Cabinet Room — M88North Wing, Main Floor
This room was used as the Cabinet Room at the Provisional Parliament House. Cabinet is the group of senior Ministers who meet to make nearly all the major decisions of government. Cabinet meetings are confidential and secret; even new governments are not allowed to see the records of a previous government’s meetings, as records of decisions are not released for 20 years and the Cabinet notebooks for 30 years. Until changes to the Archives Act in 2010, these closed periods were even longer. The change to access periods is being phased in over a ten-year period. In the Cabinet Room members of the government can argue and disagree, but when decisions are debated openly in Parliament the government presents a united voice. Many of the decisions made in this room still have an effect upon all Australians, our democratic society, and our relationship with the rest of the world.
When the Provisional Parliament House was opened in 1927 the main Cabinet Room was located in the Secretariat Building, now known as West Block, a building situated near the Provisional Parliament House. This room was intended as a reserve Cabinet Room, for occasional use when Parliament was in session. For convenience sake, however, successive governments began using M88 from 1929 onwards to hold some Cabinet meetings outside Parliamentary sitting times. This casual arrangement underwent a significant transformation in 1932 when the Lyons government decided to abandon the Cabinet Room in West Block in favour of Room M88 as the full-time Cabinet Room, a role it continued to serve with one brief interruption until federal Parliament vacated the building in 1988. The transformation in 1932 was probably less significant for any physical changes that might have been made to M88 at the time than for what it foreshadowed for Parliament House as a whole. It was part of a growing trend towards use of the building by the executive - as opposed to its use for purely legislative (or parliamentary) purposes - and, as such, helped to cement in place what would become one of the most important and persistent determinants of later alterations and additions to the building. This development had begun when ministerial offices were provided in the parliamentary building, with only limited provision for departmental and ministerial staff available elsewhere in Canberra in 1927. By the time the major moves of departmental staff to Canberra from Melbourne began in the 1950s, the understanding that Parliament House was the home of the executive as well as the Parliament was firmly embedded in Australia’s federal political culture.
From 1927 until 1972 this room was smaller and had an oval table, gradually extended over the years. In the 1972 extensions to the Prime Minister’s suite this room was enlarged by enclosing an adjoining balcony and soundproofed. A larger square Cabinet table (2001-1482) was manufactured for Whitlam’s Cabinet, consisting of 27 Ministers. This table was also used by the Fraser and Hawke governments. An anteroom (M90) and a new kitchen (M607) were also built during these extensions. Cabinet meetings were often long and demanding and it was important that Ministers had access to certain facilities during these meetings. On the Cabinet table and the walls of the room itself were white buttons for Cabinet members or officials to use to summon an attendant. The Ministers used this system to request food or drink, relevant papers, or to request a staff member be brought to the anteroom so they could confer with him or her.
Small tables in the corners were used by Cabinet notetakers. These senior officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (including the Secretary) recorded Cabinet discussions and decisions. It was during the first government of Prime Minister Robert Menzies in the 1940s that notetakers were first used in the Cabinet Room. During World War II it was essential to have thorough notes of defence-related decisions. Prior to this there were only poor records of Cabinet meetings, and sometimes none at all. Over time a system of having three notetakers developed, one concentrating on noting the discussion and the other two watching for final decisions.
Due to the highly confidential nature of Cabinet meetings, it was a high priority to keep the area secure. The room was soundproofed and was swept regularly for bugs by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). The door between the anteroom and the Cabinet Room was soundproofed—even the Prime Minister’s own staff could not be allowed to overhear the discussions that took place in this room. There were persistent rumours that members of the Press had devised ways of listening in to Cabinet meetings, but these rumours were never proven. After 1973 the door into the corridor outside the Cabinet Room, used by Hansard reporters during Premiers’ conferences, was provided with double doors and a narrow airlock for the same reason.
The room was also used on occasions for meetings other than Cabinet, especially prior to the extensions of the 1970s. An indigenous delegation met prime minister Robert Menzies here in the early 1960s, and the closed sessions of Premiers’ conferences also took place here.
National Archives of Australia, Fact Sheet 128: Cabinet Notebooks, accessed via http://www.naa.gov.au/about-us/publications/fact-sheets/fs128.aspx
Parliamentary Education Office, Fact Sheet 19 CABINET, accessed via http://www.peo.gov.au/students/fss/fss19.html