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The House with Annabel Crabb: The secret side of Parliament House hidden from the public

A woman stands in the empty Senate
Annabel Crabb negotiated access to parts of Parliament House that the public and the media don't usually get to see.

ABC: Josh Flavell

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Sprinkled around the corridors and open spaces in Parliament House — thoughtfully placed pretty much anywhere you might want to sit down and look at a view or have a quick sob or wait to see a minister — are a series of low wooden benches.

You would not necessarily think about them too much, on a busy day. But when you stop to look, you notice that their long, curved, graceful seats are made from strips of variegated timbers; rich and rare Australian woods grooved together and polished to a honeyed shine.

A discreet plate identifies the timbers used. Silky oak. Myrtle. Swamp oak. Silver ash.

But what the plates do not tell you is the story of how the benches came to be there.

More than three decades ago, while Parliament House was being designed, the architects came strongly to the view that the building should not just feature Australian art and craft, but be composed of it in some deeper way.

They wanted the furniture, the panelling, the fittings to be made by artisans so the building would not just represent Australian people, but be made by us. They went forth searching for artisans.

And on the grapevine, they heard of a man called Evan Williams, a miller in Kyogle who was on the point of retirement.

Two women sit on a wooden bench
Annabel Crabb and member of the design team Pamille Berg stop on one of Parliament's 100 wooden benches.

'An almost biblical story'

A lover of fine woods, Williams had milled eucalypts for a living, but when unusual timbers came his way, he had set them aside.

"It's an almost biblical story," recalled Pamille Berg, a member of the design team.

"On the weekends, a bit like God on the seventh day, he knew fine furniture making and so instead of just putting specialist timbers through for banana box timbers, he put those aside and specially milled those timbers for the future of fine furniture making and put them in a separate barn where they air-dried."

And so it came to pass that just as the construction of Parliament House created an intense demand for rare and in some cases near-extinct Australian timbers, the designers discovered Evan and his collection of lovingly-milled wood, which over the decades had come to include 70 different varieties.

A bench made out of several types of wood in a sunny spot
The wooden benches around Parliament House are made from fine strips of different woods

ABC: Jed Cooper

The building's 100 wooden benches are made from Evan's collection, cut finely into strips to utilise all the different woods.

"And at the end of the project, because some of that special timber was still available, we managed to have it put into a special store; given to the woodwork shop at Canberra School of Art at the university and it's still being doled out for special commissions," said Ms Berg.

The benches are a tiny part of Parliament House — that monumental building which dominates the Canberra landscape in the literal as well as other senses.

But I love this story, and the idea that the randomly-occurring thoughtfulness of a miller in northern NSW could ultimately create 100 resting places around the nation's Parliament which must — over the years — have hosted countless chance meetings, and silently monitored a million phone calls judged too difficult to be made in the office

Some of the benches are in public places. But most are in the 90 per cent or so of the building that is forbidden to the casual visitor, and off-limits to cameras.

The hidden expanse

When I worked there full-time, it was easy to appreciate the beauty of Parliament House, with its sudden courtyards and glimpses of the Brindabellas, and the vast, roving art collection that stealthily relocates itself around the building just as you have come to rely on it for navigation.

Like any holder of a press gallery pass, I had thoughtless access to all the building's best bits.

But hardly anyone else gets to see the whole of this building, which seems unfair. And the restrictions on photography mean that the exuberance of the architecture, and the work of the artisans who made benches and marquetry and tables and ceramics and so on are not familiar to all.

Moreover, our view of Parliament through the media is necessarily a narrow one.

First, the bills we hear about tend to be the contested ones, when in reality 87 per cent of the legislation that goes through both chambers is supported by both major parties. Consensus is much more common here than you might think.

Second, the photography restrictions have a strong effect on what you — as a voter and as a viewer — get to see. Question Time, images of which are freely available and broadcast live by the parliamentary broadcast team, becomes the most familiar part of the parliamentary process, leading to the broader suspicion that all politicians do is stand in a big room and shout hoarsely at each other.

So. These were the problems we were thinking about when — two years ago — my ABC colleagues Madeleine Hawcroft, Stamatia Maroupas and I set out on the long journey to make a behind-the-scenes documentary series about Parliament House.

Convincing the gatekeepers

We had watched and enjoyed the BBC series Inside The Commons, and reasoned that if an institution as famously doughty as the Palaces of Westminster could admit a film crew, surely our more laid-back Antipodean junior cousin would wave us through without hesitation and probably provide a cheese platter to boot?

Not so fast. It took us around a year to convince the multiple gatekeepers of the Parliament to let us film in its restricted spaces.

External shot of Parliament House
Our view of Parliament through the media is a narrow one.

ABC: Greg Nelson

Their concerns were reasonable: Would we respect the Parliament? Would we try to embarrass people? Would we get in the way of people doing their jobs? Would we present a security threat?

Working in our favour was the existence of the BBC series, which provided a precedent. And our work on Kitchen Cabinet demonstrated that we could make an entertaining series while still respecting the work of the subject.

But still, it was difficult. No one liked the idea of us prowling the corridors. Many of the non-elected figures in Parliament House were less than enthusiastic about being on camera. The Clerk of the Senate, Rosemary Laing — a tall and frighteningly brilliant woman with an Oxford doctorate in 17th Century English poetry — was adamant that she would not participate.

(In the end, she was persuaded, and her spiky sense of humour and tendency to burst into tears when describing great legislative moments in the Senate made her one of the jewels in the program's crown.)

Speaker Tony Smith was an energetic supporter of the series from the beginning, and after extensive negotiations we were approved to proceed. We filmed over a period of 10 months, clearing every shoot location with the Department of Parliamentary Services, the Senate and the House of Representatives, who dispatched details of our shoot locations every day to members and senators.

Special approval was needed to bring drones into Parliament.

ABC: Greg Nelson

When filming in corridors and open spaces, we were obliged to put out signs advertising our presence. And when it came to our requests to film with drones in, over and around the building, a whole new series of meetings began.

Underground and self-sufficient

How do you explain the place? Obviously — it is vast. Twenty-five hectares of space is what Parliament House and its gardens occupy.

But the things that make it truly unique have to be seen to be believed. The subterranean network of tunnels with 1,100 underground rooms that house everything from laundries to a stonemason.

The startling, yawning unfinished space called the Cathedral, which is indeed the size of a church and — dirt-floored — houses nothing but darkness, construction waste and an old newspaper dated 1988, in which president Reagan is tiptoeing toward the Moscow Summit.

Two women walk through a dark empty unfinished room
The Cathedral is a huge unfinished room in the bowels of Parliament House.

This is a building that is almost entirely self-sufficient in a way that no other Australian building is. It has engineers, mechanics, cooks, carpenters and even a stonemason. Anything that can go wrong on the premises can be fixed here too.

Sandy McInerney, latterly of the Army, runs the underground with a firm hand. She is the manager of the loading dock; the goods entrance to Parliament House, through which everything from mail to food to toilet paper to artworks must enter, and out of which all waste from the building must also pass.

Sandy, in her direct way, described the Loading Dock as "the mouth and the arse of this place".

Sandy used to be the official driver for the Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, back when he was the chief of army. She calls him "Speedo" (Cosgrove — Cossie — Great Aussie Cossie — Speedo).

Two women drive underground in a cart
Annabel Crabb with loading dock manager Sandy McInerney underground in Parliament House.

Like many of the workers at Parliament House, she was drawn here halfway through an already-fascinating career. Like many, she has become more interested in politics since she started working here. And politics has changed her life in a peculiarly intimate way.

After hearing Julia Gillard's national apology for the past practice of forced adoption, Sandy — herself adopted — went in search of her birth mother.

Which is how she found out that she had unwittingly already seen her mother — a famous Australian actress — on TV.

The hundreds of people who work behind the scenes at Parliament House are people you will never usually see on TV. But some of them have been here longer than any of the politicians. Maria Ljubic, who started here as a non-English-speaking immigrant in 1988, is now the head cleaner. Her career in this building is also the curve of her life; her evolution from Croatian to Australian.

Head cleaner Maria Ljubic
Maria Ljubic, who started here as a non-English-speaking immigrant in 1988, is now the head cleaner.

AUSPIC

Luch Jonceski, the faithful House of Representatives chamber attendant you will sometimes glimpse in Question Time ferrying notes and glasses of water, was — like Maria — here the day the building opened.

Before that, he worked as a labourer on the construction site of the building itself. These are the people of whom we went in search when we set out to make The House.

In this era of suspicion, I was surprised to find how many of those workers closest to the process still hold it in high esteem even as national disaffection with politics mounts.

No ghosts to speak of, yet

Parliament House, now 29 years old, is gradually acquiring the patina of political events. This sort of thing takes time.

A man prepares to go up the flagpole
It's a steep climb to the flagpole.

AUSPIC

As Tony Abbott told me during a very enjoyable and at times fabulously indiscreet interview in the Members' Dining Room: "But Annabel, unlike the old Parliament where those who trod the boards have passed into history, every Prime Minister who served in this Parliament is still with us. They're living figures, not historical figures.

"So this building, as yet, lacks that sense of history, lacks that presence of ghosts feel which I think the Old Parliament House definitely has."

It should be acknowledged that Mr Abbott, who presently ranks somewhere in the top one of the nation's "Unkillable Former PMs" chart, accompanied this remark with a grin.

It is true, though — the unusually high political mortality rate of prime ministers in the last decade has not quite produced the political ghosts we might otherwise expect.

The prime minister's suite — a fabulous office panelled thickly in Huon Pine — has now entertained seven occupants. It was, like every significant room in the place, designed to within an inch of its life, but few of its occupants have resisted the temptation to improve upon the decor.

John Howard's trenchant insistence on Chesterfields and the Menzies desk are probably the best-known offence against the suite's design integrity.

But the current occupant has meddled significantly too, dragging in a large table one of his advisers found in the Parliamentary Library, and insisting on a stand-up desk.

Malcolm Turnbull's fondness for working on his feet — "Sitting is the new smoking!" he announced brightly when we visited him — is highly contagious, and the fabrics staff underground will tell you that stand-up desks are now the most-requested item of furniture in the building.

Malcolm Turnbull standing desk
Malcolm Turnbull changed the original design, installing a standing desk.

For the original designers of the building, such meddling is frustrating, though they have learnt to deal with it. Ms Berg pointed out diplomatically when we spoke that the Prime Minister's office — like the rest of the building — is not the property of its temporary occupants. What this means, in the contemporary era of high prime ministerial turnover, is that the office is regularly returned to its "factory settings".

"The department does go in at 12:01 after someone moves out," said Ms Berg.

"So when a prime minister disappears, they're ready to go and restore the suite to its proper form."

The human side of legislation

The secrets of the physical building are one thing. But by far the most exciting part of making this series was the opportunity to show Australians a different view of the messy, human, sometimes terribly frustrating way in which contentious new laws are formed.

I have been in the building on countless occasions when the Senate sat late to argue, plead, cajole and agonise over a piece of legislation, but the chance to film it happening in real time was an extraordinary privilege.

The Senate allowed us to film from the attendants' box, which meant we captured not only the goings-on among the senators, but the manic behind-the-scenes activity among attendants corralling amendments as they are drafted and debated, and using the Willy Wonka-esque Lamson Tube, a pneumatic message chute, to ping amendments back to the Senate Table Office.

What you see can be scary; you realise just how random the fate of some Australian legislation is.

But you also see the human face of legislators doing their best to come up with workable compromises; a reminder that — as Churchill said — democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the other kinds.

The House with Annabel Crabb premieres on Tuesday at 8:00pm on ABC and iView.