbed The Cathedral. Few enough of the restless 4000 or so people who inhabit Parliament know of the existence of The Cathedral, though plenty of them scurry above its echoing depths every day.
It is a great yawning vault hacked deep into the rock of the hill upon which Parliament House sits, big as … well … a cathedral. Its concrete ceiling, which nestles beneath Parliament's lawns at its south-eastern edge, is supported by columns three storeys high.
The immense void is cool and silent, almost always perfectly dark, and its floor is nothing but exposed earth. There is even an earthen platform one might call an altar, the strata of the ages that have shaped the hill clearly visible in the shadows thrown by klieg lights on tripods, for no one has bothered to install permanent conventional lighting.
Those who know of this remote bunker gain access through a series of locked doors in Parliament's science-fiction basement, where electric carts cruise almost silently along tunnels so confusing and featureless that they have been given street names. You must call security to tell that you are down there, for if you were to accidentally lock yourself in The Cathedral, no one would hear your screams.
Those of a classical bent and a little imagination might be put in mind of Istanbul's Basilica Cistern, a magnificent underground chamber of Ionic and Corinthian (and a few plain Doric) columns that once held the water supply for Constantinople's Grand Palace.
So well hidden is the "basilica" that when the Byzantine capital fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the Cistern kept its secret from all but a few of the conquered inhabitants. It remained so for a century until a visiting archaeologist, intrigued by stories that local people dropped buckets into holes in their cellar floors and pulled up water with fish, decided to investigate.
The authorities at Parliament House have never agreed on a practical use for their own sunken palace, though a tunnel large enough for a small truck has been driven through the hill in case the cavern is needed eventually for storage or some such.
Might we venture a suggestion?
Why not put the nation's legislators down there in the darkness for a few days before each sitting period and allow them to settle their differences before hauling them back to the House of Representatives and Senate, where they could simply vote on the bills that cause them such agitation?
It is a particularly captivating notion after this long week of excruciating indecision, off-stage dealing, hand-wringing, point-scoring, caterwauling and obfuscation in the Senate.
It had been known all year that Parliament was to finish sitting on Thursday evening before adjourning for a seven-week autumn break. But senators (exhausted after talking themselves to a stop at 3am yesterday) and members of the House of Reps were back yesterday, at a cost widely estimated at $1 million, trying desperately to deal with a legislative program that had spilled clean over the edges of their ability to deal with it.
We might sympathise if the nation's elected representatives had actually spent their time dealing with the substance of the legislative program. But what are we to make of senators, for instance, spending 71 minutes at the start of Wednesday's sitting arguing about wasting time?
With senators accusing each other of filibustering and time-wasting, they managed to avoid altogether voting or dealing with the Australian Business Investment Partnership Bill 2009, which is supposed to give the nod to the so-called Ruddbank, designed to provide investment money for commercial developments.
After all the confected concern from all sides about frittering away their time, it was sent off to the never-never.
It was left to South Australian independent Nick Xenophon to reach into the Senate bible, Odgers Australian Senate Practice, which actually has a section about the end-of-season rush of legislation.
"The causes of this phenomenon are not clear," Odgers hedges before going on to make sure the reader knows exactly why the rush is always on.
"A view frequently expressed was that ministers or departments deliberately delayed the introduction of legislation until late in a period of sittings in the hope that it would be passed without proper scrutiny.
"This suspicion was reinforced by ministers regularly claiming that all government bills accumulated at the end of sittings were urgent. There were often grounds for scepticism about these claims, particularly the failure to proclaim legislation stated to be urgent at the time of its passage."
Quite. Could any mildly rational observer have failed to note that the single most contentious piece of legislation to be debated this session — the Fair Work Bill, the one the Government promised voters from before the election 15 months ago — was the very last subject to be discussed to death? Amendment after amendment, and amendments to amendments, were wrestled over to the point of meaninglessness.
The week's classic moment came at the end of just such a string of amendments to amendments relating to a subject of no moment at all when the curious Family First senator Steve Fielding tried to add the words "and that the Senate notes that this is a waste of time". These wearisome days are exacerbated by the numbers in the Senate, which, combined with the Opposition's tendency to oppose just about everything, means the Greens with Xenophon and Fielding hold the balance of power.
It is, of course, democracy, but it means that any slightly contentious matter comes down to deal-cutting and, often as not, Fielding's mood. The potential for ego or lack of interest to get in the way of common sense amounts to the fact that a single vote can change everything. Thus the fuss when the Northern Territory Country Liberal Party senator Nigel Scullion missed the vote on the alcopops tax during the week.
On that few moment's tardiness hung $1.6 billion of taxes over four years. Only Labor's astonishingly generous nod to convention and fair play — which allowed another vote — saved the day for the naysayers.
In the face of all this week's nonsense, a spell for the pollies in The Cathedral, doors locked and with bread and water provided, seems hardly absurd at all. No one would hear their screams.