1. SMH, May 10, 1988, pp. 1, 7. | 2. SMH, May 17, 1988, p. 3.

1. Robert Haupt, [Untitled], The Sydney Morning Herald, May 10, 1988, pp. 1, 7 — untitled (mistakenly?) on p. 1, which had other reports and photos of the 9 May 1988 Parliament House opening, it continued on p. 7 with the title “Dream of a design — or a travesty?”

The French savant Roland Barthes once announced, after much intellectual inquiry, that it was difficult to live in Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower.

Having seen, visited, watched and inspected our new Parliament House yesterday, I think I am beginning to grasp what he meant. The building itself, from a distance, is no more than a replaced hilltop — legislative scar-tissue in a wounded landscape. But the giant prong that sticks into the sky above it exerts a strong influence, even a fascination. It is not only impossible not to see, it is impossible not to look at, and impossible not to think about.

We were all pointed towards the prong yesterday — aligned like so many iron filings in a strong magnetic field (except for an obstinate codger busy at croquet). And while I can’t speak for the rest of the crowd, as we marched shoulder-to-shoulder along the avenue, over the bridge across the circular road (I almost said moat), and onwards to the long, rising way that leads to the building’s white portico, for me it was to experience a definite presence. This prong is resonant, like a tuning fork.

Partly it is because the whole great frame of it shines in the sun: this and the flag’s lazy waving have a mesmeric tendency. The effect of the sight was all the stronger for its being seen over the heads of the crowd streaming up the ceremonial way: before this symbol, we experienced solidarity.

But I owe a colleague the striking insight about this motif of upright sticks topped by the horizontal slab of flag. It is, we are told, Romaldo Giurgola’s pride, this device. How odd, then, that a refugee from fascism should have reproduced above the house of a democratic parliament the fascist emblem: a bundle of sticks with a protruding axe!

That great, glittering steel structure is too big and too powerful; it makes me nervous; it draws attention too much; it boasts and shouts and swaggers; it is, in a word, too latin. In writing this, I may offend Giurgola and his supporters, but there is little point in describing the way I felt yesterday without trying to analyse why, even less in pretending I didn’t feel that way at all.

The fault, perhaps, lies with the site: had Parliament not taken the hill, the need to punctuate the skyline might not have arisen. Commentators sought yesterday to suggest that this building is the culmination of Walter Burley Griffin’s design for Canberra (even the Queen went perilously close to this fib), not the travesty of it that — through its siting — it is.

Long after the ceremonies had ended, after the forecourt had been cleared of VIPs, and only a handful of folk remained to show that anything remarkable had happened there at all, I came back, in the gathering dusk, to look again. I did not change my mind.

You could tell from the crowd, at the opening ceremony and during the watching and wandering and picnicking that followed, that my feelings are not widely shared: in their conversations and (more importantly) by their demeanour, they embraced the building. Even the Aboriginal-rights protesters profited from the day, doing a busy trade in “White Australia Has a Black History” T-shirts and “Nothing to Celebrate in ’88” buttons.

It was not so much the opening of a Parliament, but of a phenomenon: people came to see the building that will house the institutions whose proceedings send them to sleep, and celebrities for whom they mostly hold contempt. That so few turned out when so many were expected is perhaps an index of officialdom’s misguided opinion of itself.

Yet there were significant people there, besides the royal couple, and an hour or two in the foyer of the Hotel Canberra was most instructive. There goes Stephen Loosley and John MacBean, followed a little while later by Laurie Brereton: where (the question asks itself) is Graham Richardson? John “Johnno” Johnson turned up and described his victory in the ballot for president of the NSW Legislative Council with one of the timeless verities of the NSW Labor Right: “I can count.”

And over there, in a state of some disagreement with the man who just declared the bar to be closed, is one of the VIPs in our Prime Minister’s life, Mr Eddie Kornhauser. Rebuffed, Mr Kornhauser turned away and drew his hands down across his hips, a gesture which decided me against going over to talk to him.

So many important people, so little room to house them. The ceremony’s audience had to be divided in two, with the VIPs going into the Great Hall, and the IPs into the Members’ Hall. Messrs Bond, Lowy and Johns (9, 10 and 0, respectively) benefited from this arrangement, Messrs Sommerville and Hill (2) were given a handy reminder that in the presence of these luminaries, they must sit in second class. Mr Skase (7) was not seen.

For all the dignitaries with all their dignity, the day was refreshingly democratic. I was in the souvenir tent when the 21-gun salute began. A middle-aged lady, very well dressed, reacted to the first deafening blast in a way I think could only have happened in Australia. “Shit!” she said. “What was that?”

Robert Haupt, “Show the flag? By grad, suh! It was a grind,” The Sydney Morning Herald, May 17, 1988, p. 3.

A childhood of marching and saluting and standing in the sun to listen to lectures on loyalty and royalty has had the effect — in my case — of leaving my appetite for displays of nationalism much diminished.

I suspect I am not alone.

The proposal of the NSW Government to reintroduce such ceremonies in the State’s schools taps my vein of scepticism, and a full, deep, rich vein it is. Indeed, I would say that scepticism was bred in me as much as anything else by those hours spent on patriotism parade.

It was a charade.

The flag wobbling up the flagpole, always (or so it seems) becoming stuck two-thirds of the way up; the oath was parroted; the marching, marching, marching — all and each struck me then (and strike me now) as tedious, pointless and hollow.

We always honoured Queen and country on a Monday, for some reason, and the ceremonies were followed by the issue of a ration of milk. This was to help Build Us Up, but from the blue tinge to it I doubt that it did much of that.

Ah, the Gradgrinds (Gradgreiners?) will say of our compulsory patriotism: you may not have enjoyed it, but it did you good!

This is nothing more than the theory of rote — that no matter how silly and boring an activity strikes you, so long as you do enough of it, you will learn to love it.

Thus, I am supposed by Mr Greiner to have picked up nationalism subconsciously, even against my will, in much the same way as you were once told you could learn a language by playing recordings beneath your pillow as you slept.

This is bunkum.

So resolutely did I and my coterie resist and suspect all officially-sanctioned nationalism that it was with some surprise that I learned later in life, that there is indeed truth in the account of the doing of Mr Simpson and his donkey. I had assumed it was a fib.

Ah, you might ask, but doesn’t it work differently in the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union?

I believe it does: indeed, in the case of America I know it does, for no child there may proceed at elementary school until he or she has demonstrated a firm grasp of Log Cabin Theory and Tea Party History. They know all the words of their national anthem.

I leave aside the weighty question of how desirable it is for a nation to inculcate its young with an official ideology, and note only this: in the USA, UK, and USSR, there are potent symbols and myths — revolutions, royalty and so forth — that stand as objects for national worship.

Here, we have a Queen on loan from somewhere else, a fizzer uprising, a racehorse that keeled over, a suicidal sheep-stealer, and a drunken poet. Oh, and a botched invasion.

As we marched around the square at school and recited and saluted and stood reverently to attention, for me at any rate there was a vacuum at the centre, an absence that shadowed every step we took, every word we spoke.

We wore the suits and trappings of awe, but it was not in our hearts.

I will be accused of having lapsed from acceptable scepticism into unworthy cynicism.

But I can’t help suspecting that I might have stumbled across the real reason why that flag and mast above the new Parliament House in Canberra are so big.