ACT History

The history of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) as an administrative division of Australia began after the Federation of Australia in 1901, when it was created in law as the site for Canberra, Australia’s capital city.

The region has a long prior history of human habitation before the Territory’s creation, with evidence of Indigenous Australian settlement dating back at least 21,000 years. The area formed the traditional lands associated with the Ngambri People and several other linguistic groups, an association known through both early European settler accounts and the oral histories of the peoples themselves.

Following the colonisation of Australia by the British, the 19th century saw the initial European exploration and settlement of the area and their encounters with the local indigenous peoples, beginning with the first explorations in 1820 and shortly followed by the first European settlements in 1824.

At the outset the region was dominated by large properties used for sheep and cattle grazing, which had been granted to free settlers that had arrived in Australia from the United Kingdom and other European countries. These large properties were later broken up and subdivided in accordance with changes to land tenure arrangements, smaller farms and urban developments becoming more common.

In 1908, the region was selected as the site of the nation’s future capital city. In 1909, New South Wales formally ceded to the federal government the territory and additional land at Jervis Bay for the establishment of a sea port for the capital. The territory officially came under government control as the Federal Capital Territory on 1 January 1911. The planning and construction of Canberra followed, with the Parliament of Australia moving there in 1927.

The Territory officially became the Australian Capital Territory in 1938. Canberra was built to accommodate the government, while the surrounding area was developed to support the city, including the construction of dams, the establishment of plantation forests and the creation of protected areas. An advisory council was established in 1930, with some elected representation.

Initially, the growth of Canberra and the ACT was slow. The American architect Walter Burley Griffin won the competition to design Australia’s new capital and was appointed to oversee its construction. He was frequently dogged by disputes with Australian authorities and the onset of World War I, which hindered progress. In 1921, Burley Griffin was fired, and multiple planning bodies were established, but achieved little, in part due to the Great Depression.

In the period after World War II, Prime Minister Robert Menzies regarded the state of Canberra as an embarrassment, and took it upon himself to champion its development. Under his leadership, which lasted more than a decade, the development of the capital was rapid. The National Capital Development Commission was created in 1957 with more power than its predecessors, and ended four decades of disputes over the shape and design of Lake Burley Griffin, the centrepiece of Canberra, and construction was completed in 1964 after four years of work.

This prompted the development of the Parliamentary Triangle, a core part of Griffin’s design, and since then various buildings of national importance were constructed on the lakefront. The Australian National University was built, and sculptures and monuments were built. On average, the population of Canberra increased by more than 50% every five years between 1955 and 1975 as the development of the capital became more concerted, and new residential land was released through the creation of new town centres in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1949, the territory gained its first representative in the Parliament, although at first with limited speaking and voting rights. In 1974 it gained a fully elected, but still advisory House of Assembly. In 1988 it gained the trappings of self-government with a Legislative Assembly with most of the powers and responsibilities of an Australian state, although subject to a federal right of veto, similar to the arrangements adopted for the Northern Territory in 1978.

The Legislative Assembly legalised some things that were prohibited in other parts of Australia, such as prostitution and X-rated pornography; in 2006, an attempt to allow civil unions for same-sex couples was overruled by the federal government.

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