Parliament
House is supposed to be the People’s Palace – but we may end up sleeping out on
the veranda.

Almost
every day in Canberra there’s a function up on the Hill for one organisation
or another – lovingly and expensively catered for by the Hyatt. A function for
people who can afford to pay the security charge levied on guests, not to mention
the air-conditioning fees that get charged.

But
Parliament’s for the people, not just big-billing lobbyists and cashed up
pressure groups. And – air-conditioning fee or not – there are growing fears
that the group who bring Parliament to the people will be left out in the cold.

A senior
figure in the Department of Parliamentary Services, the body that overseas the
Parliament, along with the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of
Representatives, has foreshadowed a rise in the rents paid for space in the
Press Gallery. It appears that the DPS regards the Gallery in the way Westfield regards strip shop space. The
vital part it plays in our democracy is being ignored.

We’ve
been here before. There was a row over rents in the late 1990s. The media didn’t
want to be squatters and negotiated a deal for space based on market rates with
CPI increases – but not without some fraught moments. In the end, the Presiding
Officers and pols recognised their role and helped reach a settlement.

This time
it may be different. With sky-high security costs, the Parliament needs to find
money.

And informed
sources suggest the rent issue could well be the thin edge of the wedge
for a wider push for police checks or security clearances on journalists and
the revocation of Parliament House passes and Gallery space from some outlets.

Together,
the measures could lead to civil war in the Gallery – not that the Joint House Department will
care. But politicians and citizens should be worried about what any push to
raise rents or gut the Gallery will mean to transparency, accountability and
democracy.

That
includes Government MPs, too. But if the democracy line doesn’t work, how about
an appeal on behalf of one of their key support groups? The group that will be
hit hardest by any move is small bureaus. Small bureaus tend to represent small
businesses. And, of course, as Small Business Minister Fran Bailey told
Parliament on Tuesday
,
“This government understands and appreciates the needs of small business.” She
wouldn’t mislead the House now, would she?

Peter Fray

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