Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A quickie in Canberra

Parliament House in Canberra.

CANBERRA — As I start this blog, from the gallery of the Australian House of Representatives (Parliament is not is session at the moment), I’m stricken by a number of things. My previously attested dislike of the Westminster System, for example.

But mostly, I’m stricken by the Australian parliament house’s lack of flair. Compared to the Capitol in Washington, or even Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canberra in general and Parliament House in particular, seems a simplistic contrast to its fellow capitals. Aside from a few pictures of old PMs (I couldn’t find Harold Holt’s — it seems to have disappeared) and notable MPs, there are only a few static displays in the building commemorating Australia’s history. Granted, the Parliament House was only occupied within the past 20 years, so it’s not very surprising. (One thing that is surprising is that former Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett, right, is Australia's culture minister! My high school friend Eric Russell could do a decent Peter Garrett impression.)

Washington and Ottawa (the other national capitals I’ve been to) owe a lot of their grandeur to past ages. The American Capitol brings back visions of Greco-Roman style, the Canadian Parliament reminds visitors of old London-town. Canberra — and the Parliament House in particular — seems to have started out new, with architecture that doesn’t remind one of anywhere else and perhaps suffers for it. (Right, the Australian House chamber.)

There is a place of genuine emotion in Canberra, the Australian War Memorial. I’ve previously noted the predominance of small war memorials in several towns, but the national memorial here in Canberra is a huge step above them. Not only is it an effective memorial, with the requisite marble, poppies and names of the honored dead, but it contains a great museum as well.

Australia lost a higher proportion of its fighting men to World War I than any other nation, even France. It’s a common finding down here that the Australian identity was forged on the shores of Gallipoli and in the trenches of France, and the Australian War Memorial reflects the impact that the “Great War” had on the nation’s psyche.

Besides the requisite uniforms, letters, planes and guns common in all such museums, this museum added an effective extra: the diorama. Huge models of the Somme, Paschendale, Gallipoli and other major battles give a sense of the scale and drama that governed the conflict and adequately reflect the difficulties the “Diggers” faced. (Australia's "Tomb of the Unknown," left.)

I had hoped to do more than the two sites in Canberra, but I had to get back to the airport for my 5 p.m. flight. So I rushed to catch my bus to the airport (or rather near the airport, as Canberra’s Action Bus stops in a business park about a five-minute walk away). I got to the Virgin Blue counter and tried to check in, but couldn’t — my flight was canceled due to flow-control restrictions in Sydney.

Virgin booked my on the next flight, two hours later, so just a little problem there. I would’ve bused back to the city on my day-tripper pass, but the last public bus back to the airport area is at 4:35 p.m. for some reason! Oh well, Richard Branson’s crew gave me a $6 voucher to use in the airport café (not quite enough to buy a meal of course, but it was $6 more than any other airline would’ve given me) and at least there’s free wireless Internet here (hence my post …).

Now, I just need to wait and hope for good weather on Australia's east coast …

Update: 6:47 p.m. (Canberra time). My flight has just been pushed back another 15 minutes and Canberra airport is not a place to get stuck. One café with actual food (outside security) and not much to do at all. It's a good thing I don't have anything planned for tonight -- I had originally considered trying a get seats to a show tonight.
Looking back toward Parliament through the pillars of the Australian War Memorial.

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