Keep off the grass: Parliament House fence is unfortunate but unfortunately we need it

A security guard patrols the lawns at Parliament House. Photo: Andrew Meares The lawns at Parliament House. Photo: Andrew Meares

The lawns at Parliament House Photo: Andrew Meares

Word burnt into the lawns of Parliament House in July. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Believe it or not, federal parliamentarians have little choice but to enact new security arrangements.

Few relish additional restrictions on public access to the parliament.

But how should leaders respond when security agencies warn that the national parliament (a) is a high value target for terrorists, and (b) remains dangerously vulnerable to attack?

With over 3000 permanent occupants and countless public visitors (around 100,000 school children visit the building annually), on top of the 226 politicians during sitting weeks, this is not simply a question of personal choice for MPs, but one of public safety.

The terrorist threat however, is no excuse for undue secrecy – despite it so often being used as such.

Denial of access to digital imaging of the proposed new fences and checkpoints etc on security grounds only raises suspicion and invites objection.

It is an unfortunate reality that the march of security measures tends to move in one direction only.

Yet in hindsight, given the brutal shock of September 2001 and many atrocities around the world since, Canberra’s parliamentarians have been surprisingly reluctant to materially crimp public interaction around the national legislature.

Restrictions have come in increments, most being low profile, low impact.

This openness is admirable from an egalitarian standpoint, but could be viewed as criminal neglect following an attack, once it emerged that authorities had ignored repeated expert advice to improve security.

This right here, shows the oil and water relationship between the soaring ethos of representative democracy, and the crushing reality of modern terrorism.

And the Federal Parliament is its perfect embodiment: a legislature of the people, drawing its authority from the people, but now, increasingly, having to be walled off from those people.

Even the architecture highlights these incompatible realities.

Parliament House was designed specifically to allow Australians to walk over the heads of their representatives.

Its signature lawns represented the land itself sweeping up to the flag and yet over the politicians, reminding them daily that they serve the people rather than the other way around.

Kids roll down and joggers scale its slopes as the final gut-busting sprint to the upper barriers – the roof itself having been closed from external access since 2005.

Free access to these public lawns made a certain poetic sense in 1988. Less so now where fanatics view murderous rage as an end in itself and see their own deaths as central to the mission.

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