Unit 1
Federation and the Formation of the National Capital

Background Notes

Before Federation, Australia was a continent with six colonies (the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory were created after Federation). Federation was discussed as early as 1847, by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Grey, but it was not until the 1890s that the movement gained any serious momentum.

On 24 October 1889, Henry Parkes, one of Federation's strongest supporters, delivered a speech at Tenterfield, in New South Wales, where he declared that it was time for positive action towards the creation of a nation. He called for:

a convention of leading men from all the colonies, delegates appointed by the authority of Parliament, who would fully represent the opinions of different Parliaments of the colonies.

Parkes' sentiments were supported at the Australasian Federation Conference, held in Melbourne in February 1890, and then, more significantly, at the National Australasian Convention in Sydney just over a year later. Parkes presided over this Convention, where debate centred around his resolutions and the first principles of an Australian Constitution. At the Convention banquet, Parkes famously proposed a toast to:

One People, One Destiny

The idea of Federation was further boosted at several conferences during the 1890s: Corowa in 1893; Bathurst in 1896; and in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, in 1897-1898, at the Australasian Federal Convention. After much debate and discussion, this Convention adopted an amended Commonwealth Bill, which was soon put to the people of the colonies through a referendum.

Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales voted in the referendum on 3 June 1898, while South Australia voted the following day on 4 June 1898. Queensland and Western Australia did not participate in the referendum as they were not happy with certain parts of the Commonwealth Bill. All the participating colonies voted ‘yes' to Federation but New South Wales imposed a condition on itself that at least 80,000 affirmative votes must be obtained and it did not reach this mark. This failure to achieve the necessary minimum vote in the most influential colony gave New South Wales Premier, George Reid, the opportunity to seek compromise from the other premiers. Thus, a ‘secret premiers' conference' was held in Melbourne in January 1899, and certain requests were put forward by Reid.

One of Reid's prime concerns was to have the federal capital located in New South Wales. He gained this concession, but at a price. The Seat of Government of the Commonwealth was to be located at a point no less than 100 miles (160km) from Sydney. The exclusion zone around Sydney was based on how far a horse could be ridden in two days, thus ensuring parliamentary decisions could not be easily influenced by the people in Sydney.

The second referendum, in 1899, succeeded in gaining the necessary majority for Federation, even though Western Australia did not vote on the second round until 1900.

The final step necessary to achieve Federation was to present the Australian Constitution Bill to Parliament in London. The Bill was well received and Queen Victoria signed the Royal Commission of Assent on 9 July 1900. The Commonwealth of Australia had become a reality. Today, the Royal Assent is stored in the National Archives of Australia. A facsimile is on display in Parliament House, Canberra.

Background Notes

Soon after the second referendum in 1900, action was taken to select the site for the federal capital. President of the New South Wales Land Court, Alexander Oliver, was appointed to take charge of the process and advertisements in metropolitan and provincial newspapers were placed inviting suggestions for a suitable site. The response was overwhelming.

A popular misconception emerged during the search for a site. Many Australians of the time believed that a cool climate enabled people of Anglo Saxon descent to ‘think' more clearly! During a parliamentary session, where members debated the location of the National Capital, King O'Malley, American-born Labor Member of the Federal Parliament and later Minister for Home Affairs, proclaimed:

The history of the world shows that cold climates have produced the greatest geniuses… Take the sons of some of the greatest men in the world, and put them into a hot climate like Tumut and Albury, and in three generations their lineal descendants will be degenerate. I found them in San Domingo on a Sabbath morning going to a cock-fight with a rooster under each arm and a sombrero on their heads. I want to have a cold climate chosen for the capital of this Commonwealth…
I must have a cold climate where men can hope

In 1902, members of the Federal Parliament began inspections of possible sites. Factors influencing the choice of the site included: accessibility, climate, soil productiveness, a good permanent water supply, pleasant outlook, an existing lake or possibility of one, flat land (because it would be cheaper to build on) and a large area for military manoeuvres.

The most bizarre suggestion came from J. G. Drake, a radical politician and journalist, who suggested the National Capital should be located in a federal district of some 50,000 square miles at what is now called Cameron's Corner, the geographical location where the borders of Queensland, South Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales meet. The remoteness of the location was intentional, Drake believing that such a site reduced the risk of attack on the National Capital from foreign invaders approaching from the sea.

In total 35 sites in New South Wales were considered (not all were inspected):

Albury, Armidale, Barber's Creek, Bathurst, Batlow, Bemboka, Bombala, Bombala-Eden, Braidwood, Buckley's Crossing, Canberra (located within Yass-Canberra), Carcoar-Garland, Cootamundra, Corowa, Dalgety, Delegate, Dalgety-Tooma, Forest Reefs (Millthorpe), Gadara, Goulburn, Lake George, Lyndhurst, Mahkoolma, Molong, Moss Vale, Murrumburra, Orange (Canobolas), Queanbeyan, Tooma, Tumut, Wagga Wagga, Wellington, Yass, Yass-Canberra
and Young.

In 1904, Dalgety was the first choice for the National Capital, to some extent because of its cold climate, but disputes between the Federal Government and the New South Wales Government continued for several years. Finally, in 1908, after much political maneuvering,
the Federal Parliament passed a Seat of Government Act that declared:

It is hereby determined that the Seat of Government of the Commonwealth shall be in the district of Yass-Canberra in the State of New South Wales.

The district of Yass-Canberra comprised a number of grazing properties. It was home to Aborigines, estate owners, convict and immigrant workers, independent labourers and shepherds. As one newcomer stated:

This district abounds with cattle stealers, runaways and those who harbour them and the keepers of illicit spirit shops.

By the time the Yass-Canberra district was chosen as the site of the National Capital of Australia, the properties that made up the central area of this district were mostly in the hands of descendents of Robert Campbell, the founder of Duntroon Estate. Duntroon Estate was founded in 1825, when Robert Campbell was granted 4000 acres of land in the Yass-Canberra area, 400 head of sheep and 2000 pounds cash as compensation for the loss of his ship, the ‘Sydney', while undertaking government business. Blundells Cottage, one of the workers' cottages of Duntroon Estate, exists today on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin as a reminder of life before the National Capital.

Background Notes

In 1912, the Commonwealth Government invited the Australian public to find a suitable name for their future capital. People responded with imagination and good humour and over 700 names were proposed, including references to place names, the ‘Mother Country', politics, Australian animals and flowers, hopes, fears, historical people, plus the odd joke or two.

Although many of the names are considered odd or amusing today, these names were significant at the time as they demonstrated that Australia was developing a lively identity of its own. Democratia, Empire City, Economy and Labor City were all politically themed suggestions for the National Capital. The then Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher (1862-1928) inspired submissions such as Andrewton, Fisher (which is now a suburb in Canberra), Fisherdale and Piscatoria (Pisca from the Latin for fish). The names of statesmen involved with Federation were also put forward, including Barton, Deakin, Braddon and Reid, all of which are suburbs in present-day Canberra. Attempts were even made to create a name from Australia's capital cities at the time: Admelsalra, Meladneyperbane, Sydbourne, Sydmelbane and Sydmeladperbrisho.

Fortunately, there were many supporters of the name ‘Canberra', the existing name of the district since the early days of European settlement (and some variations on the name, including Canberramerri, Canberrington, Canber and Canberraford).

The original European name for the district now known as ‘Canberra' was the ‘Limestone Plains'. The earliest written record of the name ‘Canberra' is found in an application to purchase land by one of its first settlers in December 1826 - the area was actually referred to as ‘Canberry'. The origin of the word ‘Canberra' is still widely debated. Some say that the word is a variation of an Old English place name; others claim it is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘woman's breasts' and refers to the two adjoining hills close to the city centre. The most popularly held belief is that the word was used by local Aboriginal people meaning ‘meeting place'.

On 12 March 1913, at an official ceremony on Capital Hill (where Parliament House and its surrounding grounds are now located), Lady Denman, the wife of the Governor-General of Australia, mounted a platform and opened a small gold case containing the name of the National Capital. She declared, in a clear English voice:

I name the Capital of Australia Canberra , and then added, the accent is on the Can.

Harvesting Central Basin of the Lake before the filling of Lake Burley Griffin 1958Today's commonly accepted meaning for the word ‘Canberra' is seen by many as an appropriate term which reinforces the belief that Canberra is a ‘meeting place' for many parliamentarians, diplomats and public servants, who maintain one of the many functions of the National Capital.