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Why Is Canberra the Capital of Australia?

Why Is Canberra the Capital of Australia

Key Takeaways

SelectionCanberra was chosen as Australia’s capital as a compromise between rivals Sydney and Melbourne.
LocationIt is located at least 100 miles from Sydney, in accordance with the stipulation during its selection.
DesignThe city was designed by Walter Burley Griffin, a Chicago architect who won an international design competition.
EstablishmentThe city officially became the capital in 1927, although it was selected in 1908.
SymbolismCanberra is a symbol of unity and federal identity, intentionally planned and built for its purpose.

The Story Behind Canberra’s Capital Status

When the six colonies of Australia federated in 1901 to form the Commonwealth of Australia, a central point of contention was the selection of the new nation’s capital city. Sydney and Melbourne were the largest and most influential cities at the time, each with its own compelling reasons to become the national capital. However, their intense rivalry would lead to the creation of an entirely new city: Canberra.

Historical Context and the Rivalry of Cities

The decision to establish a new capital was not merely a matter of practicality but also one of deep-rooted interstate rivalries and politics.

Sydney vs. Melbourne

  • Sydney: Established in 1788, it was the oldest and largest city, seen as the economic powerhouse of Australia.
  • Melbourne: During the late 19th century, it was the richest city due to the Victorian gold rush, and it had cultural and architectural grandeur.

The Compromise

A compromise was needed to keep the young federation united, leading to the ‘Seat of Government Act 1908’ which stipulated that the capital would be in New South Wales but at least 100 miles from Sydney.

Canberra’s Selection and Design

The city’s name, Canberra, is thought to be derived from the Indigenous word ‘Kamberra’ or ‘Canberry’, meaning ‘meeting place’, which is apt for the capital’s purpose.

The Competition for the City’s Design

  • International Contest: An international competition was held to design Canberra.
  • Winner: Walter Burley Griffin, a landscape architect from Chicago, won with his plan that emphasized geometric motifs and natural landscapes.
DesignerNationalityDesign Highlights
Walter Burley GriffinAmericanGeometry, symmetry, natural integration

Design Principles

Griffin’s design included broad avenues, open spaces, and was centered around Lake Burley Griffin, an artificial lake created as part of his vision.

Geographic and Strategic Importance

Canberra was strategically selected not just for its equidistance from Sydney and Melbourne but also due to its location.

Advantages of Canberra’s Location

  • Inland Position: Safer from naval attacks compared to coastal cities.
  • Climatic Conditions: Its climate was seen as beneficial for the ‘British constitution’.
  • Terrain: The surrounding hills provided a natural amphitheater.

Political and Developmental Steps

Creating a new capital meant more than just building government buildings; it involved developing a city from scratch.

Legislative Steps

  • Seat of Government Act 1908: Defined the legal framework for establishing the capital.
  • Seat of Government (Administration) Act 1910: Dealt with the governance of the territory.

Developmental Phases

  1. Early Construction: Initial infrastructure and administrative buildings.
  2. Interwar Period: Further construction was slowed down by World War I and the Great Depression.
  3. Post-World War II: A period of significant expansion and development.

The Role of Canberra Today

Canberra not only serves as the political center but also reflects Australia’s identity.

Cultural and Administrative Importance

  • Federal Institutions: Houses Parliament House, the High Court, and numerous government departments.
  • Cultural Institutions: Hosts the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia, and the National Museum of Australia.

Living City

  • Population: Over 400,000 residents.
  • Quality of Life: Known for its high standard of living, green spaces, and education institutions.

Symbolism and Legacy

Canberra stands as a testament to Australian democracy and the country’s ability to resolve conflicts through compromise.

Symbolic Features

  • Democracy: The city’s design physically represents the democratic values of Australia.
  • Unity: It is a neutral ground that represents all Australians, not just a single state or city.


Canberra’s role as the capital of Australia is the product of historical rivalries, a visionary design, and the desire to create a city that symbolized the new federation’s aspirations. It’s a unique capital, born from competition but built for unity and now stands as a vibrant testament to Australian identity and democratic values.

Discovering why Canberra became the capital is more than an exploration of a city’s geographical position; it’s an insight into the nation’s history and values. With its planned design and purposeful location, Canberra is not just the heart of Australian politics; it’s a symbol of its culture, a center of national memory, and a city that proudly carries the narrative of a nation’s unity and democratic spirit.