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Tuesday, 11 September 2012
Page: 10249

Mr NEVILLE (HinklerThe Nationals Deputy Whip) (19:11): Although the bills we are discussing tonight, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia Bill 2012 and a related bill, may be of a technical and non-controversial nature, we should not allow the mechanics of running the National Portrait Gallery to mask the function of this valuable institution and the potential it has to enhance our cultural life.

Its history is already quite colourful, as is the momentum it has generated in a comparatively short time. The National Portrait Gallery is the latest icon in the Parliamentary Triangle. When it was opened on 4 December 2008 it was, at that time, the newest building in that area for two decades. The National Portrait Gallery has been a talking point for over a century. The artist Tom Roberts suggested such an institution in the early 20th century—in fact, right at the beginning of the 1900s.

The vision of Gordon and Marilyn Darling, and their generous benefaction, led to the purchases and exhibitions of portraiture, sponsored initially by the National Library. Fittingly, the Darlings become the gallery's inaugural patrons.

The first exhibition was held in Old Parliament House in 1994. Andrew Sayers was appointed director four years later. The fledgling collection was displayed in the old, but refurbished, Parliamentary Library; and also in two adjacent spaces in the Old Parliament House. And if I am not mistaken, Mr Deputy Speaker, I think it was the Country Party, later the National Party, room that was used for some time. The gallery became independent in 1999. Over the next decade it expanded at that venue. As the gallery itself put it at that time:

… the raison detre was not a Hall of Fame of important people, but visitors to the National Portrait Gallery at Old Parliament House experience the mixed and intriguing bag of individual stories—good and bad, lofty and humble, famous and obscure, that punctuate Australian history.

But I believe it is even more than that again. In those portraits visitors have four experiences, for the most part: fine paintings; extraordinary, interesting subjects; an insight into Australia's history in the person of those who made it; and, finally, a window into Australia's cultural life. And that says nothing about the unique architecture of the firm Johnson Pilton Walker and their bold use of natural light, as the member for Canberra recently alluded to.

It is a building that inspires me, as does the diversity of the collection itself. I recommend it to all my visitor friends who come to Canberra, ahead of all the other icons in the Parliamentary Triangle—important as they are.

We have all been brought up on the legend—good and bad—of Ned Kelly. But nothing excites one's morbid curiosity, on one hand, and the blunt vengeance of the law, on the other, like seeing Ned's death mask and the head-and-shoulders cast on which it sits—complete with the rope burns to his neck. That is one of the exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery. On a more pleasant aspect of the law, my favourite painting is of Justice Michael Kirby in his crimson robes as President of the New South Wales Supreme Court. I do not always agree with Justice Kirby's interpretations but I must say this Ralph Heimans portrait is an adornment to the collection and a fine salute to a complex Australian character.

The National Portrait Gallery is now taking its place with our iconic national institutions, and it is appropriate that it be given full statutory recognition and authority. These bills set the parameters of that authority and spell out the gallery's functions and the structure and responsibilities of its board. As I said at the beginning, I do not want to dwell too much on technical aspects, but there are sensible measures, including: the power to enter into contracts; the power to occupy, use and control any land, building, structure or other improvement made available to the gallery; the power to purchase or take on hire, to commission or produce, or to accept as a gift or on deposit or loan, portraits, other works of art or related material; the power to make available, whether by hire, loan or otherwise, portraits, other works of art or related material—and I will come back to that because it is an important point; the power to provide financial assistance to persons, whether by way of loan, grant, award or otherwise and whether on commercial terms or otherwise; the power to accept gifts, devices, bequests and assignments, whether on trust or otherwise; and the power to act as a trustee of money or other property vested in the gallery on trust. They are all sensible measures.

The legislation talks about other things such as the size of the board—the board will be a chairman, a deputy chairman and between three and seven directors. It talks about how the board will be appointed, and how in extreme circumstances it can be removed. It talks about their remuneration, which will be a function of the Remuneration Tribunal. Again, all these things are sensible and are certainly not opposed by the opposition.

I would like to talk some more about the gallery itself. It is remarkable how many characters who have forged the Australian temperament are represented in the 2,000-odd works in the collection, from Portrait of Albert Namatjira by Sir William Dargie to Sally Robinson's contemporary portrait of Angry Anderson complete with his tatts, if you want extremes. We have a range of historic characters, including John Webber's 1782 representation of Captain James Cook, William Dargie's Kingsford-Smith and Charles Ulm, Clifton Pugh's Archbishop Mannix and Melissa Beowulf's Nancy Wake—the White Mouse. These are all iconic Australian characters. There are lawyers like Tom Hughes QC and Neville Wran; politicians like Bert Evatt, John Button, Tom Uren, Jack Lang, Joh Bjelke-Petersen and John and Janette Howard; unforgettables like Eddie Mabo, Fred Hollows and Nancy Bird-Walton; Indigenous Australians like opera singer Harold Blair, Senator Neville Bonner, Kath Walker and Lowitja O'Donoghue; captains of industry including Essington Lewis, numerous members of the Fairfax family, Don Argus and Arvi Parbo; artists from the mid-19th century, from Lola Montez through to Nellie Melba at the turn of the century, and to ballerina Marilyn Rowe—who I remember as being an absolute adornment to the Australian Ballet—and rock idol Johnny O'Keeffe and our own Dame Joan Sutherland. What an array of artists—and I am just listing a few of them; this is nothing like the full collection. Then there are the poets, from Dame Mary Gilmore to Les Murray, and artists and sportsmen far too numerous to name.

Some of us who are perhaps a little older than others probably remember when these people were on black and white TV. There are others we have known just by name. To go there and see them and see the sort of people they were, to see famous artists painted by some of our most distinguished portrait exponents—people like Sir William Dargie and Clifton Pugh—to see all those characters in all their unadulterated glory, is a rare experience. I get a great kick out of that. Much as I like going to the National Gallery and much as I forgive Gough Whitlam for buying Blue Poles—in retrospect it was a very wise decision—the National Portrait Gallery has works both contemporary and through our history right back to Captain Cook.

Both the gallery's mission statement and the new bills outline that the function of the gallery is to make the collection available for exhibitions and tours—in other words, they refer to accessibility. I commend and support this very strongly. Not everyone will visit Canberra, so it is appropriate that this national collection not just sit down here but be accessible to other capital city people through their galleries and also to regional residents.

Although 2.4 million visitors have seen the collection in Canberra, many more have seen sections of it in 29 regional and a few capital city galleries. There have been eight touring collections in the past three years and there are currently five on tour or on loan. That is quite exceptional for the gallery in such a short time.

As a country member who supports the arts, I would like to see collections coming to Bundaberg and to Hervey Bay's soon-to-be-open gallery. In Hervey Bay, the council, with government support, is about to open a new art gallery. Bundaberg already has one, a historic building—the old Customs House. Both of those will be great venues and I want to see segments of the National Portrait Gallery's collection available to people in country areas. Country people should have the opportunity to participate fully in the cultural life of the nation. So I urge the director, Louise Doyle, whom I compliment, and her new board to pursue a vibrant program of access and touring to regional galleries. I think this is a good bill. It marks the coming of age of the National Portrait Gallery and I am proud to support it.