When the six Australian colonies joined to form the Federation “The Commonwealth of Australia” (1 January 1901), it needed a capital. The debate about Federation and a future capital had been going on for over 50 years, and competition was strong between the two main cities with some justified claim to that national distinction: Melbourne, which had become the continent’s largest city due to a temporary gold rush in the 19th century, and Sydney, the oldest city founded by the first Europeans that settled there (see January 18). The deadlock between the two was solved by a decision in favour of a third, new city, which should be built somewhere in between the two and at least 100 miles from Sydney. Until the new capital would be complete, Melbourne, and to some extent also Sydney, were acknowledged temporary hosts to diverse government departments.
In 1908, after a careful survey by Charles Scrivener, a site was chosen some 300 km southwest of Sydney, and the new Federal Capital Territory (later Australian Capital Territory) was created on January 1, 1911.
An international competition was held, which was won in 1912 by the American architect Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) and his wife and professional partner Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961), one of the first American woman architect. Both were part of the Prairie School, and had been influenced by the aesthetic American City Beautiful movement and the English Garden City movement (see January 29). As a result, they conceived of the future capital as embedded in a natural landscape framed by mountain tops and halved by a grand artificial lake (Lake Burley Griffin).
Finally, on 20 February 1913, the Minister for Home Affairs King O’Malley drove the first peg that would mark the beginning of the capital’s construction. By that time, the name of the future government seat had also been decided upon: Canberra, probably based on the Aboriginal name ‘Kamberra’ or ‘Kambery’. The official naming ceremony took place on 12 March that same year on the hill that would be the site of the future Parliament – Capital Hill.
Advancements were slow, as the First World War interfered. Finally, on 9 May 1929, a temporary Parliament House (now the ‘Old Parliament House’) was opened, and with this act Melbourne officially transferred its role as capital to Canberra. The Parliament’s first act was to repeal King O’Malley’s extremely unpopular prohibition law, in effect since the creation of the (Australian) Capital Territory, 1 January 1911.
In 1980, when the High Court of Australia was moved from Melbourne to Canberra, the capital as government headquarters was complete.
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