The Day Federal Parliament Went Bush

1 January 1991The Canberra Times

Mark Wagland details the search more than 80 years ago for a capital-city site that would be acceptable to both Victoria and New South Wales.

Today the Australian Capital Territory celebrates its 80th birthday.

On that day in 1911, the Territory was legally vested with the Commonwealth and ceased to be part of New South Wales.

The event put to an end the long search for a site for the federal capital. It came after many years of bitterness and controversy.

The decision to create a separate federal capital goes back to the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897-98 which proposed that "the Seat of Government of the Commonwealth shall be determined by the Parliament and shall be within Federal Territory".

Intercolonial rivalries concerning the location of the federal capital were settled by a conference of colonial premiers in 1899 which agreed that it should be situated in New South Wales, at least 100 miles (160 kilometres) from Sydney.

This compromise found its way into the Constitution as Section 125.

The territory would not be less than 100 square miles (260 square kilometres) and would be granted to the Commonwealth without payment.

While the permanent site was being chosen, the Parliament met in Melbourne. It continued to meet there until 1927.

In late 1899, the New South Wales Government appointed a Royal Commission to start looking at possible sites that were suggested by enthusiastic Federal Capital Leagues.

Some prominent Queanbeyan residents submitted a proposal in June 1900 for a territory of 25,900 hectares west of Queanbeyan, from Tharwa to Gunghalin.

Their arguments were clearly not very compelling, because the Royal Commissioner reported that there were only three very suitable sites - the southern Monaro near Bombala or Eden; the Canoblas hills near Orange; and the Yass district.

The Federal Parliament, comfort ably ensconced in Melbourne, started to consider the many possibilities.

Many members took part in arduous tours of the sites, and from the first it was obvious the choice was not going to be easy.

In January 1903, a Royal Commission was appointed to report on sites at Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Bombala, Lake George, Lyndhurst, Orange and Tumut Albury and Tumut were supported by Sir William Lyne (the local Member).

Bombala was advocated by its Member, Austin Chapman.

Bathurst, Orange and Lyndhurst were championed by future Prime Minister George Reid and many Sydney Members. Other sites did not have such prominent support.

The Royal Commission did not attempt to choose the site.

It investigated and reported on the sites against a broad range of factors like climate, accessibility, water supply and general suitability.

Depending on the weight given to these factors by Parliament, a favoured site could be determined.

While the Royal Commission did not come out in favour of one site, the report implied that Albury and Tumut were the most suitable sites.

In a supplementary report, the Royal Commission favourably discussed a site at Dalgety also.

When a ballot was held in October 1903, the House of Representatives opted for Tumut and the Senate favoured Bombala.

But with the strong advocacy of Sir John Forrest and others, support for Dalgety was gaining strength.

After further investigation by two New South Wales Government surveyors (one of whom was Charles Robert Scrivener) the Commonwealth Government introduced a Bill which provided that the federal cap-ital should be within 27 kilometres of Dalgety on the Snowy River, northwest of Bombala.

Both Houses were now in agreement and the Seat of Government Act received Royal assent in August 1904. But the matter was still far from settled.

The Commonwealth and New South Wale: Governments could not come to terms regarding the transfer of the proposed territory.

Members of the New South Wales Parliament considered that the Commonwealth was asking for too much land and that the Dalgety site was simply too far from Sydney.

Many also felt that the Dalgety climate was too harsh and that most of the older Federal Members would not survive their first Dalgety winter.

William Morris Hughes, who had taken a dip in the Snowy River at Dalgety in 1902, said that he had "never been the same man since".

George Reid, at this late stage, said that it had been the clear intention of the 1899 Premiers conference that the federal capital should be as close as possible to the agreed 160-kilometre distance from Sydney. He again argued for Lyndhurst.

The New South Wales Government was in no mood to give in.

There were murmurs that the Constitution should be amended so that Sydney could be made the federal capital.

Dalgety was regarded as a "Victorian site".

Prime Minister Alfred Deakin had never been overly enthusiastic about the "bush capital" idea, and he had no desire to tackle this volatile early issue of Commonwealth versus State rights.

Inevitably, a bitter stalemate resulted.

Apart from the Queanbeyan submission in 1899, the Canberra district was not seriously considered until 1907.

In that year a number of Federal Members from New South Wales passed through the district on a fishing holiday and many of them (including the Labor Party leader and former Prime Minister John Christian Watson) were taken by its possibilities as a capital city site.

Their enthusiasm brought Canberra forward as a genuine contender.

In September 1908, having recognised that Dalgety was always going to be unacceptable to New South Wales, Parliament substituted Yass Canberra for Dalgety.

Early in 1909, the Yass-Canberra district was surveyed and Canberra was found to be the most suitable site.

Canberra, then as now, had its detractors but there was also a great sense of relief that a broadly acceptable site had been decided upon.

The Commonwealth and New South Wales Governments agreed in October 1909 to the transfer of about 2330 square kilometres.

The agreement included 1620 hectares of land at Jervis Bay and an additional allocation for defence purposes.

The Commonwealth had the right to construct, maintain and operate a railway from Canberra to Jervis Bay.

If the Commonwealth wanted a rail connection to the north, New South Wales agreed to build a connecting line from Yass to the Territory's northern border.

Territorial use of the Snowy River for power generation and paramount water rights" over the catchment of the Molonglo and Queanbeyan rivers and their tributaries were assured.

New South Wales also agreed to protect those waters from pollution and to seek Commonwealth consent for any sale, lease or occupation which involved land in the catchment area.

About 810 hectares of this land was then or later purchased from the former owners at a cost of almost 725,000. It included such major rural properties as Acton, Duntroon, Yarralumla, Gungahlin, Tidbinbilla, Tuggeranong and Uriarra.

This agreement was ratified by the Commonwealth Seat of Government Acceptance Act 1909 and the New South Wales of Government Surrender Act 1909.

Rather than trying to synchronise the passing of this legislation, h was agreed that the Commonwealth would issue a proclamation indicating the date on which these two Acts were to come into effect.

The Commonwealth Government decided to delay the proclamation during 1910.

Prime Minister Andrew Fisher explained to the New South Wales Premier in June 1910 that the Commonwealth still needed to settle "the question of what machinery must be provided for the purposes of government before the Commonwealth takes over absolute control of the Territory". Given subsequent Canberra history, there is more than a touch of irony in Fisher's statement.

In late 1910 the Commonwealth Government issued the long-a-waited proclamation.

After a decade of indecision and hesitation, the Federal Capital Territory legally came into being as a federal territory, under Commonwealth control, on January 1, 1911.

The massive task of building a great national capital was finally ready to begin.