A Brief History of Canberra and the Old and New Parliament Houses


Location: Canberra is located in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and sits roughly halfway between the two major cities of Sydney and Melbourne.

History of Canberra

The idea of Canberra as the capital city was born out of a compromise. In the early 20th century, following the federation of Australia in 1901, there was a heated rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, the country’s two largest cities. Both cities were vying to be named the federal capital, a dispute that highlighted the need for a neutral location. To resolve this, it was decided that a new city would be built to serve as the capital. This decision was made to placate both cities and to avoid favoring one over the other. The site chosen for Canberra was in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), located approximately halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. The location was selected for its rural setting, cool climate, and the potential for future expansion.

Design of Canberra

The design of Canberra was determined through an international competition, which attracted entries from around the world. In 1912, the competition was won by American architect Walter Burley Griffin in collaboration with his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin. Walter Burley Griffin was a landscape architect and urban planner, while Marion Mahony Griffin was an accomplished architect and artist. Together, they conceived a visionary plan for Canberra that combined aesthetic appeal with practical urban planning principles.

This hand-coloured perspective sketch of the view from Mount Ainslie is on three silk panels and depicts Walter Burley Griffin’s 1912 winning design for Canberra. On the two outer panels is a rectangular block with text. The left panel has the words ‘Commonwealth of Australia / Federal Capital Competition’ and the right panel the words ‘View from Summit of Mount Ainslie’. The central panel, comprising the largest section of the sketch, portrays the main part of the Griffins’ plan for Canberra. This work forms part of entry no. 29, the winning entry for the 1911 Australian Federal Capital City Design Competition, prepared by architects Walter Burley Griffin (1876–1937) and Marion Mahony Griffin (1871–1961

The Griffins’ design for Canberra was remarkable for its incorporation of natural landscapes into the urban layout, an approach that was innovative at the time. The design centered around two main axes intersecting at the site of the future Parliament House, with geometric patterns radiating out from this focal point. The city was planned to harmonize with the surrounding topography, featuring expansive green belts, natural vegetation, and waterways that were integrated into the urban design. This not only provided a beautiful setting for the capital but also promoted a healthy environment for its residents.

Canberra unfurled according to Burley Griffiths plan in the 1920s

The use of geometric patterns and symmetry in the city’s layout was inspired by the Garden City movement, which advocated for self-contained communities surrounded by greenbelts. Canberra’s design included residential areas that were separated from industrial zones, an innovative concept aimed at improving living conditions and reducing pollution.

Over the years, Canberra has evolved, but the foundational principles laid down by the Griffins remain evident. The city is renowned for its open spaces, parklands, and natural reserves, which offer a unique blend of urban and natural environments. The careful planning and visionary design of Canberra have resulted in a capital city that is not only functional as the seat of government but also a vibrant community and a testament to the power of thoughtful urban planning.

Old Parliament House

Old Parliament House in Canberra, now known as the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, is a significant monument in Australian political history. It served as the temporary seat of the Australian Parliament from its opening in 1927 until the completion of the new Parliament House in 1988. The history of Old Parliament House is intertwined with the development of Canberra as the capital city and reflects the evolving nature of Australian democracy.

Parliament House Canberra 1929

Establishment and Construction

The decision to construct a Parliament House in Canberra was part of the plan to establish a new capital for the newly federated nation of Australia. Canberra was chosen as the site for the capital in 1913, and construction of the city began with the laying out of its basic design by Walter Burley Griffin. The need for a Parliament House was paramount to establish the legitimacy and functionality of Canberra as the nation’s capital.

Old Parliament House was designed by John Smith Murdoch, the Commonwealth Chief Architect at the time. The building’s design was a compromise between the need for a dignified and functional parliamentary building and the financial constraints of the young nation. As a result, it was intended to be a provisional or temporary building, with plans for a more permanent structure to be constructed at a later date.


Construction of Old Parliament House commenced in 1923 and was completed in 1927. It was officially opened on 9 May 1927 by the Duke of York (later King George VI). The building is a classic example of the Inter-War Stripped Classical architectural style, characterized by its simplified classical design and the use of modern materials and techniques.

Role in Australian Politics

Old Parliament House served as the venue for many significant events in Australian political history. It was here that Australia’s governance took shape, with the development of parliamentary traditions, debates, and legislation that shaped the nation. The building witnessed the tenure of many Prime Ministers, the passage of landmark legislation, and important political debates that defined the Australian political landscape.

Transition to New Parliament House

By the 1970s, it became apparent that Old Parliament House was no longer adequate to accommodate the growing needs of the Parliament. The building was cramped, with inadequate facilities for members, staff, and the press, and it lacked the necessary security features for a modern parliamentary building.

The decision to construct a new Parliament House was made, and an international competition for its design was launched in 1979. The winning design, by the architectural firm Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp, led to the construction of the new Parliament House, which was opened on 9 May 1988 by Queen Elizabeth II. The new building was constructed into Capital Hill, directly behind the Old Parliament House, and was designed to meet the needs of a modern parliament while symbolizing the maturity of the Australian nation.

Legacy and Current Use

After the Parliament moved to the new building, Old Parliament House took on a new role. It was repurposed as a museum dedicated to Australian political history and was officially renamed the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in 2009. Today, it serves as a public museum, offering insights into Australia’s political past, the workings of its democracy, and the historical significance of the building itself. It stands as a symbol of Australia’s democratic heritage and the evolution of its parliamentary system.

The New Parliament House

Parliament House Canberra. Credit J Iron

The decision to build a new Parliament House in Canberra was driven by several factors, reflecting the evolution of Australian democracy and the need for a more accommodating and symbolic structure for its legislative processes.

  1. Capacity and Modernization: The original Parliament House, which had been in use since 1927, was increasingly unable to meet the demands of a growing and evolving Australian government. The original building was intended to be a temporary solution until a more permanent structure could be built. As the number of parliamentarians and staff increased, along with the need for more sophisticated facilities to support modern legislative processes, it became evident that a new, larger, and more technologically advanced building was necessary.
  2. Symbolic Representation: The construction of a new Parliament House was also seen as an opportunity to create a structure that more adequately symbolized the maturity of Australia’s democracy and its place on the world stage. The design and location of the new Parliament House were intended to reflect the democratic values of openness and accessibility, as well as the importance of the parliament in the Australian political system.
  3. Centenary of Federation: The timing of the new Parliament House project coincided with the upcoming centenary of Australia’s Federation in 2001. The new building was seen as a fitting way to commemorate a century of federation, representing a renewal of commitment to the principles that underpin the nation’s democratic governance.
  4. Architectural Significance: There was a desire to create a building that was not only functional but also architecturally significant, blending with the landscape and complementing the national capital’s design ethos established by Walter Burley Griffin. The design of the new Parliament House, built into Capital Hill, symbolically places the democratic process above the people, yet remains accessible, with its grass-covered roof allowing citizens to walk over the top, emphasizing the concept of democracy and the people’s ownership of the Parliament.

Opening of New Parliament House

The new Parliament House was officially opened on 9 May 1988 by Queen Elizabeth II, marking Australia’s bicentenary of European settlement. The building was designed by the architectural firm Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp, following an international competition. The design was selected for its innovative approach to integrating the building into the landscape, its functionality, and its embodiment of democratic principles. The new Parliament House features extensive public spaces, art collections, and state-of-the-art facilities for parliamentarians and staff, reflecting the needs of a modern parliamentary system.


Visitors can take guided tours of Parliament House, which offers insights into Australia’s political processes, history, and the architectural features of the building. When Parliament is sitting, visitors can also watch proceedings from public galleries in both chambers.

Significance of Canberra

Apart from being the political nerve center, Canberra is also home to numerous national institutions, museums, and galleries, including the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia, and the National Museum of Australia.


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