How Canberra Became Australia’s Capital?


The Sydney – Melbourne rivalry reached historic proportions when the colony leaders were seriously pondering about creating an Australian federation. In the 1890’s New South Wales was a free tariff state, but Victoria had many taxes to protect local industries. The rivalry between both the colonies created bitter disagreements. Five times premier of NSW, Sir John Robertson, always referred to Victoria as ‘Cabbage Garden’, as he thought Cabbage is the only thing Victoria can offer to them, if an Australian federation was formed. While Victorians overwhelmingly voted for a federation, in NSW, ‘No’ votes came a rather close second position.

Neither Melbourne, nor Sydney agreed to the other one becoming the capital city of the new federation so a compromise was reached. The compromise was that Melbourne will become the temporary capital while a new capital city is built between Sydney and Melbourne and the capital city will be within NSW but at least 100miles away from Sydney.

In 1899, the NSW Government appointed a Royal Commissioner to report on the 41 sites nominated in response to Newspaper advertisements. After considering all the beneficial factors for a Capital City, the Commissioner recommended Bombala in NSW as his first choice and Orange as his second choice.

In 1902 members of both houses inspected the recommended places for suitability, which was described by Melbourne News Media as ‘silly picnic excursion’. In 1903, The Royal Commission choose Dalgety which lies on the banks of snowy river for the capital city. NSW Parliament rejected Dalgety, outright saying that it is too close to Melbourne. Things got muddier when Federal Senate voted for Bombala but house of representatives voted for Tumut. Albury was another strong contender for the Capital City position. Unfortunately for Albury, when the selection team arrived for inspecting the place, the town was smothered in dust, which was a rare occurrence. But that spoiled Albury’s chances of becoming Australia’s new Capital.

In 1908, Canberra was chosen as a compromise. Two people who campaigned strongly for the Federal capital to be in the Canberra area were John Gale, the publisher of The Queanbeyan Age and Federal Politician King O’Malley. The new capital territory was created on 1st January 1911.

Andrew Fisher’s labour Government announced a world-wide competition for the design of the Capital city offering monetary rewards for first, second and third prizes. The minister for Home affairs, O’ Mally was the in charge for the process. An American architect, Walter Burley Griffin, won the competition. Griffin laid out his design in a series of circles and rectangles. But complaints were growing from all corners about the extravagance. So O’Malley referred the design to a specially constituted board. Board rejected all three designs and offered a fourth of its own with required changes.

20th February 2013, the construction of the new Capital city began. But the city was yet to be named. Many names were suggested which include Olympus, Engirscot, Paradise, Caucus City, Captain Cook, Shakespeare, Kangaremu, Sydmeladperho, Eucalypta and Myola. Myola was a favourite until one newspaper suggested that it is a cunning anagram for O’ Mally. On 12th March 2013, Governor General Lord Denman, formally named the city ‘Canberra’.

In 1913, Liberal Party Prime Minister, Joseph Cook came to power. Cook was in charge of the Home affairs portfolio. Joseph Cook discarded the Special Board’s design for the city and Griffin was appointed as Federal Capital Director of Design. Griffin’s winning design was back on for the new Capital city.

But the matter did not end there. Fisher Government was returned to power again in September 1914. While political games had its obstructive effects on the city’s construction, drain of funds due to World War I added to its woes.

The Federal Parliament was officially opened on 9th May 1927.Dame Nellie Melba led the crowd in singing the National Anthem.

Canberra today is considered as a city without a soul. In the words of Professor C.P. Fritz Gerald, a Good Place to work in but not to retire in”.


Australia’s Yesterdays by Readers Digest

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