Behind the Scenes at Parliament House

Outside of writing and blogging, I work for a charity here in Sydney, the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia. One of the perks of the job, if you’re a political nerd such as I am, is that we occasionally work with politicians for lobbying and awareness work, and host a yearly event at Parliament House in Canberra. (Canberra is Australia’s capital, with Parliament House being the center of national government, a la the US Capitol Hill).

Our event is generally well-attended by MPs (Members of Parliament, or elected representatives) Senators, and legislative staff, as well as the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.  It’s also one of my favorite days of the year, from a work perspective. It’s a great opportunity to reach such an influential audience on a health issue that’s of importance to all Australians.

(For a quick rundown on how the Australian Parliamentary system works, check this out.) 

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Parliament House, Canberra

If you’re ever in a position to attend an event at Parliament House with the Prime Minister, your local representative or Senator, it’s an awesome moment to have your voice heard. Here’s a few tips on what it’s like, and to know what to expect. All opinions are based solely on my own personal experience.

Politicians are people too

To me, Australia seems to have less ‘career politicians’ than America. Many elected officials run for office without having a government background. This, combined with Australia’s tall poppy syndrome, tends to make politicians more down to earth and perhaps less elitist, compared to the American system.

Not naming names, but I recall sitting down at the airport once, and doing a double (probably triple) take, when I realised a former Australian Prime Minister was sitting at the table next to me, relaxing alone, waiting for a flight. In the US, where even former presidents, and their families, receive Secret Service coverage for life, it was slightly refreshing to see a former world leader suffering the pains of flying economy, just like everyone else.

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To the right- what you see on television. To the left- the media.

You’ll see the wave of media before you see the Prime Minister 

A literal wave of media, cameramen, and journalists follow the Prime Minister (and often the Leader of the Opposition) as they go about their day. You’ll see a throng of cameramen, walking backwards to film, as politicians make their way to an event. So, if everyone at the event stops to look at the approaching media, it probably means it’s because someone important is entering the room.

Be respectful of the office, even if you disagree with the individual’s politics

I am a firm believer in that, whether you are Liberal, Labor, Green, etc., it’s of paramount importance to be polite, respectful, and considerate of the person you are meeting, even if you secretly think your labrador would do a better job in elected office. This is especially true if you are representing your business or organisation, rather than just yourself.

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The Accidental Australian, hard at work…

Time is of the essence

Everyone in Canberra has to be somewhere 10 minutes ago-politicians have insanely busy schedules. Outside of Parliamentary sitting times, they are constantly being shuffled by their aides from one function to another. Stay cool if your appointment gets rescheduled, and be direct and to the point when you do meet.  

Everyone likes free food (Refer to point one.)

What’s the biggest draw card for our event? A free lunch. Would people come without this? Probably, but the smell of barbecue wafting through the courtyards of Parliament House definitely doesn’t hurt.

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View of Parliament House from the upper levels- opened in 1988, it’s an amazing structure, from an architectural perspective.

How to address the Prime Minister 

A full guide to addressing elected officials in Australia, including the Prime Minister, can be found here

Personally, I think it’s a massive honor to meet the leader of just about any country, and must admit I was slightly nervous. But hey, it’s not every day a random girl from small-town Maryland finds herself meeting a Prime Minister, albeit extremely briefly, so I considered myself lucky. It’s funny the places we end up in life.

Differences in security

Again, in America, everywhere the President goes becomes a media circus, complete with Secret Service, armored cars, and media. US politicians are insanely protected (for good reason). However, the Australian approach is less intense, which I think speaks to the safety of Australia generally. Elected officials are not trailed by security detail, and this seems to work well here. It also makes the whole political system feel more accessible, coming from an American perspective. 

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That funny moment when you turn on the tv and see your charity’s event (and yourself!) on the evening news. 

Media coverage is key

Media are everywhere in Parliament House, and politicians know this. There is often an effort by politicians  to get noticed by the media, in the hopes of making it onto the evening news. This is especially true if they are not front benchers or well-known nationally.

So, if someone stuffs up, says something ridiculous, or you find yourself in a position where you have to stand behind the Prime Minister while he’s giving a speech, holding for dear life onto a pole, so the massive winds don’t blow a banner over on top of him, just go with the flow. (True story- I literally did that once.) 

Had I failed, and the Prime Minister had a banner fall on top of him while giving a speech, yes, it would have made the news on every channel. But, it also would’ve been really embarrassing for everyone involved- so, I held on for dear life. 

But generally, any news coverage from your event is also great publicity for your organisation.

Question Time

If you do find yourself at Parliament House during a sitting, definitely try to sit in on Question Time, which occurs daily at 2pm, both in the House and Senate. Tickets are free and first come, first serve, and Question Time is a chance to sit in on the discussions and the burning issues of the day. Question Time is a daily opportunity for members to ask questions of ministers, which they are then obligated to answer. It can get heated, and not even politicians are immune from swinging around insults from time to time at their opposition.

Interested in other differences between Australia and the US? Check out this post.

Have you been to Parliament House? What did you think of it?

11 Comments

  1. Good ol Canberra – my home town, so we took many a school trip to Parliament house. And when my husband (from the US) moved to Australia, one of our dates was to sit in on Question Time haha might sound like an odd date but it’s better entertainment than the circus!

    I can’t say I’ve had the opportunity to attend an event at Parliament House with the Prime Minister though – what a great chance to have your voice heard! I think there’s a lot more approachability with our politicians than say America – as you said, they’re actual people, and you feel like you can stop and chat with them.

    Good tip to look for the swarm of media if you’re trying to locate the prime minister! And thankyou for including a note to be respectful regardless of your opinions or views. Ultimately they’re people too.

    1. That’s an awesome date idea! I would love that actually, but I am a bit weird. Yes, it definitely feels like the Australian system is more approachable and accessible, which is definitely a good way to be.

  2. The corridors of power and seats of Government are always fascinating in all countries. But as you rightly say Politicians are people too. Thanks for de-mystifying the Australian Parliament. It was a nice, informative and interesting read. It is heartening to note the support of politicians across different rungs sinking their political differences and supporting such an important cause.

  3. An awesome experience and an interestinng, and unique post to visit the parliament and meet the prome minister! You are right, not all of us can meet them in person on a everyday basis 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻, bravo that they are supportive and welcoming to all sorts of charity work and politic views. @ knycx.journeying

    1. Yes, it’s a pretty amazing experience, and agree that it’s so great to have the support for the charity, makes a massive difference!

  4. I am not sure that I agree with you about there being fewer ‘career politicians’ in the Australian parliament. There seem to be more and more all the time. There is no doubt however that our politicians (most of them) are less elitist than in some other countries. Not so many years ago we were at midnight mass on Christmas Eve in Sydney and sat directly behind the then Prime Minister. Apart from a couple of guys with earpieces in their ears there was nothing to indicate that the PM or his family were any different to the other members of the congregation.

    1. Yes, it does seem to be the trend to model the American system in terms of career politics, although still perhaps not as bad as the US. Would have made for an interesting Christmas mass!

  5. I have never attended any political events or have had the opportunity to visit the Parliament House! Love that the politicians are so approachable and supportive of the charity efforts.

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