As a political scientist, I have specialised in comparative politics, and my main academic interests include studying both electoral systems and voting behaviour. As a result, it is probably not too surprising that I enjoy visiting legislatures and parliaments*, and I take the opportunity to do so whenever possible.
In many ways, legislatures and parliaments represent the pinnacle of the democratic process. The buildings that house legislative assemblies are often beautiful and grand. This is not surprising, because they have usually been built to reflect some of the highest aspirations of their states. The buildings stand for lofty goals as well as idealistic views of the role of representative democracy. Naturally enough, politics is often grubby and politicians sometimes (or should that be "frequently"?) exhibit tawdry behaviour. As a result, it is all the more important that the assemblies in which politicians work should be imposing, if not necessarily grandiose. It is appropriate that the settings in which politicians go about their daily — and sometimes less than edifying — business should remind them of the ideals to which they should aspire.
Architecture and art
Not surprisingly, then, leading architects have long been associated with the design of capitol buildings and parliaments. For instance, Charles Bulfinch, possibly the leading architect in America at the beginning of the nineteenth century, designed not only the Massachusetts capitol building (which set the style for many of the other states' capitol buildings**) but he was also one of the architects of the federal capitol building in Washington, DC. Similarly, Cass Gilbert, who was the architect for Minnesota's capitol building, is also well-known for the Woolworth Building in Manhattan, one of New York City's most significant early skyscrapers, as well as for the federal Supreme Court building in Washington, DC. Basil Spence, who came up with the overall idea for the Beehive, the executive wing of the New Zealand parliament, had previously won worldwide renown for his plans for the new Coventry cathedral in the English midlands. A fourth and final example is Norman Foster — one of the giants of late-twentieth century architecture — who has won widespread acclaim for his 1999 additions to the Reichstag in Berlin.
The architecture of legislatures and parliaments, as well as the art work on and in the buildings, often reflect important aspects of the country, state or province in which they are situated. The imposing façade of the Indian parliament — designed by Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens and constructed during the period 1921-27 — is a permanent reminder of the country's colonial past. Likewise, the Legislative Council chambers in Hong Kong recall the fact that the area that is now a Special Administrative Region of China was a British colony for 99 years. The architecture of three of the parliaments in the South Pacific is also especially appropriate. The assembly buildings in American Samoa, Fiji, and Samoa (which used to be known as Western Samoa) are all based on customary architectural styles: the fono in both American Samoa and Samoa are shaped like a traditional fale or house, while the Fijian parliament has a high, steeply-pitched roof reminiscent of the houses of Fijian chiefs. Sadly, the architecture of the Tongan parliament is also appropriate. It is a small, unprepossessing wooden building that looks like a school house and serves as a court room when it’s not being used as the country’s legislature. It is appropriate because democracy is a very frail flower in Tonga: the general public is permitted to elect only nine of the state’s 30 MPs. In stark contrast to Tonga’s pathetic little parliament, the palace of Tongan King — who appoints all twelve members of the Cabinet, each of whom also has a seat in the parliament — is an imposing Victorian mansion!
The Magna Carta in the Members' Hall in the Australian federal parliament building is one of only four original copies of the 1297 version of the document still in existence, and is a vivid illustration of the fact that the Australian system of government is, to a considerable degree, based on ideas and concepts developed in Britain over a period of nearly 800 years. By contrast, the painting of the Danish Cabinet presenting the country's new constitution to King Frederik IX in 1953 underscores the transience of political institutions (in that the 1953 constitution was Denmark's third constitution in a period of only just over one hundred years), and yet, at the same time, the painting is also evidence of the stability of the structures of the government and politics of Denmark, because the country's newest constitution is now more than half a century old.
Charles Russell's massive painting, Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross' Hole, that dominates the area behind the Speaker's podium in the Montana House of Representatives, speaks volumes about Montanans' love of wide open spaces (it is not by chance that the state has its 'Big Sky' nickname), and at the same time it draws on a key aspect of the state's history, namely the Corps of Discovery expedition that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led up the Missouri river system, through what is now Montana, and over the Rocky mountains in 1804-06. The large John Drawbridge painting in the banquet hall of New Zealand's Beehive made the building partly a showcase for New Zealand art, something that many legislatures and parliaments try to do for their own countries and territories. The supreme example of this is possibly the New Mexican legislature, the Roundhouse, which — thanks to the Capitol Art Foundation — has probably the biggest and best collection of New Mexican art anywhere in the world. It is a large and vibrant exhibition reflecting the many different strands — Native American (or Indian), Hispanic, Anglo, and others — that have been woven together to form modern New Mexican society.
Sculptures and statues
Prominent examples of another art form, sculptures and statues, are closely associated with legislatures and parliaments around the world. For instance, one of the United States' greatest-ever sculptors, Daniel Chester French — best known for his superb rendition of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, and also responsible for classic statues such as the Concord Minute Man — designed statues for the Minnesota capitol building and in the grounds of the New Hampshire state house. The statues of Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill outside the British parliament, the Palace of Westminster, recall key people and events in the history of the United Kingdom; so too do the imposing statue of Richard ("King Dick") Seddon, New Zealand's longest-serving (and often judged best) Premier, which stands in front of the country's parliament buildings, and — in the foyer of the New Zealand parliament — the bust of Kate Sheppard, who led the fight for female suffrage in New Zealand (a battle that was ultimately successful when, in 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world where women won the right to vote). In the Montana capitol building there's a statue of Jeanette Rankin, the first woman ever elected to the United States House of Representatives, and the only person to vote against US involvement in both World Wars I and II. There is also a statue of Jeanette Rankin in the United States federal capitol building in Washington, DC, where each of the country's 50 states is allowed to exhibit two statues of key people. Among the other people represented in this collection of 100 statues are Andrew Jackson (one of Tennessee’s two statues); Dwight D. Eisenhower (Kansas); King Kamehameha I (Hawaii); Sakakawea (North Dakota), the Native American woman who translated and guided for Lewis and Clark; and Dennis Chavez (New Mexico), who was the first Hispanic to serve in the United States Senate. Again, key sculptors — such as Daniel Chester French and Gutzon Borglum, creator of the massive Mount Rushmore sculpture of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt — are represented in the National Statuary Hall Collection (to give the collection its formal title).***
A not insignificant number of legislatures have a traditional man-on-horseback statue either in them or in front of them, recalling heroes from a range of ages and wars. Examples include a life-size gold-plated statue of the United States revolutionary war commander, General George Washington, in the Idaho state capitol building; United States civil war General Ulysses S. Grant in front of the United States capitol building in Washington, DC; King Christian IX in front of Christiansborg Palace, the home of the Danish parliament; Sukhbaatar, the man who successfully led the Mongolian struggle for independence from China in 1921 in front of the State Great Hural (i.e., the Mongolian parliament) in Ulaanbataar; and King George V near the Ontario legislature. This statue is a fascinating footnote to the constitutional status of two countries, because it was first erected in India, but given to the Canadians after India became a republic. Thus it's a salient reminder of the facts that India is no longer a monarchy and that George V was not merely King of Britain but also formally the King of Canada. Indeed, his grand-daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, is an unusual example of a woman-on-horseback statue — in a relatively new statue in front of the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa — underlining the fact that one of her many titles is Queen of Canada. (She is also Queen of Australia, and Queen of New Zealand.)
In brief, one reason for visiting legislatures and parliaments is that, in addition to their other (and sometimes more obvious) roles, they also function as public history lessons.
Physical and political structures
Legislatures and parliaments frequently tell us a great deal about the structure of the political systems of which they are a part. It is a truism that seating arrangements in the United Kingdom's House of Commons, where government and opposition politicians confront each other — face to face — directly across the chamber, reflect the adversarial nature of Britain's predominantly two-party political system, as do both the House of Representatives and Senate chambers in Australia's federal parliament. Looking down into the New South Wales state legislative assembly chamber makes it easy for an observer to see why it's often called the "bear pit": this beautiful room is so small that politicians from opposing parties are almost literally eyeball-to-eyeball.
By way of contrast, the fact that the debating chambers in the Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish parliaments are semi-circular both reflects and encourages the greater degree of consensus that those parliamentary systems exhibit. It is probably also the case that the fact that speakers in the Scandinavian legislatures do not debate from their desks but go up to the front of the chamber and speak from the rostrum promotes a more orderly, less rowdy tone in the proceedings of these parliaments.
The layout of the Norwegian legislature, the Storting, underlines an important aspect of the structure of that country's democracy. There is a special set of seats on the left-hand of the president (who is the equivalent of the Speaker) of the assembly reserved for members of the Norwegian cabinet, who may take part in parliamentary debates and answer questions, but who cannot vote. Simply seeing the debating chamber of the Storting serves to remind us of the fact that members of the legislature in Norway who are appointed to the executive must vacate their seats in the legislature for the duration of their membership of the cabinet. On the other hand, the situation in the New Zealand House of Representatives is the very opposite of Norway's: in New Zealand, members of the executive must also be Members of Parliament. Whereas people who are not members of the lower house of the legislature can be appointed to the cabinet in Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States — to name just a few of the many countries where this is possible, they cannot be in New Zealand. Sadly, this means that no Kiwi government is ever going to give me a cabinet post …
Visiting legislatures and parliaments can also help fix in one's mind the number of legislators in any political system. Few people who have visited the Montana House of Representatives probably forget the fact that it has exactly 100 members (and that the Montana Senate has 50 people in it). The number of members in the North Carolina House of Representatives is also easy to remember — it's 120, which is also the number of members in the Chilean lower house and in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and it would be the number of legislators in New Zealand too, were it not for the fact that there is currently an "overhang" MP, which has temporarily raised the total number of MPs to 121.
It is probably also the case that visiting the Danish, the Nebraskan, the New Zealand, the Queensland, and the Swedish legislatures makes it easy to remember that these five formerly bicameral legislatures are all now unicameral. The remodelled Riksdag debating chamber also underscores the fact that the Swedish parliament was quite considerably enlarged when the country's upper house was axed — an expansion that's clearly visible from outside the parliament building as well as within it.
Visiting legislatures and parliaments can be easy, difficult, or even impossible. At one end of the spectrum, the Scandinavian parliaments are exceptionally open. Despite security screening in some of the Nordic legislatures, people of any culture and nationality have an unfettered right to sit in the public galleries in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, and members of the public are even permitted to take photographs ikke blitz — without a flash — while the legislatures are in session. (When I asked whether I could take photographs while Iceland's parliament, the Althingi, was meeting, the attendant's sole concern was that my camera strap was firmly round my neck to ensure that my camera wasn't inadvertently dropped from the galleries down into the debating chamber!).
Even after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, visiting US state legislatures is also remarkably easy. Some state capitols (such as California's) have airport-style security systems at their public entrances and some (such as Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire and New Mexico) do not, but all regard access to legislators and elected officials as a public right, and visitors to US legislatures are generally free to wander round the corridors and lobbies, and of course to attend committee hearings and House and Senate debates. Some states even go so far as to permit visitors to take photographs (again, almost invariably without the aid of a flash) from the public galleries while the chamber is in session, and every one of the state capitol buildings I have ever visited permits people to photograph the legislature's debating chambers when they are not in session.
In Australia, the federal parliament and the state parliaments permit visitors to wander round the buildings and they allow people to photograph their debating chambers when they are not in session. This is also the case in the provincial legislatures I have visited in Canada. Likewise, in the South Pacific, the legislatures in American Samoa, French Polynesia, Samoa, and Vanuatu are as open as (or even more accessible than) the Australian and Canadian parliaments.
Richard Prebble, a long-term (1975-1993 and 1996-2005) New Zealand Member of Parliament, once claimed on a promotional video encouraging people to visit Wellington, the country's capital city, that the New Zealand parliament was one of the most open parliaments in the world. The claim was, and regrettably still is, frankly, rubbish. While visitors are welcome to visit the New Zealand legislature and the parliament runs good tours, individuals may not look round the building by themselves. Examining the works of art and the historic photographs that adorn the walls of the corridors of the New Zealand parliament and visiting the former Legislative Council chamber are not something that visitors to Wellington can do on their own in the same way that visitors to St Paul, Sacramento or Santa Fe are permitted to do. Try and take a photograph in the New Zealand parliament — not only of an empty debating chamber, mind you, but even of a tapestry on the wall or of the first floor bust of suffragette Kate Sheppard — and are you are likely to be rapidly apprehended by security guards. As a New Zealand citizen I regret the fact that I cannot take a photograph in the parliament of the country I live in, while I can do so in the Australian federal parliament. Open? Ha!
There are, though, countries where access to legislatures and parliaments is even less open than in New Zealand. Foreigners who want to watch a debate in the Irish parliament, the Dail, are told they have to have a letter of introduction from their embassy to do so. As I am also a British citizen, I rang the British embassy to ask for its help, and an embassy staffer — illustrating attitudes that have made British diplomats the subject of satire by a legion of novelists such as Graham Greene and John Le Carré — told me I would have had to have applied in writing three months in advance in order to get such a document. However, an Irish political party official came to my rescue and simply asked one of her party's members of the Dail — known as TDs in Ireland — to vouch for me and, hey presto, a few minutes later I was ushered through gates I had been denied entry to four hours earlier, and witnessed one of the most riveting parliamentary debates I have ever seen. In politics, as in life generally, there's a lot to recommend the old adage: if at first you don't succeed, try, try again!
Further down the open-closed continuum of legislative accessibility are several European parliaments, such as Italy (where I was told that it would be possible to visit the lower house of the Italian parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, on only one Sunday a month), and France (where I was told, point blank, it would simply not be possible to see inside the building). At first this seems surprising: why are these long-established major European democracies so reluctant to let people visit their legislatures? The answer probably stems from the fact that in states like France and Italy, there are much stronger traditions of state surveillance of citizens than in Anglo-American democracies. In France, for instance, hotels commonly retain guests' passports and also routinely lodge their details with the police (remember how the assassin in The Day of the Jackal was finally found?), while it is (technically, at least) illegal to travel in Italy without identification papers.
Nevertheless, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again also proved to be a useful strategy in both Italy and France. By visiting an exhibition commemorating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the post-World War II Italian republic, I was able to see something of the interior of the Palazzio di Montecitorio, including — very briefly — the impressively steeply-tiered Camera dei Deputati itself; and by going to a small exhibition about the French parliament, I was also able to see a few of the outer rooms of the French Assemblée Nationale (though the debating chamber itself remained strictly off-limits). (Interestingly, in both France and Italy, the lower houses of their parliaments and the upper houses, their senates, are housed in separate buildings, so far apart from each other that they are in different streets.)
At the nether-end of the open-closed legislatures' spectrum are three of the Asian parliaments I have seen: Mongolia, India, and Vietnam. Although I was working with the members and staff of a parliamentary committee in Ulaanbaator, I wasn't really supposed to go anywhere in the Mongolian parliament without an official accompanying me, but thankfully officials were relaxed enough at the end of a week's work together to take a photograph in the State Great Hural of me with the statue of Genghis Khan (thus providing photographic proof of the fact that I was literally to the right of Genghis Kahn!). However, when I asked if I could see the legislature's debating chamber, and especially if I could see it in action, I was told that this would definitely not be possible. As a result, taking a photograph of the parliament in action on closed-circuit television while I was in one of the Mongolian parliament's canteens represented something of a minor triumph on my part.
On paper, the Indian parliament — the Sansad Bhavan —looks as easy (or as difficult) to get into as the Irish parliament: "entry into Parliament House requires official permission, whether parliament is in session or not." The official policy on access to the Indian parliament continues by stating that "visitors can enter the public galleries with prior permission, after receiving an official pass", and it points out that "foreigners" have to get their passes "from their embassies or high commissions." However, political tensions in India were high when I was there in November 1991 ( six months after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi), and I was told that it wouldn't be possible to visit the lower house, the Lok Sabha. Ten years later, in December 2001, gunmen attacked the Indian parliament and killed twelve people, and by all accounts visiting the Indian parliament is now even more difficult. India is the world's largest democracy, but it is not a perfect democracy. It has faced — and still faces — numerous threats, and the accessibility of the Indian parliament (and the difficulties associated with gaining permission to visit it) are somehow symbolic of the fragile nature of Indian democracy, which has managed — possibly against the odds — to survive. Long may it do so.
Gaining access to the Vietnamese National Assembly in Hanoi was completely out of the question. As a foreigner, I was told, I had no rights to go there, and no Vietnamese I spoke to could even understand why I wanted to visit their country's legislature. I had to be content with looking at the building from afar, and reflect that this was indicative of the nature of Vietnamese government. The country is, after all, a one-party Communist state.
Throughout this essay the theme has been that visiting legislatures and parliaments tells one a lot about the history and about the government and the politics of the societies that they are in. From their architecture to the art in them and to their accessibility, legislatures and parliaments speak volumes about their societies. This is as true in New Zealand as it is elsewhere.
*: I am aware, of course, that many capitol buildings and legislatures not infrequently house more than merely the legislative branch of government of the state, province or country in which they function. Whereas the capitol building in Washington, DC, contains only the federal House of Representatives and the US Senate, many US state capitol buildings house not only the legislature but also the state's Governor and his/her staff, and not infrequently they also include the state Supreme Court as well. The Minnesota capitol building is a good example of a building that includes all three branches of the state's government — the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of Minnesotan government — under one (magnificently domed) roof. Charles Bulfinch's 1787 design for the Massachusetts capitol building set a precedent for doing this. Some United States state capitols contain the executive and legislative branches of government, but not the judicial branch (either because — as in the case of Montana — the state Supreme Court has moved out of the capitol building, or because — as in the case of New Mexico — it was not included in the design for the new state house). Furthermore, in accordance with both the Westminster and European parliamentary traditions, parliaments incorporate the executive branches of their political systems within their legislative branches, so parliaments — in countries as far apart as Denmark and New Zealand — are, clearly, not simply "legislatures". Nevertheless, for ease and convenience, when talking about buildings that house legislatures' debating chambers, I have used the words "legislature" and "parliament" almost interchangeably (which, by way of illustrating this point, is something that's officially sanctioned in Ontario, where members of the Legislative Assembly are called MPPs — i.e., Members of the Provincial Parliament).
**: For an excellent book about US state capitol buildings, see Susan W. Thrane and Tom Patterson, State Houses: America's 50 State Capitol Buildings (Ontario: Boston Mills Press, 2005).
***: For further details about the states' statues in the capitol building in Washington, DC, see the National Statuary Hall Collection's website:http://www.aoc.gov/cc/art/nsh/index.cfm. It should be noted that although "Sakakawea" is the spelling used on the National Statuary Hall Collection's website and is the spelling often used in North Dakota, her name is usually spelt Sacagawea.
This page was last updated on 24 December 2017.