The Parliament buildings

Meetings in Melbourne and provisional Parliament House in Canberra

The first Commonwealth Parliament was opened in the Exhibition Building, Melbourne, on 9 May 1901 by the Duke of Cornwall and York, later King George V, the Constitution having provided that the Parliament would sit at Melbourne until it met at the seat of Government of the Commonwealth which was to be determined later by the Parliament.[1] The Commonwealth Parliament continued to meet in Melbourne for 26 years using the State’s Parliament House.[2] The Parliament of Victoria met in the Exhibition Building during this period.[3]

The seat of Government which, under the Constitution, was to be in New South Wales but not within 100 miles[4] of Sydney, was finally determined in 1908 to be in the Yass-Canberra district[5] and the Federal Capital Territory came into being on 1 January 1911.[6] In that year a competition for the design of the new capital took place and was won by the American architect Walter Burley Griffin. Work on the capital progressed slowly. In July 1923 the House agreed to a motion requesting the Governor-General to summon the first meeting of the 10th (next) Parliament at Canberra.[7] In the same month the House further resolved that a provisional building (with an estimated life of 50 years) be erected, rather than the nucleus of a permanent Parliament House.[8] The first sod was turned on the site on 28 August 1923. The provisional building was the design of John Smith Murdoch, Chief Architect of the Department of Works and Railways and built by that Department. It was opened on 9 May 1927 by the Duke of York, later King George VI.

The Parliament met in the provisional Parliament House for 61 years. To accommodate Ministers and their staff and increases in the numbers of parliamentarians and staff the building was extended and altered over the years but nevertheless by 1988 it had been grossly overcrowded for a long period. A description of the provisional building is given in chapter 6 of the first edition. The last sitting at the provisional Parliament House took place on 3 June 1988.

The permanent Parliament House

A Joint Standing Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, appointed in 1975 to act for and represent the Parliament as the client in the planning, design and construction of a new Parliament House, recommended that stage one of a new building be ready for occupation by the 1988 bicentenary of European settlement in Australia.[9] On 28 August 1980 the House approved the construction on Capital Hill of a new and permanent Parliament House.[10] The new Parliament House was opened on 9 May 1988 by Queen Elizabeth II. The first sittings in the new building took place on 22 August 1988.[11]

The layout of the building

The building occupies 7.5 hectares and has an area of some 240,000 square metres, covering four levels, including one below ground level. An 81 metre high flag mast rises over the centre of the building. The House of Representatives entrance is on the eastern side of the building.

The main public and ceremonial entry to Parliament House is from the forecourt through the Great Verandah and the Foyer. Directly beyond the Foyer is the Great Hall, the venue of parliamentary ceremonies and receptions, occasions of national significance and other functions. Beyond the Great Hall is the Members’ Hall, centrally located between the Chambers and at the intersection of the north-south and east-west axes of the building.

Unlike the situation in many Parliaments following the Westminster model, Ministers’ main offices are in Parliament House rather than in the principal buildings of the executive departments they administer. Originally an historical accident (a shortage of suitable office accommodation in Canberra when the provisional Parliament House was first occupied) the presence of substantial ministerial offices in Parliament House became the accepted practice over the years and was institutionalised in the new Parliament House, where offices for the Prime Minister, Ministers and ministerial staff and other government employees are consolidated into a clearly defined zone of the building with its own identity and entrance. Accommodation of the Canberra representatives of a number of media organisations within Parliament House has, for similar historical reasons, been accepted by the Parliament, despite the fact that much of the work of these persons and organisations does not relate directly to the proceedings of the Parliament.

Consistent with the concept of the building as a ‘people’s building’ considerable attention has been given to providing facilities and services for visitors and tourists. A large proportion of the first floor is devoted to the public circulation system from which visitors have access to the galleries of the Great Hall, the Members’ Hall and the Chambers. From the first floor the public also has access to the committee rooms, and to public facilities at the front of the building, comprising a theatrette, exhibition areas, post office and cafeteria. A book and souvenir shop is situated in the Foyer near the main entrance.