120th anniversary of the first sitting of the Commonwealth Parliament


The first sitting of the Commonwealth Parliament occurred in Melbourne on 9 May 1901. The Constitution of Australia had come into effect five months earlier, on 1 January 1901, in accordance with a proclamation made by Queen Victoria. In an inauguration ceremony held in Centennial Park, Sydney, Australia’s first Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun, was sworn in and then appointed Australia’s first ministry, led by Edmund Barton. The first federal election was held on 29 and 30 March 1901 to fill 75 House of Representatives and 36 Senate seats. Once this electoral process was complete, the Governor-General, by proclamation issued on 30 April 1901, appointed 12 noon, 9 May 1901 in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building as the time and place for the first meeting of the new Commonwealth Parliament.

Section 125 of the Australian Constitution required the Parliament to sit in Melbourne until it determined the location of the permanent seat of Government, which must be in New South Wales but at least ‘one hundred miles from Sydney’. It was not until 1908 that the Parliament specified that the seat of Government would be in the Yass-Canberra district, and not until 1927 that it met in Canberra.

As discussed in an earlier FlagPost article, the Commonwealth Government was offered the use of either the Exhibition Building or the Victorian Parliament House by the Victorian Premier, Alexander Peacock, while it sat in Melbourne and opted to use the latter, with access to the Victorian Parliamentary Library apparently proving decisive. The Exhibition Building was nevertheless chosen as the venue for the opening of the new Parliament to accommodate the large number of attendees—the Argus reported 12,000 people were present in the building to witness the ceremony.

The formal proceedings at the Exhibition Building commenced with the reading of the Governor-General’s proclamation to the separately assembled members of each House by the respective clerks. The Duke of York and Cornwall (later King George V), acting under a commission from King Edward VII (who had succeeded to the throne following Queen Victoria’s death on 22 January 1901), then directed the Usher of the Black Rod to request the attendance of members of the House of Representatives.

With Senators and Members assembled together, three verses of the Old Hundredth hymn were sung, followed by the reading of three prayers by the Governor-General. The Duke then addressed both Houses of the Parliament and concluded his remarks by noting that it was the King’s ‘earnest prayer’ that the Federation would ‘prove an instrument for still further promoting the welfare and advancement of his subjects in Australia and for the strengthening and consolidation of his empire’ and declared the Parliament open—a declaration followed by ‘a fanfare of trumpets’.

Members and Senators then made the oath or affirmation of allegiance and were directed to proceed to the Victorian Parliament to elect a Speaker and President respectively. Proceedings at the Exhibition Building concluded with renditions of the Hallelujah Chorus and Rule Britannia by an orchestra and choir, three cheers for the Duke of York and Cornwall and the Governor-General, and a rendition of the national anthem, God Save the King.

Having assembled at the Victorian Parliament House on the afternoon of 9 May, the House of Representatives elected its first Speaker, Frederick Holder (FT, SA), and the Senate elected its first President, Richard Baker (FT, SA). The Presiding Officers were then presented to the Governor-General at the Treasury Building.

On the following day, 10 May 1901, the Governor-General delivered his opening speech to senators and members assembled in the Senate chamber, setting out the priorities of the Government. The speech indicated the daunting range of matters to be addressed by both the Parliament and the Government at the commencement of the Commonwealth, including establishing a High Court, a national defence force, a federal public service, a commission to oversee the trade and commerce provisions of the Constitution, a conciliation and arbitration process for industrial disputes of national significance and the uniform regulation of federal elections; selecting a location for and building the new capital of the Commonwealth; regulating patents and inventions, banking, and navigation and shipping; and providing a revenue base for the Commonwealth.

The Governor-General’s speech was immediately criticised in the press by the Leader of the Opposition, George Reid, on the grounds that it referred to so many matters of great importance that it was ‘framed upon the basis of a session that will last for ever’ and that it had left the Parliament and the people of Australia ‘entirely in the dark as to the distinctive character and policy which the Government proposed to impart to the various measures’.

Each House of the Parliament also had to establish its own rules and orders with respect to ‘the mode in which its powers, privileges, and immunities may be exercised and upheld’ and ‘the order and conduct of its business and proceedings’, as provided in section 50 of The Constitution. The House of Representatives adopted temporary standing orders on 6 June 1901, which were not replaced with permanent standing orders until 21 March 1950. The Senate also adopted temporary standing orders on 6 June 1901, before adopting permanent standing orders on 19 August 1903, with effect from 1 September 1903.

Echoing the inaugural opening in 1901, subsequent decades have seen 9 May selected for a number of significant events in the history of the Commonwealth Parliament. Twenty-six years after it initially met in Melbourne, the Parliament moved to Canberra to occupy the Provisional Parliament House, which was opened by the Duke of York (later King George VI) on 9 May 1927. The New Parliament House was opened 61 years later by Queen Elizabeth II on 9 May 1988. The Parliament commemorated the centenary of Federation by returning to Melbourne and holding a joint sitting at the Royal Exhibition Building on 9 May 2001, with the Senate and the House of Representatives then meeting separately in the Victorian Parliament House on 10 May 2001.

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