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House of Representatives Chamber — M176North Wing, Main Floor

The House of Representatives Chamber has strong and special associations for the Australian community as the setting for many momentous events in the life of the Australian Parliament between 1927 and 1988. The House of Representatives is sometimes called the ‘people’s house’ and each member in the House represents an electoral division. The majority of the Parliament’s sitting time is devoted to Government business, particularly legislation and associated debate and voting. The design of the Chamber provided for the seating of Government, Opposition, and other party Members in designated locations within the Chamber and reflects both the adversarial nature of parliamentary debate and a conscious attempt to create a space suitable for collegiate discussion. Government Members sat to the right of the Speaker (as he or she faced the main door), the Opposition sat to the left and other parties sat on the cross benches. These arrangements reflected the Westminster tradition.

The centre table was a significant focal point in the House of Representatives Chamber as it was primarily around this table that formal discussions and debates took place. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition sat at this table on the Government and Opposition side respectively. A reporter’s stool and chair were placed at the foot of the table on the Opposition side for the Hansard Reporters to transcribe the proceedings. The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition addressed the House from ornate despatch boxes on either side of the table, a gift from King George V in 1927. Other objects on the table included the Mace (a symbol of the Speaker’s authority), a two-minute sand glass, copies of the Constitution, recent Hansard volumes and stationery racks.

Although John Smith Murdoch designed Provisional Parliament House in a stripped classical style, many aspects of the interior furnishings in the House of Representatives were derived from Westminster traditions and symbols. The green and red colours of the two Chambers (House of Representatives and Senate respectively) reflect the colour scheme of the lower and upper houses in the British House of Commons. While the origins of having green in the lower house are unclear, it is believed that green was possibly based on Tudor colours or due to green dye being traditionally cheaper. The Australian Parliament also borrowed offices from the Westminster model that were associated with Parliamentary ceremony and the preservation of Parliamentary order including the Serjeant-at-Arms and the Speaker. The Serjeant-at-Arms’ role was to precede the Speaker into the Chamber, bearing on his right shoulder the Mace which was the symbol of the authority of the Speaker and, by extension, of the House of Representatives. The Speaker was the presiding officer in the Chamber except when meeting in committee mode. The large Gothic-style Speaker’s Chair at the head of the Chamber was a replica of the one in the British House of Commons and was presented to the Australian Parliament by the United Kingdom Branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association.

Another aspect of the British Parliament that John Smith Murdoch, the principal architect of the Architects Department of the Federal Capital Commission, initially wanted to borrow for the House of Representatives was the seating arrangements. Murdoch’s plans from 1923 show he had originally designed the seating arrangement to mirror the configuration of parallel seating in the House of Commons in England. This was rejected by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works which recommended he follow the horseshoe or semicircular pattern used in the French Chamber of Deputies and other European parliaments in the belief that it would enable members to hear and see proceedings more clearly. When Provisional Parliament House opened in 1923 there were 73 Members in the House of Representatives Chamber. The size of this room was based on the assumption that this number would not rise to more than 112. By 1988 the number of Members reached 148 which caused a serious strain on the Chamber. The Chamber desks and bench seats went through numerous changes to try and accommodate this increase such as swapping the two seater desks and benches for six seaters.