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Museum of Australian Democracy?

By Peter Vallee - posted Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The Museum of Australian Democracy is not a museum, it is a doctrine. Inevitable really. Absent a basis in relics, when you set up an institution to document an idea, especially an idea as broad and disputed as democracy, you delegate to its staff the task of what version of that idea is to be promulgated.

So what does democracy mean to those people who have constructed it?

According to the museum’s Director Jenny Anderson “Democracy isn’t just about politics but about stories of real people using their voice to do extraordinary things.” According to Michael Richards of the museum’s staff, “Usually museums tell you what they think, we are actually saying ‘what do you think’?”


But we know that behind the pandering “it’s all about you” rhetoric that is now a convention of public life, behind the cacophony of “stories” that will greet visitors, there are real decisions about what democracy means and how the actual story of democracy in Australia will be told. Please join me on a crisp Autumn day in Canberra, in front of the door of what was until this morning, May 9, 2009, called Old Parliament House, while the museum presents to an assembly of VIPs and tourists a tableau of what democracy is to mean, officially speaking.

To those of us who are still fond of Australia’s provisional Parliament House the old whore of Australian politics has never looked better, her make up immaculate, and still more charming than her obese daughter up the hill. Her acolytes, the volunteers, welcome us warmly with smiles, food and drink, but what is that awful noise? The steps are invaded by a crowd of people old enough to know better waving banners proclaiming “no dams” and “save the Franklin”.

Tricked us!

They are in fact the first of several choirs here to sing of our democracy, beginning with Let the Franklin flow free. Another choir, another dirge: this time, Dorothy Hewitt’s song Weevils in the flour, about the miseries of Australia in the Depression, a classic Australian song I hadn’t heard before. Next, My brown skinned baby, a song for the “stolen generations”, followed by Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach with more in a similar vein, and the Ainslie Primary School choir singing Black fella, white fella, and an ensemble gives us - I am not making this up - Blowin’ in the wind, the Joan Baez contribution to the Boomers’ protesting youth.

There is more, among them I was only nineteen, which you may recall excuses a soldier from the folly of taking part in Australia’s wars on the grounds of his youth. I suppose Jimmy Barnes was beyond the budget, but the next musical lecture comes from John Williamson who thinks the bush too sacred to harvest, preaches a republic and promotes a new flag of his own design, a stitching together of the Eureka cross (probably offensive to Muslim sensibilities) with a kangaroo taken from the tail of a Qantas aeroplane. He demands that everybody stand for his latest song, presumably to be the Republic of Australia’s new national anthem, and, Lord help us, we do. All of us, citizens, Ministers of the Crown, ex-politicians, ex-vice-regals, the lot. Isn’t it amazing what you can do with the voices of the people who, united, will never be defeated?

So the view of the MOAD is clear; democracy is not a form of government, as I had imagined, but a process of agitation. Democracy is always agin the government, among other things. Government itself seems to have originated in some dream-time before people had learned to chant slogans and wave banners. It will be interesting, when they let us in the door, to see how the more remote past in which our democratic constitutions were actually constructed will fit into this doctrine. But first we have the speeches, one of which, Bob Hawke’s, actually praises Australians for the way they achieved Federation. Despite a shameful lack of protests.


The “welcome to country” ceremony, conducted on behalf of the Ngambri people by Paul House, raised some interesting questions. Perhaps the MOAD could use this case study to enlighten us about rule by protest. In February 2008 the opening of the current session of the Australian Parliament was preceded by Matilda House’s welcome on behalf of the Ngambri people but just four weeks ago, on April 11 the ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, threatened legal action against anyone changing signs proclaiming Canberra the territory of the Ngunnawal people. In Canberra the city, the protests of the Ngambri are suppressed by the people’s government. In Canberra the centre of our democratic national government the Ngambri’s ownership is endorsed. Which banner should we carry up the stairs into our new museum, and how is it to be decided? Perhaps the museum will conduct one of its hypotheticals on this subject.

By the time the dirges and sermons had run their lengthy course my mind was directed more to refreshment than further education, so I will need to return later to find out how Kirsty Sword Gusmao, the subject of a special display, made such a substantial contribution to Australian democracy.

And did that screen about birth control in Australia in 1933 really show a picture of contraceptive pills? Women of my generation will be cranky that it took them a further 30 years to find out.

You can see the museum’s agenda opening out before your eyes to include whatever fits the agenda of those constructing the displays. Since this is a “museum of ideas” rather than of objects, staffed by “stirrers” according to its Deputy Director, it’s a puzzle why we should have to visit it at all. Its historic rooms are filled with little more than display boards and interactive screens, apart from the relics left in situ by the departing politicians in 1988.

Surely they should publish the book of the museum on-line so that we can all know what their ideas are without the expense of a trip to Canberra. Then, perhaps, this grand old House could become a museum of the Commonwealth Parliament, or Australian Parliaments, if the States would only agree, and glamorous Kirsty be replaced by some old stuffed-shirt, like William Charles Wentworth, who helped Sydney to keep a free press when there were no parliaments in Australia and later advocated an aristocracy of sorts. Of such refractory materials were our democracies built.

Old Parliament House was always a museum of itself even when the national portrait collection occupied its rooms. The decision to turn it into the MOAD was made without legislation, without debate in Parliament, with the same Director and Advisory Council that served its earlier and simpler purposes, and with little if any comment from the non-governing parties, as if the authority and fabric of the first Parliament House were the private property of the ALP’s Minister for Winning Elections, Senator John Faulkner. Where’s the democracy in that? History war? What history war?

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About the Author

Peter Vallee is a retired private sector manager who lives in Canberra. He has completed a study of Aboriginal people, pastoralists, police and missionaries in Central Australia during the 1880s, what they did with and to each other, and why. His book God, guns and government on the Central Australian frontier is available from all booksellers who'll take the trouble to ask the distributor and a few booksellers who already have.

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