The hidden courtyards

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From the outside, New Parliament House is an intimidating symbol of strength and power. The Italian marble facade and manicured lawns give little away about what lies within. It’s not quite the most popular attraction in Canberra, but every year more than 700,000 people visit here. They take photos from the roof, climb the white marble staircases, and maybe enjoy the drama of Question Time – if they can stand the antics.

There are, of course, limits on where the public is allowed, regardless of whether Parliament is sitting. But on a handful of days, the doors of Parliament House open a little bit wider.

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Each autumn and spring guided tours take visitors into the maze of courtyards that lie within the huge concrete walls. The closest most people will get to seeing these areas is on the news when the gardens are used as settings for press conferences.

I’m not a political buff, but I was intrigued to go behind the scenes in an Australian icon.

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With a guide leading the way and a security guard trailing behind we explored some of the 17 Parliament House courtyards as part of the Autumn Colours in the Courtyard tour.

The leaf-strewn courtyards were deserted. Some trees had turned a fiery red, others were yellow and their leaves thinning, leaving a colourful mess on the ground where they rustled and crunched underfoot. In a week so, when Parliament returned, a gardener would most likely rake them up.

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Certain design elements gave a sense of continuity as we walked through the gardens, such as the stone squares lining the paths. They created an optical illusion of sorts as they disappeared in the distance, a trick to entice people to walk further to see what’s there.

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Yet each courtyard had its own character and atmosphere. Some felt intimate and reflective – places to escape the corridors of power. There were open spaces designed for socialising and activity, perhaps adjoining an eating area or the gym.

Others appeared more formal, such as the courtyard that’s home to the ‘budget tree’. The red maple turns a striking colour in early May, when the national budget is released, and is a regular backdrop for media interviews.

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From the courtyards, we also got a glimpse of some architectural features, such as the circles and squares on some of the walls, signifying the Senate and House of Representatives. Circles and the colour red represent the Senate, while the House is symbolised by squares and green.

When Parliament is sitting these courtyards would be alive with politicians and staff, as would the wide corridors we walked through as we were led through the building.

But on that particular Sunday afternoon, we had many parts of Australia’s most powerful building, to ourselves.

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As these tours are offered only a few weeks a year, exploring these courtyards is a pretty special experience. Here’s more of a peek inside:

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Information on tours at Parliament House is available here.

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