Us versus them.
That’s what fences are all about.
Whether it’s the Berlin Wall, Hungary’s anti-refugee razor wire or even Trump’s mean-spirited US-Mexico wall, walls and fences serve to emphasise the difference between peoples.
They say: the people on the other side of the fence aren’t like us. They’re different. Strange. Perhaps even dangerous.
They also create a false moral dichotomy: that the people on one side of the fence are more worthy than others.
That is why the optics of the new fence being installed on the grassy slopes of Parliament House are terrible. No more will visitors to our nation’s capital be able to walk on the top of the “people’s house” unobstructed.
That famous green grass is now partially restricted (“stop the goats?”, anyone). Now greeting them is a 2.5-metre fence preventing access to the roof, part of a $126.7 million security upgrade. Gum trees have been cut down and replaced with steel. Discrete surveillance technology has been ignored in favour of one giant “f— you” fence. Optimism has been replaced by fear of terrorist attack.
Last year Senator Derryn Hinch said during the Senate debate over the fence that “it would be like wrapping the Sydney Opera House in barbed wire”.
“I know that since 9/11 the world has changed,” he later wrote. “We have lost whatever innocence we had left. I know the public and our staff must be protected. But, excuse the pun, this is over-kill.”
He was one of only a handful of MPs who voted against the fence, including Greens leader Richard Di Natale.
“Most politicians want to wall themselves off from ordinary people as much as humanly possible, and this fence is just a physical representation of that trend. It’s everything that’s wrong with the political establishment,” said Di Natale.
I remember as a child the immense pride I felt the first time I visited the nation’s capital. My heart soared as I took in the Old Parliament House; the War Memorial; even the baffling (to my eight-year-old eyes, at least) National Carillon.
If Canberra was the nation’s soul, then that soul was one of hope and optimism.
Now I look at Parliament House and I don’t see a proud, hopeful soul. Instead I see fear and loathing. I see a political elite that wants to turn its back on the world, to retreat to the comfort of the echo chamber and the safety bunker and the gated community. I imagine future busloads of tourists peering out at the once-magnificent lawns, wondering why the fence is there.
Politicians are often described as being “out of touch”. Now this is just a physical manifestation: as if Parliament has shook our hands en masse and then reached for the hand sanitiser.
A study by the Australian National University last year found that trust in politicians was at its lowest level since it was first measured in 1969.
The construction of this fence couldn’t have come at a worst time. It feels, in fact, like a massive own goal.
In time, no doubt, the outcry will die down. In time, we will grow used to the fence, as we have with all the other horrors of the modern world. In time, the way things used to be will just be a wistful tale told by older tour guides to busloads of young tourists.
Us versus them. And this time, outside of the gilded halls of our modern Versailles, we’re the “them”.
Us versus them.