Since there's an election going on I thought it was time to tell about the most interesting experience I've ever had in Parliament house. Pretty much everyone goes there for their year 6 Canberra trip. The kids are taken from place to place in the name of national discovery and of course, they eventually end up at Parliament. Now I've been to Parliament many many times. I've done work experience there, had dinner there, got lost there and sat in on countless budget nights and question times. All in all each experience was interesting, but all quite unremarkable. However, one day we took the year 9 boys from Scots down to explore the war memorial and attend question time. This experience turned into something entirely different...
It was a normal start to the day like every other time we'd been to Canberra. We wandered around the war memorial and then after lunch, we headed over to Parliament. As the bus drove up the awe inspiring driveway we could see a crowd gathered on the lawn opposite the main entrance. To put the story in context this was the time when Prime Minister John Howard had just committed troops to Iraq for the second Gulf War. So of course it was pretty clear that this crowd wasn't there to celebrate his birthday. There's nothing quite like taking a group of year 9 boys past an angry mob. Since this was the first contact they'd had with the outside world for several weeks, the air was electric with excitement.
Descending into the underground car park, there was a bus with a lot of well-armed police getting off it. This only added to the excitement and through trying to get the boys inside as fast as possible, I started feeling like the fireman standing in front of a burning building moving people on, saying there's nothing to see here. However, with a lot of coaxing, I ushered my group of boys inside and safely through security.
You could feel the tension in the air as there were far more security guards than I’d ever seen before. We led the boys upstairs and into question time. To say this was the most exciting question time I've ever been to would be quite an understatement. It wasn't what was going on in the chamber, it was what was going on in the public galleries that made it so exciting. There were protesters everywhere and despite all the security, there were no shortage of them in the public gallery. Whilst trying to supervise the boys and keep them from talking, I couldn't help but be totally distracted by the drama going on around us. Protester after protester jumped up yelling out over the balcony and into the chamber below. As soon as someone yelled something, they were grabbed by security and dragged out of the gallery. I sensed movement to my right. Glancing up there was a woman. She stepped forward, opened her mouth and cried out. Suddenly her body lurched back as two burley security guards dragged her away, hands awkwardly pinned behind her back. The boys next to me excitedly exclaimed, 'Sir did you see that?' I quickly put my finger to my lips 'Shhhhhh.'
This continued throughout question time and it looked like the speaker was about to close and clear the galleries. However, the politicians persisted with whatever they were doing and we kept enjoying the show that was going on around us. Question time eventually came to an end and all the politicians funneled out of the chamber. To think this was the end of the story, think again, it was only just getting started.
We were ushered out of the House of Reps only to find that we had our own security escort taking us to the hospitality section where we were to have afternoon tea and meet our local member of parliament. Halfway there I heard a voice come over the security guard's radio. 'They going for the front door!' All of a sudden there was a rush of security guards from all over racing towards the foyer. Our escort stayed with us, delivering us to the lounge area in hospitality. He told us to stay there until further notice, then promptly disappeared, no doubt to check out the riot we could hear downstairs.
Whilst being served a popper (juice box - not drugs) and a biscuit for afternoon tea we could hear the shouting, the yelling, the chanting and the commotion of it all. Smoke billowed up past the windows we were told to keep clear of, as flags burnt and the roar of the crowd intensified.
We were locked down in hospitality for over an hour before a security guard returned and said 'we've cleared a way out for you.' Throughout this whole time the noise of the crowd hadn't subsided and things were still in full swing! A number of other security guards had appeared and they divided us into small groups with one teacher and around 15 boys. I had a gappie with me too (an English guy named James, who was also finding this super exciting!) we almost killed him the day he arrived in Australia (our bad, but that's a story for another time). Anyway I was at the front of the group, James was at the back and we were led down the stairs and through the foyer. To our left were the massive glass door, on the inside it was spotted with parliamentary security guards. On the outside, was the police riot squad, vastly out-numbered and pressed up against the doors. The boys wanted to stay and watch (so did I, but our hosts seemed very keen to get us out of the building). I reassured the boys that we'd see something really exciting again and we didn't want to be late for dinner at McDonalds. Sadly many of the boys were more excited about McDonalds than what they were in the middle of right here right now. We cleared the foyer, were led to an elevator and crammed in. Silence gripped the lift as we descended towards the basement. One boy standing next James broke the silence with "Mmm sir, you smell really nice!" Everyone erupted with laughter, with the exception of the security guard who started yelling at everyone to shut up! Now this was weird, obviously no sense of humour, which is very important when dealing with kids, even when there's a crisis. I rolled my eyes as I was laughing myself. Being couped up for hours, this was the funniest thing that had been said all day.
The doors opened and we were in what appeared to be a service corridor. Gone were the grand and glamorous marbles and polished timbers. Now it was just Stalinist concrete. Very secure, very functional. The corridor led to another security station, which we passed through and were handed off from grumpy security guard to a much friendlier one who took us right up to the exit and out we popped in a carpark. The heavy security doors closed behind us, we could see our bus waiting as well as another riot squad formed, ready to charge up the stairs and take the protesters by surprise.
For getting 80 kids and 6 staff out of the building like that, it all happened so quickly. Counting the boys onto the bus and making sure we had everyone we were soon driving out away from the chaos. Smoke still plumed out of the crowd, which was now so large that it engulfed the entire entrance to parliament. All I can say, was that it was never a better time to visit our Federal Parliament for question time!