By Wendy Johnson
A GOLDEN key used by the Duke of York to open Old Parliament House in 1927 was unveiled this morning at the Museum of Australian Democracy by the present Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tony Smith.The precious artefact is on loan to MoAD for six weeks as the centrepiece of a new exhibition celebrating the 90th anniversary of Old Parliament House.
According to museum director Daryl Karp, Old Parliament House was once dismissed by its architect JS Murdoch as “a rough job” but has since become “one of Canberra’s jewels”.
As a special treat for Mr Smith, MoAD departed from convention and let him sit for a minute in the old Speaker’s chair, crafted in part from wood from Westminster and Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory.
Journalist and author Paul Daley was on hand to host a conversation with Mr Smith about the role of the Speaker today, but not before former parliamentarian and now chair of the Australian Heritage Council, David Kemp, reflected on the many grant debates and decisions that had been made in this building, which he said was when it opened “the achievement of a natural home” for Australians.
“What a journey has taken place within these walls,” Kemp said.After exchanging historically-informed opinions about their favourite AFL teams, (Daley for Collingwood and Smith for Carlton) Smith told Daley what it was like to become Speaker in such a sudden and unexpected way, replacing Bronwyn Bishop in what he called “all a bit of a flurry”. But from the outset, he had decided to absent himself from party meetings because “as Speaker you have to be impartial”.
This had proved particularly difficult in the case of the Government’s “heart-attack majority”, where the Speaker’s casting vote could mean the difference between life and death for his party, but he had given considerable thought to the principles of the casting vote and believed he had acted with integrity.
In fact, he told daily he had ejected several of his closest colleagues, including Michael Sukkar, who had nominated him for the position of Speaker.
In keeping with the celebration of the opening, Daley told those present the story of Jimmy Clements and John Noble, two Indigenous men who attended the opening of Old Parliament House in 1927.
“The police thought Jimmy Clements and John Noble, in their bare feet and with their wild hair and unkempt clothes, were best kept away from the royals,” Daley says.
“But many in the crowd seemed to disagree and their support for these men demonstrated that traits regarded as quintessentially Australian – belief in the right to a fair go and to respectful defiance – were demonstrated at this event in 1927 even though Indigenous Australians continue the struggle for both 90 years later. ”
“The Opening Day: 9 May 1927”, curated by Stephanie Pfennigwerth, tells the stories of the people who were present through photographs, recollections and memorabilia. Open for 12 months at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. Entry is free after museum admission.