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First Sitting of the Commonwealth Parliament


On midday on 9 May 1901, His Royal Highness The Duke of York and Cornwall (later George V) opened the first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia at the Exhibition Building—the only building in Melbourne big enough to accommodate the 1,400 guests—on behalf of King Edward VII.

Designed by architect Joseph Reed, the grand Exhibition Building (now the Royal Exhibition Building) had been constructed for the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition. In 2004 it became the first building in Australia to be given World Heritage listing.

 Artists Tom Roberts and Charles Nuttall were separately commissioned to commemorate the event which The Argus declared ‘A Magnificent Demonstration’ and ‘A Masterpiece of Organisation’.

The members of the Senate and House of Representatives assembled again later that day at the Victorian Parliament House in Spring Street to elect Sir Richard Baker and Sir Frederick Holder as the Parliament’s first Presiding Officers. Regular sessions commenced the following day.

Choosing a home for the New Parliament

The choice of Melbourne as the temporary home of the Commonwealth Parliament had been made at a ‘secret’ conference of the premiers in January 1899. However, this left unresolved the question of where the new Parliament would be housed. Discussions continued throughout 1900, the issue being whether the Commonwealth Parliament would occupy the State Parliament Building or the Exhibition Building. The issue was the subject of debate in the press and among the Victorian parliamentarians, some of whom expressed reservations about being forced to move. The Victorian Commonwealth Arrangements Act 1900 left the issue open.

In April 1901, the Victorian Premier, Alexander Peacock, wrote to Prime Minister Edmund Barton recommending the Exhibition Building:

While leaving your Government perfectly free in its choice of which ever of the two buildings it may deem the more suitable, I desire to remark that such alterations are in progress at the Exhibition Buildings as will, it is considered, most fully meet the requirements and promote the comfort of the Members and the representatives of the Press, should that place be selected.

To the Victorian Premier’s undoubted disappointment, after ‘most careful consideration and a personal inspection of both buildings’, Barton’s choice was the State Parliament Building—reputedly influenced by Alfred Deakin’s strong attachment to the Parliamentary Library there. Indeed, The Argus reported that ‘[o]ne of the main reasons that induced the Commonwealth Ministry to decide in favour of the permanent Parliamentary buildings rather than the temporary accommodation in the Exhibition building was the presence of the library in the former’. And Sir John McIntyre declared in the Legislative Assembly that it ‘was only the Library that induced the Federal Government to make an effort to get possession of the Parliament buildings . . . . [T]he Library was the great object of the desire of the Federal Government.’

Barton’s agreement with the Victorian Government for the use of Melbourne’s Parliament House duly included access to the state’s Parliamentary Library. For convenience, the officers of the Library remained state employees, their salaries reimbursed by the Commonwealth. Arthur Wadsworth acted as Commonwealth Parliamentary Librarian for over 26 years, being transferred to the Commonwealth public service only in 1927 (backdated to 1925).

Arrangements were put in place for the Parliamentary Library to serve the needs of both the state and federal legislatures, with a second reading room established in the Exhibition Buildings to which books were ferried by bicycle.  However, the Victorian members felt keenly the loss of ready access to their reading rooms.

Melbourne continued to be the seat of the Commonwealth Parliament until 1927. During this time, for all but a few months, the Victorian Parliament met in the Exhibition Building. The exception was a brief interlude (40 sitting days) in the summer of 1902–03.

On 12 December 1902, Premier William Irvine successfully moved that the Legislative Assembly ‘at its rising, adjourn until Tuesday next, at four o’clock, at the Parliament House, situate in Spring-street’. The reason given was to avoid 'all of the inconvenience, almost suffering entailed by a summer sitting in’ the Exhibition Building. Irvine informed the Assembly that he had already secured Barton’s agreement.  Accordingly, when the Legislative Assembly met again the following week, it was back in Spring Street. The Legislative Council also resolved to relocate. The Victorian Parliament sat at Spring Street until April 1903.  (The Federal Parliament was prorogued over this period.) 

It was during this sojourn that, on 21 January 1903, the Victorian Parliament House hosted the first joint sitting of an Australian Parliament to elect a senator (pursuant to section 15 of the Constitution) when the state Parliament met to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Frederick Sargood. Robert Reid defeated Sir Aexander Peacock.

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