Prime Minister’s suite
The Prime Minister’s suite of rooms is situated in the northeast corner of Old Parliament House, an area that was occupied by the Prime Minister and his staff throughout the life span of the building. The Prime Minister is the head of the Australian government. She or he achieves this position by being the leader of the party (or coalition) with a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. The Prime Minister must be a member of this chamber, although on one occasion, when Senator John Gorton became Leader of the Liberal Party and therefore Prime Minister, it was some months before he was elected to it. The Prime Minister is formally appointed by the Governor-General. The office of Prime Minister was created on 1 January 1901 when the six Australian colonies of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia joined together to become the Commonwealth of Australia. The first Governor-General, the Earl of Hopetoun, appointed Edmund Barton, a leading figure in the Federation movement, to become Australia’s first Prime Minister.
The office of Prime Minister is not mentioned in the Australian Constitution, but is derived from constitutional convention. We have a Prime Minister because the country takes much of its system of government from the Westminster tradition, which is derived from the parliamentary practice of the United Kingdom, rather than a presidential form of government. The Prime Minister appoints and chairs the Federal Ministry, the group of ministers responsible for running government departments, and the Cabinet, composed of senior ministers. As the principal spokesperson for the government, the Prime Minister plays a key role in parliamentary and public debate, and often represents Australia overseas.
Most Prime Ministers have only served one term however two Australian Prime Ministers have served two separate terms (Robert Menzies and Kevin Rudd), and Alfred Deakin and Andrew Fisher served three separate terms. Sixteen Prime Ministers served in Old Parliament House between 1927 and 1988 when it was the home of the Australian parliament.
The original suite of rooms in this area was occupied by fourteen Prime Ministers, from Stanley Melbourne Bruce (Prime Minister from 1923 – 1929) to William McMahon (Prime Minister from 1971 – 1972). To begin with the prime minister’s suite was only a back-up provision, with a more substantial set of rooms including a Cabinet Room located in the Secretariat Building (now West Block). However, during the difficult years of the 1930s, Prime Ministers found it necessary to be in closer touch with the Parliament and, in particular, with the party room, and the suite of rooms here took over as the prime minister’s principal Canberra office. Offices for the prime minister’s use were also maintained in Melbourne and Sydney. In the 1970s, in response to concerns about accommodation for the growing number of Ministers and staff in the building, renovations were carried out around the building which included the demolition of the original Prime Minister’s suite and the construction of a larger suite in its place. The renovations also included a small extension to the President of the Senate’s suite, located in the northwest corner. Construction of the Senate (or northwest) wing commenced in May 1972 and took place first so that the Prime Minister, his staff and the Cabinet Room could be temporarily located in this wing while modifications were carried out to the existing Prime Ministerial suite and Cabinet Room. During these extensions Decro Pty. Ltd. was engaged to manufacture new furniture for both the Prime Minister’s and the President of the Senate’s suites. Much of this furniture remains in the rooms today and this, along with the renovated architecture, is significant as evidence of the growth of Parliament.
The suite as it exists today was occupied by three Prime Ministers: Gough Whitlam (occupied it between 1972 to 1975), Malcolm Fraser (occupied it between 1975 to 1983) and Bob Hawke (occupied it between 1983 – 1988), and included offices (for the Prime Minister and his staff), an anteroom for press conferences (also used as a waiting room) and bathrooms. The Cabinet room is also located in this northeast corner of the building.
Despite the extra room in the new, larger suite, there was a large number of staff that needed to work in this area and still only limited space. Prime Ministers rely on loyal political advisers and administrative staff—men and women whose commitment is beyond question. A plan of the furniture layout during Whitlam’s time (in 1973) shows twenty one desks in twelve small offices for his staff. A record of staff working for Fraser in 1977 lists seventeen staff members who worked in this space. Positions that worked in this suite included the principal private secretary, private secretaries, stenographers, senior advisors, advisors, ministerial officers, telephonists and secretarial staff. By the end of the 1980s more than 30 people, with others coming and going at busy times, filled every available corner of this maze of offices. These teams helped write the important speeches and fine-tuned the major policies. With them a Prime Minister could take counsel in times of crisis and celebrate in times of victory. Theirs was a crowded, often frantic workplace, very different from the elegant simplicity of the Prime Minister’s own office.
The Prime Minister’s Office itself is not much larger than many living rooms. Passing traffic and noise from demonstrations could be heard and viewed through its windows - representative of an open approach to leadership. In the end, it was viewed as a security issue, impossible to secure against threats, and one of the reasons why a new Parliament House was constructed. Each Prime Minister to work from this office chose different artworks for display, located his desk in a different position, and chose different curtains.
Overall, this suite is a highly significant area of Old Parliament House through its connections with the Prime Ministers’ from 1927 to 1988, and particularly with Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke. The suite also has strong and special associations for the former parliamentary users of the building and is significant as a focus of government activity and authority.
Reference: ‘Our Government: Prime Minister’ Parliamentary Education Office, retrieved from https://www.peo.gov.au/