A place for the Parliament

Closer Look – Australia's Parliament House [PDF 2.02Mb, 14 pages]

The chambers

The two curved walls in Parliament House also separate the two chambers, a division that physically represents Australia's bicameral parliamentary system in which laws can only be passed if both houses agree.

The House of Representatives and Senate chambers are the largest spaces in the building. Members of parliament meet in the chambers to debate bills (proposed laws) and represent the people from their electorate or state/territory.

There are 150 members in the House of Representatives; however, the chamber was designed to seat up to 240 members to allow for population growth and a consequent increase in the number of representatives. Similarly, while there are currently 76 senators in the Senate chamber, it is designed to accommodate up to 120 senators.

In both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the seats are arranged in rows in a horseshoe shape. This replicates the layout of the chambers in Old Parliament House.

The colours of the chambers are based on those used in the British Parliament, with red for the Senate and green for the House of Representatives. These traditionally rich colours have been adapted to reflect the Australian landscape. The green used in the House of Representatives and the red in the Senate are similar to the grey-green and red ochre colours of Australian native plants, such as eucalypts and wattle trees.

In both chambers

  1. Members of the government sit to the right of the Speaker (House of Representatives) or President (Senate), while members of the opposition sit to the left.
  2. Members of minor parties and Independents sit on the benches at the curve of the chamber.
  3. There is a seating area above the chambers called the press gallery, set aside for the media.
  4. There are visitors' galleries where members of the public can view proceedings.
  5. There are sound-proofed sections in the public galleries for special interest groups.
  6. TV cameras and microphones are used to broadcast proceedings.

Each chamber has a distinctive architectural style. In the Senate, this is based on circles and ellipses (breaks) and in the House, on angular shapes. The chamber ceilings provide a striking example of this contrast. It can also be seen in the rooftops of both chambers: the Senate has a circular roof and the House of Representatives roof is angular. The rooftops are finished with red terracotta tiles. This is a reference to the red-tiled rooftops of many Australian homes.

Both chambers have large central roof skylights which let in natural light during the day, and at night glow with the light from the chamber to indicate Parliament is sitting. In Old Parliament House, a red light on the roof above the Senate chamber and a green light above the House indicated when each chamber was in session.

In both the Senate and House of Representatives, the colours are a deeper shade at the floor level, which puts the focus on the participants in the chamber. The colour gradually lightens as it gets closer to the ceiling, where it combines with the natural light from the skylight to give the space above each chamber an airy, floating quality. The architects intended that this be a 'metaphor for a free and open society'.

Parliament House clock – one light flashes red for the Senate and the other flashes green for the House of Representatives

There are over 2700 clocks in Parliament House, fitted with two flashing lights which call members of parliament to the chambers. One light flashes green for the House of Representatives and the other flashes red for the Senate. They let members of parliament know when a session of Parliament begins, a vote is to be held or if they are needed in the chamber for other business. When the lights are activated, the sound of a bell rings through loudspeakers in the building.

Cabinet Room

Cabinet is made up of the Prime Minister and senior ministers, and is the main decision-making body of the government. Cabinet usually meets in the Cabinet Room. This room is located on the ground floor of Parliament House opposite the Prime Minister's office and close to the offices of the other ministers.

While it is one of the few rooms in the building that has no natural light, the Cabinet Room does not resemble a bunker. Rather it has a simple 'leanness' that is intended to represent democracy. The architects compared the room, with its smooth, understated and elegant surfaces, to a large passenger ship.

The ceiling in the Cabinet Room is finished with timber marquetry panels inlaid with eucalypt leaves, which were designed by Adelaide artist Tony Bishop and made by craftsman Michael Retter. Hidden among the leaves is a cicada, a dragonfly and a blowfly. Despite these 'bugs', the room is highly secure and is regularly swept electronically because the Cabinet discuss confidential and secret matters which affect the nation. Tony Bishop believes his 'bugs' add a touch of Australian larrikinism and informality. He likes to imagine a minister in the debugged Cabinet Room 'looking at the ceiling, only to find that after all the effort there were still bugs there' (Weekend Australian, April 16 1988).

Committee rooms

Parliament House contains 19 committee rooms. Although these rooms are parliamentary spaces, they are not used for debating or voting on law-making. A parliamentary committee is made up of a small number of parliamentarians with a specific task— generally to gather information related to a bill (proposed law) or an issue of community concern. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have a range of committees, including joint committees.

The largest of these rooms is the Main Committee Room. It is the only area in the executive wing with a gallery that is open to the public. Like other major spaces in the building, it features a central skylight and timber-panelled walls. The room was designed for committee meetings, hearings, public conferences and televised press conferences.