A capital idea...

Canberra Travel Blog

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A flat stone fountain in Parliament. It looked like a sheet of glass.

For the first time on this trip, we hopped in a car, left the city behind, and headed toward the countryside… in this case, the rural land between Sydney, Australia’s largest city, and Canberra, Australia’s capital city.  (One should keep in mind that Australia really only has ten or so “major” cities: the two aforementioned plus Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Cairns, Hobart (capital of Tasmania), Alice Springs, and Darwin.  When you go to an airport at one of those cities, the only other domestic flights listed are to the other nine.

Looking upward through the skylight toward their flagpole. Largest stainless steel structure in the world.

Although Canberra and Sydney are separated by only 260 kilometers (approximately 160 miles), the land between them is completely rural and pastoral with rolling hills and pastures full of sheep and cows.  It is hard to analogize the land to a place in the United States.  In some places, the scene reminded us of the gentle slopes of southern and eastern Pennsylvania.  Other places were much more like the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.  Our drive also took in land that could have been lifted from the upper Midwest, from Colorado or Wyoming, or even from the plains of Texas.

Old parliament building in the foreground, then the ANZAC memorial in the far away distance.
  And even though we took this drive in late fall here, most of the foliage remained green even the grass had long since started its winter nap.

We arrived in Canberra shortly before noon.  The city is just shy of a century old and was completely planned (and designed by an American, no less).  When Australia was granted commonwealth status by Queen Victoria shortly before her death, both Sydney and Melbourne immediately staked their claim to be the fledgling nation’s capital city.  Rather than risk a fight that would tear Australia asunder, the politicians decided to find a neutral site and build a city.  Thus, Canberra came into existence.

The house was being called into the chamber. Thats what the green light and the buzzer going off means. They have 4 minutes to get there.


Unlike most European capitals but quite akin to Washington, DC, the business of Canberra is all government.  If commercial (or even cultural) activity exists here, it is well hidden.  But the beautiful buildings of the Australian government are in plain view and very accessible.  In fact, they were shockingly accessible.  When was the last time we could drive up to the US Capitol and park our car?  Not only could we do that at Parliament House here in Canberra, we could park underneath the building without having our car searched! 

Parliament House is quite unique in that most of it is underground.  In fact, you can walk on the “roof,” which is a couple of stories above ground, and survey the Aussie version of a National Mall, which stretches from Parliament, past Old Parliament House and Lake Burley Griffin (named for the American architect and planner of Canberra), and al the way to the impressive Australian War Memorial (which looks even more amazing illuminated at night).

Outside the new parliament house.

We decided to take a tour of Parliament with a full-of-energy guide who whisked us around the massive complex.  Since Parliamentarians cannot leave the building when the legislature is in session, the designers included tons of amenities, including a post office, movie theater, travel agency, restaurants and shops, gymnasium, swimming pool, and a few other things I cannot recall.  From the Prime Minister’s Office, one can open a series of doors that reveal a clean, clear passage to the building’s center, beyond and out of the front door, down Parliament Hill to the Old Parliament, and all the way to the illuminated War Memorial, a distance of seven kilometers.  Thus, from the Prime Minister’s desk, if all the doors were open, he could see clear to the other side of Canberra with no impediment. 

One of four original copies of the Magna Carta rests in Parliament, and we saw it.

Sunset in Canberra.
  We also learned why the kangaroo and the emu were both selected for Australia’s coat of arms.  Neither animal has the capability of moving backward; the symbolism is that Australia, like these two native species, is always moving forward.  (In fact, the national anthem is called “Advance Australia Fair.”) 

And a final oddity – the world’s tallest stainless steel structure sits atop the building.  It is a series of arches that form a gigantic flagpole on which the Australian national flag flies.  This particular flag is as large as two tour buses.

But the highlight of the day happened at 2:00 pm.  We were fortunate to show up on a Wednesday, because the House was in session and that afternoon was reserved for Prime Minister’s Question Hour.

You've heard of "California Pizza Kitchen", but have you tried the "Australian Pizza Kitchen"???
  Some of you may have flipped past C-SPAN and seen the weekly verbal flogging of Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister, usually by the opposition parties.  Australia adopted this custom into its parliamentary form of government and we were fortunate enough to have a seat in the gallery overlooking the floor of Parliament.

To say that the behavior of the Parliamentarians was a bit churlish might be giving them too much credit.  At least two of the members were asked “kindly to excuse” him or herself by the Speaker.  Of course this was all for show, each side hoping for the perfect zinger or sound bite for the evening news.  No real work was done.  Pure political posturing and nothing more. 

But, gracious, it was funny.  The poor prime minister tried and tried to answer a question but the opposition shouted insults and barbs while laughing or hissing.

Their pretty money.
  It resembled a den of fourth graders arguing on the playground rather than a serious assembly of men and women gathered to plot the future course for their nation.  If a naĂŻve bystander walked into that chamber and heard only that “debate,” he or she could readily assume that the opposition was devoid of all ideas and simply resorted to unsubstantiated innuendos, half-baked truths, and outright lies to gain an upper hand with the electorate, (which, for the student of American politics, sounds grossly similar to our current opposition party).  It is so much easier to shout than to have a sincere political debate or to put forth a genuine set of workable solutions.  That much seems universal.

Despite the showy aspect of the hour, it was fun to see how another country conducts both it political affairs.  I just hope we retain the quasi-civility (even if it is feigned) of our system and not resort to the downright crassness of these politicos.

Lots of flags and a cool structure up on the hill.

Tomorrow we head to Melbourne and begin our final leg in Australia. 


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A flat stone fountain in Parliamen…
A flat stone fountain in Parliame…
Looking upward through the skyligh…
Looking upward through the skylig…
Old parliament building in the for…
Old parliament building in the fo…
The house was being called into th…
The house was being called into t…
Outside the new parliament house.
Outside the new parliament house.
Sunset in Canberra.
Sunset in Canberra.
Youve heard of California Pizza …
You've heard of "California Pizza…
Their pretty money.
Their pretty money.
Lots of flags and a cool structure…
Lots of flags and a cool structur…
Chris in front of the old Parliame…
Chris in front of the old Parliam…
photo by: Sunflower300