Comedienne Robyn Moore, the voice artist
from the How Green Was My Cactus radio series, tells a story about the problem
she faced when First Lady Janette arrived on Cactus Island – the crew suddenly realised they had never
heard Janette Howard speak. Oh, they’d certainly seen her often enough on the
news, but they’d never actually heard her.

Moore was obviously concerned about getting her impersonation right but
had to make do with what she thought Mrs Howard might sound like from the way
she looked. It says something about both women that when Moore finally heard
Howard on Australian Story, she decided the vocal caricature had been about
right.

Janette Howard’s public speaking remains
relatively rare, hence the coverage of her performance on Monday at Old Parliament House’s exhibition, Mrs Prime Minister – Public Image, Private
Lives,
featuring images and relics of the 24 women who have been the wife
of an Australian Prime Minister.

Old Parliament House, that most suitably
modest building, is an excellent setting for such an exhibition, just as it is a wonderful home for the National
Portrait Gallery. Too bad the Federal Government is blowing a few hundred
million of our dollars to build yet
another monument on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin for the thing.

While Mrs Howard was disavowing having any
public role as the Prime Minister’s wife, she is of course the patron of the
NPG. Despite assurances
that having Australia’s best-connected patron did not help win the new building, one
can’t help being a little suspicious.

Certainly there are difficulties housing a
gallery inside the heritage structure, the temporary walls need improving and
there could be more flexibility in the
use of the rest of the building as well, but the problems should be outweighed
by the aptness of the setting and the
synergies for both institutions.

How unfortunate that one of Janette’s rare
official roles will coincide with the appeal of Old Parliament House and the
National Portrait Gallery being diminished. It will be interesting to see how
NPG visitor numbers will go when it’s stuck out by the High Court.

Peter Fray

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