Prime minister's desk

An expanse of desktop.

This commanding desk was used by three prime ministers – Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke. Its size, physical and psychological impact and the quality of workmanship all reflect the significance of the prime minister’s role as the leader of the government of the day. In use between 1972 and 1988, this desk replaced one designed in 1926 by architect John Smith Murdoch. 

In this black and white photograph Prime Minister Harrold Holt sits at the timber desk made in 1926. Holt is wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie and is leaning on the desk while he writes. The desk has fine carved panels with a geometric detailing on the corners. The surface of the desk is cluttered with stacks of documents and a telephone. On the glass-fronted cabinets in the background are a number of framed photographic portraits.

Prime Minister Harold Holt working at the original prime minister’s desk created in 1926. This desk would have looked out of place in the 1972 renovation and was put in storage. Struck by the historical significance of the desk, Prime Minister Howard asked to use the desk in Australian Parliament House when he became prime minister.  

Credit: National Library of Australia.

The desk is authoritative and imposing – the expanse of the desktop creates a distance between the prime minister and visitors. For all its symbolic authority and power, the desk is also very practical with built-in storage and a row of call buttons for summoning secretaries and advisors. Issues, policy and legislation that continue to affect our lives today were discussed across this desk. 

This colour photograph captures a conversation between Prime Minister Bob Hawke seated on the left and Treasurer Paul Keating seated on the right. The photo shows the corner of the desk with Hawke sitting behind the desk while Keating sits to the side with both men facing each other. Both are dressed in black suits with white shirts and red ties contrasting the pale blue curtains in the background.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating in discussion at the prime ministers desk, 1988  

Credit: Robert McFarlane/Department of the House of Representatives 

Like much of the furniture built specifically for the 1972 remodelling of the Prime Minister’s Suite, the desk remained behind when parliamentarians shifted up the hill to the new Australian Parliament House. 

Visual description

The desk is an imposing 2 metres wide and 1.2 metres deep. It has a honey-coloured Black Bean timber top and legs with chocolate brown vinyl panels on the faces. The frame of the desk has skilfully mitred corners. The timber has been finely sanded and polished so that it is perfectly smooth and there is a slight reflection off the surface.

The desk features two drawers to the left of the sitter with spherical brass knobs. The knobs show evidence of use and have lost some of their original shine. On the right of the sitter there is another drawer with a spherical knob and a row of small white plastic call buttons used to summon secretaries and advisors.

On the desktop is a black leather blotter twice the size of a piece of A3 paper. To the right of the sitter is a 1980s Telecom Commander telephone used by Prime Minister Bob Hawke. The press button telephone includes an extension unit with direct lines to politicians and staff.

Photograph of the Prime Ministers desk

Photograph of the Prime Ministers desk


Why wasn’t this desk moved to Australian Parliament House in 1988?

The furniture designed in the early 1970s for the Prime Minister’s Suite was not in keeping with the design principles of the set created for the Australian Parliament House and it was left behind. It is an important piece of the Museum of Australian Democracy Collection and is used to interpret the history of the building.

What happened to the 1926 desk?

After removal from the Prime Minister’s Suite in 1972, the 1926 desk was placed in storage. In 1996, Prime Minister John Howard asked to have the desk in his office in Australian Parliament House. The desk was returned to the Museum in 2008 and is on display in the John Howard Library.

Can I sit at the desk?

No, sorry. To protect the desk and other furniture in the Prime Minister’s Suite, visitors are not allowed to sit at the desk. However if you are elected prime minister, you can sit at the new desk at Australian Parliament House.