Sketches of the parliament by Tom Thompson
The Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House recently acquired a collection of images by the notable Australian artist Tom Thompson. Approached by his local member of parliament, Murray Sainsbury, in October 1982, Thompson ventured from his home in nearby Braidwood to depict proceedings of the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra.
A number of eminent Australian politicians of the era are depicted in the sketches, including Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, John Howard, and Billy Snedden. The images capture glimpses of the final months of Malcom Fraser’s Liberal Government prior to the ascension of the Labor government in March 1983.
The image featured here was sketched on Wednesday 27th October 1982 and depicts the opposition front bench. Individuals include (from left) Chris Hurford, Paul Keating, Barry Jones, Bob Hawke, and Tom Uren. 1982 had been a rough year for the Liberal government. The economy fell into recession, tax avoidance schemes became public, and Party leadership was contested. It became apparent that the political dominance the Liberals had enjoyed over the last seven years was on the decline. By this stage of the year it was also becoming obvious that Bob Hawke would replace Bill Hayden as Labor leader and his presence in the sketch is particularly striking. Notably, Fraser has been the only Australian Prime Minister whose term began and ended with double dissolution elections.
The portfolio as a whole is significant as evidence of the openness of the House to an artist working on its floor and as a distinctive record of proceedings in the Chamber in the early 1980s. A statement attached to the cover of the portfolio states Tom Thompson’s presence in the House of Representatives represents “the first and only occasion that an artist has been permitted to draw in the house” although this disregards the presence of political cartoonists before and after. Unlike political cartoonists however, Thompson was granted the freedom to manoeuvre around the floor as he wished and this adds to the unique value of the collection.
Born in Narrabri, NSW in 1923, artist Tom Thompson served as a tank gunner on Bougainville in World War II before turning his hand to art making and teaching. He has practiced both locally and abroad, and as the head of the National Art School in Sydney during the 1970s, guided an array of artists through their visual arts education. Thompson’s work is represented by the Australian National Gallery, Canberra; the State Galleries of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia; Regional Galleries of Rockhampton, Manly, Goulburn, Castlemaine; New Zealand National Gallery, Wellington; and Australia House, London.