This fleeting exhibition at Victoria’s Parliament House would have to be the closest-held secret in Melbourne! It’s only on for a week (i.e. 15-19 May 2017) and there’s not a single sign or indication outside Parliament House that it’s even on. You need to walk up the steps and ask the person on the door to let you in, then go through X-ray security before going to reception and signing in. Even once you’re inside, there’s nothing to let you know that the exhibition is on. But enter the beautiful Queens Hall, you’ll see it, and an interesting little exhibition it is, too.
Now that Canberra has been Australia’s capital city since 1927, we tend to forget that the newly-constituted Commonwealth Government first sat in Melbourne. Why Melbourne? First, it may have been a bit of a sop to Victorian pride, given that the decision was made to locate Canberra in New South Wales. Second, thanks to the Gold Rush, Victoria had suitably grand buildings available- probably more so than in the older capital city of Sydney.
So, like a guest that lingers too long, the Commonwealth Parliament sat in what was then, and is again now, Victorian Parliament House. It was anticipated that they might squat there for four or five years, but it ended up being 26 years. The Victorian parliament was booted up to the Exhibition Building where they took over one wing while the Exhibition Building continued with its usual functions- including a huge hospital ward for the Spanish Influenza (I bet the pollies weren’t too keen on sharing the premises then!)
The Victorian pollies didn’t particularly like being shunted off to the Exhibition Building. It wasn’t right in the centre of the city like Parliament House was, and they had to leave behind their Parliamentary Library for the use of their federal colleagues. To add insult to injury, there were 1400 volumes missing from the library when they finally moved back in 1927. The exhibition shows the correspondence back-and-forth between the state and federal librarians, each blaming each other for the disappearance of so many books.
The Exhibition Building was hot too. During the hot summer of 1902-3 the Commonwealth Government took pity on their sweltering state counterparts and allowed them to use their own Parliament House for thirty sitting days, but that was a one-off.
Meanwhile the Federal politicians made themselves right at home, with our first Prime Minister Edmund Barton taking up residence in the attic, and Billy Hughes building a man-shed on the roof of the north building, complete with a microphone connected to the parliamentary chambers so that he could hear what was going on.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Melbourne during WWI, and it was good to remind myself that the wartime Federal Government was located right here. Melbourne was the centre of all the action. Nonetheless, I suspect that the worthies of the Victorian Parliament were glad to pick up sticks from Exhibition Building and head back to their ‘real’ chambers once the Commonwealth government moved to Canberra on 9 May 1927.
So, an interesting little exhibition- but you’ll need to be quick!