HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, CANBERRA!
Celebrate the Centenary of Australia’s Capital City, Canberra, by sharing this story. It introduces children in an entertaining way to some of Australia’s more colourful Prime Ministers and the buildings that they worked in. Adults will also enjoy the references to some of the more interesting political incidents in Australia’s history.
I worked at Parliament for nearly 25 years. This is my way of paying homage to the wonderful city that has been my home for over 35 years.
MAX, THE PARLIAMENTARY CAT
Stephanie Owen Reeder
Max lived in a Big White House in Canberra. The House had many masters over the years, and all of them fed Max. ’Here, Kitty, have a kipper,’ said Prime Minister Menzies, who was built like a large Ming vase. He raised his caterpillar-like eyebrows as Max gobbled up the yummy fish and meowed for more. But Mr Menzies didn’t think Max looked very regal, and so he often passed him by.
‘Want a tasty morsel, Puss?’ asked the sporty Mr Holt, the next Master of the Big White House. ‘This prawn is fresh from the sea, I caught it myself!’ Max thought he would go all the way with Prime Minister Holt because he smelt so deliciously of fish! But one day Mr Holt went away to sea and never came back.
‘Would you like some sugar, Cat?’ asked Mr McEwen, who became Prime Minister when the sea took Mr Holt away. Mr McEwen looked down his nose at Max in a very imperious way. But Max was not afraid, for he would take any food, from anyone, anywhere. And, anyway, Black Jack McEwen wasn’t around for long.
‘Have an oyster, you gorgeous feline,’ crooned the elegant Mr Gorton, who soon replaced Black Jack as Master of the House. Max liked Mr Gorton’s cravat and his crooked smile – and he loved how he always did things in his very own way. But not everyone shared Max’s feelings, and so Mr Gorton soon moved on.
‘What was that? Did you say you were hungry? Oh dear, oh dear, what should we do?’ asked the next Prime Minister in his high, querulous voice. He listened hard to Max with both his ears. But even big ears and an attractive wife couldn’t save Mr McMahon, and one day he also was Master of the Big White House no more. And even Max knew it was time for a change.
‘Help yourself to whatever you want, Felinus Rex Australis,’ declared the divine Mr Whitlam from his very great height. Max feasted on pavlovas and lamingtons, pumpkin scones and vegemite sandwiches. Then he lay in the sun and purred. But one day Mr Whitlam found that being Prime Minister was a dog’s life, and he too was sent away.
Max missed Mr Whitlam mightily, especially when the next Prime Minister came along. ‘Get down in the kitchen where you belong, Cat! And make sure you catch a few mice and earn your keep. You know life wasn’t meant to be easy, even for Canberra fat cats like you,’ decreed Mr Fraser in his most masterful voice. And so Max worked hard and kept out of the way. But even Prime Minister Fraser had his day. And, when he went, Max didn’t shed a tear.
‘You’re certainly no drover’s dog,’ chortled the charismatic Mr Hawke, who was the next Master of the Big White House at the bottom of the Hill. Prime Minister Hawke tickled Max affectionately under the chin and handed him a fat piece of fish. Then he hurried off to attend yet another Australian sporting triumph.
In fact, everyone who visited the Big White House fed Max – even the very royal lady on the red carpet who wore funny hats and smelt of dog! And so, as the years went by, Max got bigger and bigger, and fatter and fatter. And soon he was the fattest cat in the whole of Canberra, the whole of Australia, the whole wide world – and probably the whole universe and beyond!
Then one day, without warning, all the people moved out of the Big White House by the Lake. Poor Max didn’t know where they had gone. He wandered through long empty corridors that smelt of wood-polish and dust. He meowed forlornly in vacant rooms and chased his own shadow. He meandered into echoing chambers full of the ghosts of parliaments past. But he couldn’t find anyone there.
Max even chased a mouse under the Speaker’s chair – which, like him, had been left behind. But an old fat cat is no challenge for a young skinny mouse, and so Max was often hungry. Occasionally, he ate the bogong moths that flew through the House on their way to the Snowy Mountains. But a diet of moths and beetles and air wasn’t enough. And so Max got thinner and thinner and thinner, till he was a mere shadow of his former self.
Finally, in desperation, Max left the safe and familiar rooms of the Big White House. As he huddled under a rose bush, a group of tourists ambled past. They were eating fish and chips, and so Max followed his nose.
Past the roses blooming in the sun. Through the car park. Across the road. Up the hill. Under the flagpoles, clinking and clattering and calling to the sky. Past the protesters camped upon the lawns. Across the ochre pebbles that poked into his paws. Around the water rippling in the sunlight. And past the steely-eyed policemen keeping guard.
When Max looked up, he saw a new Big White House, built in and under the hill. It had swards of grass tumbling over its roof, and a gigantic silver flagpole perched above it. Max followed the tourists inside. At first he thought he was lost in a eucalyptus forest.
But then Max heard a familiar sound, a dull rise and fall of voices. ‘Hubble, bubble!’ ‘Honourable members!’ ‘Order! Order!’ ‘Hear, hear!’ ‘Rubbish, rubbish!’ ‘Rhubarb, rhubarb!’
It was a familiar, comforting sound. And Max knew that he was home!
© Stephanie Owen Reeder 2013
This is an edited version of a short story called ‘The Parliamentary Cat’, which appeared in Houseatwork: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Building, Parliamentary Education Office, Parliament House, Canberra, 2001: 144–148.