It demonstrates how poor we are at protesting and engaging in political debate that a protest about asylum seeker policy has generated more discussion about the nature of protest and about the adequacy of security of Parliament House. Don’t get me wrong: the protest was clearly wrongheaded and nonsensical, and I wonder if people’s position on the nature of protest is mostly determined by how they feel about the message of the protest. But I worry that the public is hostile to protest and political spectacle.
There’s probably another post in me about the nature of disruption, protest, and legitimacy, but it’s fairly dense and full of legal theory issues. The short version of that post amounts to: ‘Asking if disrupting parliament is legitimate is asking the wrong question.’
In this post, I want to tackle the other limb of the conversation: the security of Parliament House.
There has been a lot of discussion about the need to secure Parliament House better. Because our media focuses more on spectacle than substance, this conversation has reduced to whether or not we should allow people to walk on the lawns of Parliament House. The protest has given a convenient opening to the discussion about what more we need to do to protect Parliament House from evil-doers and hippies.
The optics of Parliament House are, in many ways, more important that its function. The building is genuinely beautiful. It is sleek, crisp, and — better than everything else — inviting. You can stroll around it, over it, and enjoy it. Parliament House is a place for quiet enjoyment.
Compare this with the High Court — a building which most Australians would not recognise and is, frankly, brutal. The High Court building is not a building for humans.
There is a temptation to prioritise security over other concerns, and this temptation arises from the fear that we haven’t done everything that we can to ensure our security. If a bomb went off in Parliament House tomorrow, there would be investigations, inquiries, and a million slimy things with legs would write opinion pieces about how this or that person was to blame for not doing more. We will need to blame somebody.
This path leads only to one destination: the removal of the public from Parliament House. Unless you are cleared, you won’t get in. The public is a threat and that threat needs to be managed.
It is more than just about the ability to roll down the grass on Parliament House. It’s about Parliament House as a public space. If we lose that space, how much more will we lose?
We need to be more comfortable with insecurity. Parliament House needs to be a symbol of the sort of society that we want: a society that understand that terrorism is a genuine threat, but that we won’t lock ourselves down in order to hide from that threat.
Perhaps this is idealistic. Maybe it is a reflexion of my conservative belief in people’s better nature. It could be that both the media’s need to use blame as clickbait and the nature of politics to attack the other side over imagined failures are simply overwhelming considerations for a government. But, before we start gating off Parliament House and declaring it a quarantined area, maybe we should have a serious conversation about what level of risk we are willing to tolerate to have the sort of society that we want.