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Thursday, 11 October 2012
Page: 7992

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (13:02): The purpose of the National Portrait Gallery of Australia Bill 2012 and the National Portrait Gallery of Australia (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2012 is to establish the National Portrait Gallery on a statutory basis in common with the other major national collecting institutions such as the National Library of Australia and the National Gallery. Hitherto the National Portrait Gallery has been administered within the department. The coalition supports the regularisation of the National Portrait Gallery's statutory existence, if I may put it that way, by establishing it as its own statutory agency.

I want to take a few moments of the Senate's time, if I may, to reflect upon the National Portrait Gallery because, if I may be permitted to say so, it was when I was the Minister for the Arts and Sports in the last year of the Howard government that most of the construction of the National Portrait Gallery took place—it having been initially commissioned by a previous Howard government arts minister, Senator Richard Alston, and prosecuted by a subsequent arts minister, Senator Rod Kemp. I think there is something appropriate about the fact that arts ministers have customarily been senators, at least under the coalition government.

The National Portrait Gallery was a particularly beloved project of former Prime Minister Mr John Howard and Mrs Howard, who showed very enthusiastic interest in the National Portrait Gallery. It is in fact the signature public building of the Howard government because, although it was indeed opened during the first year of the Rudd government, there is no doubt that it was conceived, developed, largely built and brought into being by the Howard government. If I may say so, I think the clean, modest, efficient architectural lines of the National Portrait Gallery are an architectural emblem of the Howard government, just as the confused, ugly, unpleasant and gauche architectural lines of the National Museum are an architectural emblem of the Keating government.

The National Portrait Gallery contains many—not all, of course—of the great portraits of Australia. The thing about a portrait gallery is that it is the most accessible form of visual arts because there are many people who are not particularly interested in looking at paintings who will come to look at pictures of famous people. So the National Portrait Gallery is a very democratic institution, it is not a culturally elitist institution. In that respect as well, I dare say, it reflects the democratic, non-elitist modesty of the government which brought it into being.

People may view Sir William Dargie's marvellous portrait of Albert Namatjira. They may view Kerrie Lester's lovely portrait of the late Fred Hollows, who I am sorry to say was until the day he died a member of the Communist Party—and I hope this is not too obvious a segue—and Arnold Shore's portrait of Doc Evatt. There are portraits of at least two of the Hughes brothers: Robert Hughes by Bill Leak and Tom Hughes by Jiawei Shen.

The walls of the National Portrait Gallery hold marvels for all to behold.

I should not let the opportunity go past without reflecting upon the very dramatic events of early 2007, when the construction of the National Portrait Gallery was coming to completion. As you may recall, Madam Acting Deputy President, the National Portrait Gallery sits within the Parliamentary Triangle directly to the south-west of the High Court of Australia. And between those two great institutions exists a blasted heath, which was the subject of a very, very bitter territorial dispute between those two august institutions. The nation held its breath in the early months of 2007 when bewigged High Court judges in the north-eastern sector of the battlefield squared off against caftan-wearing curators in the south-western corner of the battlefield for control of this disputed territory. Theodolites at 30 paces it was.

Not since the Taiwan Straits dispute of 1958 when Red China shelled Quemoy and Matsu has there been such a bitter territorial dispute as there was between the High Court of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery, when legal reason was pitted against artistic sensibility for control of a few square metres of Canberra turf. I am pleased to say that that dispute was ultimately resolved. I think the occasion should not be allowed to pass by without paying tribute to the role of Mr Andrew Phelan, the Registrar of the High Court, in resolving that dispute—the Lafayette of Lake Burley Griffin.

So it pleases me, as the person who was in control of the arts ministry during those thrilling days, to see in more peaceful times the National Portrait Gallery of Australia at last established on a regular statutory footing and at peace with its powerful north-eastern neighbour.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Crossin ): Thank you, Senator Brandis, for that illuminating contribution.

Senator Fifield: Top that, David.