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Choosing Canberra

Once the colonies agreed to federate, they had to decide where the new federal Parliament would meet. New South Wales believed Sydney should be the national capital. Victoria argued Melbourne was the obvious choice. At one stage, it seemed this rivalry between the two states might destroy federation.

Eventually, the drafters of the Constitution reached a compromise. They included a provision, or section, in the Constitution stating the national capital should be located in New South Wales but at least 100 miles (160 kilometres) from Sydney in a federal, or capital, territory. Until the new capital was built, the federal Parliament would meet in Melbourne at the Victorian Parliament.

One of the first tasks of the federal Parliament was to find a suitable site or place for the capital territory. The Parliament decided it must be easy to get to and have plenty of water. The new capital was to be a garden city so the site needed to be suited to this as well. King O’Malley, who was later Minister for Home Affairs, urged the Parliament to choose a site with a cool climate. He believed, as he told the House of Representatives, ‘cold climates have produced the greatest geniuses’.

In 1902 the search began. A large number of sites with cold climates were inspected including Bathurst, Bombala, Dalgety, Orange, Tumut and Albury, before Parliament settled on the Canberra area in 1908. It was part of the traditional land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples. At the time the region had a small population of less than 2000 and was mainly used for sheep farming.

In January 1911, ten years after federation, the New South Wales Parliament agreed to set aside 910 square miles (2356 square kilometres) for the capital territory. Federal Parliament then passed a law to create the Australian Capital Territory.

An international competition was held to design the new city. More than 130 entries were received. In 1912 it was announced an entry from American architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin had won.

A name was now needed for the new capital. There was no official competition yet the federal government received nearly 800 suggestions from members of the public both in Australia and from overseas.

Among the suggestions were names celebrating local wildlife and flora such as Kangaemu, Cookaburra, Marsupiala, Acacia and Eucalypta. Others were almost impossible to pronounce, for example Sydmeladperbrisho and Wheatwoolgold. Some names were inspired by hope for the city’s democratic future, including Federata, Democratica, Empire City, Perfection and Paradisia. Others took a less exalted view of the new capital. These included Bungtown, Bunkum, Pawnbroker, Thirstyville and Gonebroke.

Members of parliament suggested 39 names. Among them were Austral, Eden, Flinders, Wentworth, Unison, Myola and Frazer Roo. Eventually the Parliament decided on Canberra, a name already used in the district. No records survive to indicate what the word Canberra means. It may come from an Indigenous word or could be an adaptation of Cranberry which was the name of a sheep station in the area.

Naming of Canberra ceremony, 12 March 1913. +

Naming of Canberra ceremony, 12 March 1913. Left to right: King O'Malley, Minister for Home Affairs; Lady Denman; Prime Minister Andrew Fisher; the Governor-General, Lord Denman

National Library of Australia, vn4503893

A ceremony to officially name the federal capital took place on what is now Capital Hill on 12 March 1913. It was attended by the Governor-General Lord Denman and his wife Lady Denman, the Prime Minister, the Hon Andrew Fisher, and the Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon King O’Malley.

The grand ceremony included 2000 mounted troops and a 19-gun salute. It was watched by a crowd of 3000 spectators and 500 invited guests, many of whom had travelled from Melbourne and Sydney. The three men laid the foundation stones of a commencement column to show construction of the capital had begun. Lady Denham then revealed the capital city was to be called Canberra.


...the Prime Minister formally invited Her Excellency Lady Denman to name the capital. Standing bareheaded on the slopes of Capital Hill, the gathering joined in the singing of the hymn, "All people that on earth do dwell." It was it scene of great impressiveness. Lady Denman mounted a platform erected on the base of the column, and opened a gold card case presented to her by Mrs O’Malley. Casting one glance at the name on the card within the case, Lady Denman in a clear voice said – "I name the capital of Australia


A salute of 21 guns was fired by the artillery. The audience, and particularly the residents of the territory, cheered tumultuously, and the bands played "Advance Australia Fair" and "God Save the King"

Extract from a newspaper report in The Argus, 13 March 1913

Federal Parliament did not move to Canberra until 1927 when a provisional (temporary) Parliament House opened. Plans for a permanent Parliament House were interrupted by World War I and, in 1921, the federal government decided to construct the provisional building. Designed by John Smith Murdoch, the first federal government architect, it was a modest building with 184 rooms.

It remained home to the Parliament for the next 61 years. By then the Parliament had completely outgrown the building. When it opened on 9 May 1927, there were 101 members of parliament—by the time the building closed, this number had more than doubled to 224. About 3000 people were crammed into a space originally designed for several hundred.

Photo showing provisional Parliament House +

Provisional Parliament House in about 1939

National Library of Australia: an 23548162

In 1988 federal Parliament moved to a permanent home on Capital Hill, set above the provisional Parliament House. Opened on 9 May 1988 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Parliament House is one of the largest buildings in the southern hemisphere. It has six times the floor space of the provisional building, now known as Old Parliament House, and is designed to last at least 200 years. When Parliament meets, over 5000 people work in the building, and one million people visit it each year.

Over a century has passed since the first federal Parliament set about creating a national capital. Since then, federal Parliament and the city of Canberra have developed and changed in step with the evolution of the nation.

Parliament House, with Old Parliament House in the foreground +

Parliament House, with Old Parliament House in the foreground. Parliament House was built into Capital Hill

Photogtapher: John Gollings