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A Nation Needs A Capitl

As soon as the nation ‘Australia’ came into being, it needed a capital. This page outlines the social and political context that gave rise to the international competition to design Canberra. And it leads to pages about early visions of the capital, existing Australian cities, and the processes of locating the new city and surveying its site.

One people, one destiny

On 1 January 1901 the six Australian colonies formed a federation called the Commonwealth of Australia. This event was the culmination of over a decade of conventions, negotiations and deals. In agreeing to federate, Australian voters committed themselves to becoming, in the words of Henry Parkes, ‘one people, with one destiny’.

Federation had been in the air for 50 years. A strong argument in its favour was the need for a united approach to defence, and the desire to restrict the number of Chinese people entering the colonies. Others believed in federation as a means to achieve democratic independence. Organisations such as the Australasian Federation League and the Australian Natives Association (all white and all male) mounted vigorous campaigns in support. Some organisations were bitterly opposed – for example, sections of the labour movement. Others, such as women’s suffrage societies, reserved judgement. Their support, or opposition, would depend on whether federation would benefit women in their fight for equal status.

Steps forward and back

Federation could only happen if in every colony:

  • the parliament legislated to become part of the Commonwealth; and
  • the people voted ‘yes’ in sufficient numbers at a referendum.

Not all residents of the six colonies could vote in the referendums between 1898 and 1900. Voters included women in only two colonies – South Australia (including what is now the Northern Territory) and Western Australia – and few Indigenous people. In some states the people had to vote ‘yes’ twice, since the draft Constitution was amended in 1899, in part to resolve a dispute about where to site the capital.

A capital concern

The six colonies each had their own history of settlement and development. Their leaders were strong-minded, and suspicious of each others’ motives. One stumbling block to federation was the location of the new federal capital.

At a premiers conference in Melbourne in early 1899, George Reid won a concession that would enable him to persuade his colony (New South Wales) to vote for federation – the new federal capital would be sited within its borders.

The eventual outcome of constitutional conferences held in the 1890s was Section 125 of the new Australian Constitution which stated that:

The seat of government of the Commonwealth shall be determined by the Parliament, and shall be within territory which shall have been granted to or acquired by the Commonwealth, and shall be vested in and belong to the Commonwealth, and shall be in the State of New South Wales, and be distant not less than one hundred miles from Sydney.

Such territory shall contain an area not less than one hundred square miles, and such portion thereof as shall consist of Crown lands shall be granted to the Commonwealth without any payment therefor. The Parliament shall sit at Melbourne until it meet at the seat of Government.