Federal Parliament first met on 9 May 1901 in Melbourne, an occasion commemorated by Tom Roberts’ ‘Big Picture’. From 1901 to 1927, the Parliament met in the Victorian Parliament House.
Finding a location for the nation’s parliament was a complex matter. The directions for its location may be found in Section 125 of the Constitution of Australia.
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.
However, 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. This building 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.
The Fraser government established the Parliament House Construction Authority to develop a new building, as the provisional Parliament House has become inadequate to accommodate the needs of the parliament. The design was selected through an international two-stage competition conducted by the Authority. The competition drew 329 entries from 28 countries, with the winning design a visionary approach from the New York-based architectural company of Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp, 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:
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