Design and construction of Australia’s Parliament House—35 years on

On 9 May 1988, 35 years ago, Australia’s Parliament House was opened by Queen Elizabeth II. The opening echoed the date of both the inaugural opening of the Commonwealth Parliament at the Exhibition Building in Melbourne and the opening of the Provisional Parliament House in Canberra, on 9 May in 1901 and 1927 respectively. This Flagpost article revisits the construction of new Parliament House.

Contentious location on Capital Hill

The issue of where in the National Triangle a permanent Parliament House should be located was debated from the 1950s to the 1970s and was the subject of conflicting expert reports, committee recommendations, resolutions of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and government policy announcements. Parliament eventually confirmed, via the enactment of the Parliament Act 1974, that Capital Hill would be the site of the new and permanent Parliament House.

Joint Standing Committee and Construction Authority

Having agreed to a location, the Parliament established a Joint Standing Committee to act as the client during the planning, design and construction of the building in mid-1975.

It was not until 22 November 1978 that Prime Minister Fraser formally announced that the government had decided it should allocate funds to allow the project to proceed, an announcement supported by the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Hayden. The Prime Minister also announced that the building would serve as ‘the focal point of the bicentenary celebrations in 1988’, and provided a cost estimate for the project of ‘$151m in May 1978 prices’ (approximately $369 million in 1989 prices).

The Parliament House Construction Authority (PHCA) was established in March 1979 to carry out the design and construction of the project, under the supervision of the Joint Standing Committee acting as the Parliament’s ‘watchdog’.

Design chosen via international competition

Designs for the new building were solicited through a two-stage international design competition, which received 329 entries in the first stage, of which five were selected to proceed to the second stage. The winning entry, submitted by New York firm Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp, was announced on 26 June 1980. The competition assessors stated that the winning design was:

… a building of firm, clear geometry, not rigidly imposed on the terrain but sensitively adjusted to it. … is at once natural and monumental.

The PHCA calculated that ‘a realistic estimate of the cost to build the winner's design concept is $220 million at May 1978 prices’ (approximately $537 million in 1989 prices), taking into account aspects of the design that differed from the original brief—including its greater usable area, requirement for more site works and landscaping, provision of underground car parking, and more expensive finishes. Authorisation to proceed with the project was given by each House of the Parliament on 21 and 28 August 1980.

Construction process

Construction of the new Parliament House, with its 4,500 rooms and 240,000 square metres of enclosed space and 238-tonne stainless steel flagpole, was a vast undertaking. One million cubic meters of earth, amounting to 125,000 truckloads, was removed from the site and replaced by 300,000 cubic metres of concrete and 24,000 tonnes of steel reinforcing. Ten thousand workers contributed to the project over the course of construction, with up to 3,000 workers on site at a time. Project expenditure reached $30 million per month at its peak.

The short time available for the completion of the project led the PHCA to adopt a ‘fast track’ approach to project management by which construction commenced while planning was not yet complete. This approach increased costs but was deemed necessary to meet the fixed completion date. The construction process was further complicated by:

Cost increases

The ultimate cost of the project was approximately $1.1 billion in 1989 dollars. The PHCA attributed 45 per cent of the increase to inflation, and identified building additions, the inclusion of non‑building items, industrial disputes, insolvencies, and exchange rate variations as the main contributors to the remaining increases.

The discrepancy between the original estimate and final cost was the subject of media criticism. The PHCA’s administration of the project was heavily criticised by the Auditor-General in a June 1987 efficiency audit report, which stated that the ‘Authority’s operations had not been carried out in an efficient or economic manner’. This conclusion was vigorously disputed by the PHCA’s Chairman, who suggested in response that the Auditor-General’s report had misled the Parliament, was based on ‘insufficient comprehension’ of the processes involved and had arrived at recommendations that were, among other things, too late to be useful, potentially illegal if carried out, contrary to established public service procedures, and unsubstantiated by evidence. This dispute caused some exasperation among parliamentarians.

Opening ceremony

Against this background of controversy regarding the expense of the project, the opening ceremony on 9 May 1988 focused on the significance of the new Parliament House in the development of the Federation and its symbolism for Australian democracy. Queen Elizabeth II described the permanent home as ‘both the living expression of that Federation and the embodiment of the democratic principles of freedom, equality and justice’. Prime Minister Hawke emphasised the obligation of parliamentarians to recognise their role in an institution that must endure beyond particular disagreements. Indigenous Australians and their supporters staged a protest during the opening ceremony, voicing demands for recognition of Indigenous land rights and sovereignty.

The Parliament met for the first time in the new building on 22 August 1988, with both the House of Representatives and the Senate agreeing to a motion expressing ‘sincere thanks’ to those involved in its planning and construction.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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