History of Parliament House

Federal Parliament first met on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne. From 1901 to 1927 the Parliament met in the Victorian Parliament House. Finding a location for the nations parliament was a complex matter. The directions for its location can be found in Section 125 of the Constitution of Australia:

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 of 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.

It took until 1909 for Parliament to decide, after considerable investigation and discussion, that the new capital would be in the southern part of New South Wales, on the site which is now Canberra. The Commonwealth acquired control over the land during 1911. Due to the intervention of events such as World War I the provisional Parliament House (now called “Old Parliament House”) was not completed until 1927.

Old Parliament House opened in 1927 and served as the home of Federal Parliament until 1988. Over time, this impressive building became synonymous with some of the country’s most important moments including Australia’s declaration of war against Japan in 1941 and the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government in 1975. The sixty years during which Old Parliament House served as a working parliament were a time of enormous change for Australia. The Museum of Australian Democracy today occupies Old Parliament House, recognising its historical and social value to the Australian people.

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On 9 May 1988, what was generally referred to as the “New Parliament House” was opened by her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. The building design was chosen from a two-stage competition from a process begin in 1978 by the Fraser government. The competition winner was the New York-based architectural company of Mitchell/Giurgola, with the on-site work directed by Italian architect Romaldo Giurgola

There were many factors that the designers of Parliament House considered, including its size and its inevitable grandeur. Its relationship to the Burley Griffin plan of the city within which it was to occupy the symbolic centre—the Parliamentary Triangle—was also critical. The new building was seen as an intimate part of Canberra, but it was designed not to dominate the city.

The architect, Romaldo Giurgola commented:

We felt if Australia’s new Parliament House was to speak honestly about its purpose, it could not be built on top of the hill as this would symbolise government imposed upon the people.

The building should nest with the hill, symbolically rise out of the Australian landscape, as true democracy rises from the state of things.( houseatwork, Parliamentary Education Office, Parliament of Australia, Parliament House, Canberra, 2001, p. 90)

The one-fifth of the building open to the public is a substantial space. The Parliament House building area, 7.5 hectares of a 32 hectare site, was the largest construction site in the Southern Hemisphere in the 1980s. Ten thousand Australians were involved in its construction—many of whom return periodically to celebrate their work.

At the time of its opening, Parliament House received mixed reviews. In particular, there was concern among many MPs and journalists that a great deal of freedom had been lost in the way that the new house separated the parliamentarians from the public and from the media. As memories of the old days have faded, so have the criticisms lessened. Undoubtedly, the general public, which has flocked to the ‘new’ building in such numbers as to make it one of Canberra’s major tourist attractions, have responded very well to it. An informal measure of this is the large number of family and friends taken through the building by Parliament House staff in the course of a year. Twenty years after the Sovereign ceremonially opened its doors, we can see that the Australian Parliament House has become an object of pride for a great many Australians.

Former MP (Oxley Qld 1961–88) and Governor-General (1989–96), Bill Hayden, liked the building, expressing a view that has often been heard:

Philosophically, this is the sort of building people can come into and feel at home, they’re not overawed by it (Pilita Clark, ‘Intimidating, magnificent or overdone?’, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 1988).

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