ACT History – Canberra

The district’s change from a New South Wales (NSW) rural area to the national capital started during debates over Federation in the late 19th century. Following a long dispute over whether Sydney or Melbourne should be the national capital, a compromise was reached: the new capital would be built in New South Wales, so long as it was at least 100 miles (160 km) from Sydney, with Melbourne to be the temporary seat of government (but not referred to as the “capital”) while the new capital was built.

Newspaper proprietor John Gale circulated a pamphlet titled ‘Dalgety or Canberra: Which?’ advocating Canberra to every member of the Commonwealth’s seven States Parliaments. By many accounts, it was decisive in the selection of Canberra as the site in 1908, as was a result of survey work done by the government surveyor Charles Scrivener. The NSW government ceded the Federal Capital Territory (as it was then known) to the federal government.

In an international design competition conducted by the Department of Home Affairs, on 24 May 1911, the design by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin was chosen for the city, and in 1913 Griffin was appointed Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction and construction began.

On 12 March 1913, the city was officially given its name by Lady Denman, the wife of Governor-General Lord Denman, at a ceremony at Kurrajong Hill, which has since become Capital Hill and the site of the present Parliament House. Canberra Day is a public holiday observed in the ACT on the second Monday in March to celebrate the founding of Canberra.

After the ceremony, bureaucratic disputes hindered Griffin’s work; a Royal Commission in 1916 ruled his authority had been usurped by certain officials. Griffin’s relationship with the Australian authorities was strained and a lack of funding meant that by the time he was fired in 1920, little work had been done. By this time, Griffin had revised his plan, overseen the earthworks of major avenues, and established the Glenloch Cork Plantation.

The federal legislature moved to Canberra on 9 May 1927, with the opening of the Provisional Parliament House. The Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, had officially taken up residence in The Lodge a few days earlier. Planned development of the city slowed significantly during the depression of the 1930s and during World War II. Some projects planned for that time, including Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, were never completed.

Two of Canberra’s best-known landmarks, Parliament House and Old Parliament House (foreground). Commonwealth Place runs alongside the lake and includes the International Flag Display. Questacon is on the right.

From 1920 to 1957, three bodies, successively the Federal Capital Advisory Committee,[ the Federal Capital Commission, and the National Capital Planning and Development Committee continued to plan the further expansion of Canberra in the absence of Griffin; however, they were only advisory, and development decisions were made without consulting them, increasing inefficiency.

Immediately after the end of the war, Canberra was criticised for resembling a village, and its disorganised collection of buildings was deemed ugly. Canberra was often derisively described as “several suburbs in search of a city”. Prime Minister Robert Menzies regarded the state of the national capital as an embarrassment. Over time his attitude changed from one of contempt to that of championing its development. He fired two ministers charged with the development of the city for poor performance. He ruled for over a decade and in that time the development of the capital sped up rapidly. The population grew by more than 50% in every five-year period from 1955 to 1975. Several Government departments, together with public servants, were moved to Canberra from Melbourne following the war. Government housing projects were undertaken to accommodate the city’s growing population.

Most of rapid expansion was achieved after the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) was formed in 1957 with executive powers, replacing its ineffective advisory predecessors. The NCDC ended four decades of disputes over the shape and design of Lake Burley Griffin—the centrepiece of Griffin’s design—and construction was completed in 1964 after four years of work. The completion of the lake finally the laid the platform for the development of Griffin’s Parliamentary Triangle. Since the initial construction of the lake, various buildings of national importance have been constructed on its shores.

The newly built Australian National University was expanded, and sculptures and monuments were built. A new National Library was constructed within the Parliamentary Triangle, followed by the High Court and the National Gallery. Suburbs in Canberra Central (often referred to as North Canberra and South Canberra) were further developed in the 1950s, and urban development in the districts of Woden Valley and Belconnen commenced in the mid and late 1960s respectively. Many of the new suburbs were named after Australian politicians, such as Barton, Deakin, Reid, Braddon, Curtin, Chifley and Parkes.

Canberra Civic viewed from Mount Ainslie with Lake Burley Griffin and Mount Stromlo in the background.

On 27 January 1972 the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was first established on the grounds of Parliament House; it was created to draw attention to indigenous rights and land issues and has been continuously occupied since 1992. On 9 May 1988, a larger and permanent Parliament House was opened on Capital Hill as part of Australia’s bicentenary celebrations, and the Federal Parliament moved there from the Provisional Parliament House, now known as Old Parliament House.

In December 1988, the ACT was granted full self-government through an Act of the Commonwealth Parliament. Following the first election on 4 March 1989, a 17-member Legislative Assembly sat at temporary offices at 1 Constitution Avenue, Civic, on 11 May 1989. Permanent premises were opened on London Circuit in 1994. The Australian Labor Party formed the ACT’s first government, led by the Chief Minister Rosemary Follett, who made history as Australia’s first female head of government. Parts of Canberra were engulfed by bushfires on 18 January 2003 that killed four people, injured 435, and destroyed 487 homes and the major research telescopes of Australian National University’s Mount Stromlo Observatory.