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Senator criticises Federal Government's plan to relocate Speaker's chair from Old Parliament House to replace the existing chair in Parliament House

PETER CAVE: A Federal Government proposal to spend half a million dollars moving the historic Speaker's chair from old Parliament House in Canberra to the new was last night condemned as an act of folly and the work of an idiot. The Government has paid private consultants more than $12,000 just to consider the costs and feasibility of moving the chair. It's believed the proposal has the support of Prime Minister John Howard and the current Speaker, Bob Halverson. In a passionate speech to the Parliament last night, however, Labor Senator Bob Collins described the plan as something not even Yes, Minister would contemplate, as Julie Posetti reports for A.M.

JULIE POSETTI: The old Speaker's chair is made from 14th century oak beams and timbers from Nelson's flagship. It was modelled on the original Speaker's chair in the House of Commons at Westminster, and it's been an important feature of our provisional Parliament House since its construction 70 years ago.

But the Government is proposing that the fragile chair be extricated from its resting place and moved up the hill to the new Parliament building to replace the modern Speaker's chair, which Senator Collins describes as reminiscent of the backside of a departing tram.

According to the Government's plan which is being considered by consultants in Canberra and Sydney, a replica of the old chair would be built and installed in old Parliament House for the interest of visitors. The process is likely to be costly, complicated and risky for the chair, the canopy of which is already cracked and the height of which will need to be modified if it's to fit into the space provided in the modern House of Representatives.

In the Senate last night an emotional Bob Collins was scathing in his criticism of the plan.

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BOB COLLINS: When we left that old Parliament House there were some loopy suggestions - and loopy they were - that we would tear off its foundations that magnificent Speaker's chair from the House of Commons where it is - modelled on the House of Commons' Speaker's chair in the old House of Representatives Chamber - where it is an adornment to that Chamber currently, and carry it up the hill and put it in this art decor modern monstrosity where it would look frightful.

Now, I just thought it was the usual sort of loopy conservatism that you have occasionally that made no sense, but to my horror I found out tonight on the news that this actually is being seriously suggested again and that some idiot has actually spent $12,000 of hard-earned taxpayers' money having a consultant look at the possibility of actually doing it at a cost of 500,000 bucks.

JULIE POSETTI: Senator Collins claims our new parliamentary Chambers have as much atmosphere as a public toilet, and people who've seen artists' impressions of the relocated chair agree with his view that it would look completely out of place in the modern House of Representatives. According to Senator Collins, the Government's plan is a joke.

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BOB COLLINS: We all know that there's a great big streak of truth in Yes, Minister; that's where it gets its humour from, exaggerated of course in real terms. But this would be a piece of folly that not even Yes, Minister contemplated. And I think folly against the built heritage of Australia. It would make this monstrosity even worse than it is now, but what's a bigger crime is it would sully the appearance and the historical importance of the original Chamber of the House of Representatives which, with great respect, Mr Acting Deputy President, in my view is where we should still be debating this issue.

So I call upon whatever fool is in fact pursuing this folly to cease and desist.

JULIE POSETTI: Local historians and tour guides working at old Parliament House have condemned the proposal as impossible and insensitive, while others want to know how the Government can even contemplate spending up to $500,000 relocating a chair when it's trying to deal with a much trumpeted budget deficit and find jobs for tens of thousands of unemployed Australians. The question must also be asked: how can the Government justify such an expensive proposition while condemning the Opposition for forcing another costly inquiry into the Hindmarsh Island bridge? The Speaker, Mr Halverson, said the consultants are due to conclude their investigations at the end of the month, at which point their findings and artists' impressions of the relocated chair will be released publicly.

PETER CAVE: That report from Julie Posetti in Canberra.