From Canberra — Australia’s National Capital by Crispin Hull
Ch 3 — Federation, the need for a capital and the political squabbles in finding a site
In the 1890s the vision of federation spread across the continent, then consisting of six largely self-governing British colonies. At that time, the question of a capital for the future federated colonies was hardly on the agenda. By the end of the decade it threatened to wreck the whole project. At unelected constitutional conventions held in 1890 in Melbourne and in 1891 in Sydney, the early drafts of the Constitution merely said that it would be a matter for the new Federal Parliament to determine where the federal capital should be, though the then anti-federalist William Lyne attempted to sow discord by suggesting that the Constitution should fix the place of the capital. For six years the colonies mulled over various drafts. The issues of the federal capital hardly rated until the directly elected conventions of 1897 and 1898. Because delegates to these conventions were to be directly elected, populism was rife. Candidates in favour and against federation in NSW argued that NSW as the “”mother colony” it should house the capital, hinting that it should be Sydney or some other NSW town. Some pro-federationists thought that having the capital in NSW would persuade an unenthusiastic populace to favour federation. Leading federalist and later first Australian Prime Minister Edmund Barton remained constant in arguing that the Constitution should provide that the new Federal Parliament itself should decide where it was to sit. George Reid (the Yes-No man on federation) argued that it should circulate among the state capitals. But that experience in the United States until Washington was founded in 1800 proved almost unworkable. Despite the arguments in NSW, the draft that was presented at the beginning of the Adelaide convention in 1897 still had parliament deciding. It read: “”The seat of Government of the Commonwealth shall be determined by the Parliament. Until such determination the Parliament shall be summoned to meet at such place within the Commonwealth as a majority of the Governors of the States, or, in the event of an equal division of opinion amongst the Governors, as the Governor-General shall direct.”
Barton had under-estimated the potential for populism that the prestige of housing the capital could generate. Two issues sparked at the Adelaide convention: in which colony should the capital be, and should it be a separate federal territory. The prospect of the capital being in an existing colonial capital met with four damning objections. First, the capital should not be (in the words of William Lyne, later Premier of NSW,) “”at any spot close to the seashore, or in a position where it could easily be attacked”. Secondly, there would be the huge cost of acquiring land in an existing capital. Thirdly, as Western Australia’s John Forrest pointed out, if the state and federal authorities were in the same city, the importance and dignity of the state Governor and Government would be lessened. Fourthly, if the convention were to nominate an existing colonial capital, it would cause jealousy. In the words of Joseph Carruthers, of NSW, they would be “”importing into the discussion the possibility of risking the federation”. Carruthers suggested that the selection of the capital “”is one of the greatest points of federation”. The debate over the capital got very heated, and exposed the petty jealousy of the colonial representatives. Lyne pressed a vote that would have the Constitution stipulate that the capital be in NSW to ensure the people of NSW supported federation at a referendum, but the vote failed. Very sensibly, pro-federationist Alexander Peacock moved that the capital be in Victoria, knowing the move would be defeated and the convention left with rejections of both colonies, so people in NSW would not feel slighted and therefore more likely to vote against federation. Tasmania’s Edward Braddon mocked Lyne by saying the capital should be in Tasmania with a bridge built across Bass Strait. And South Australia’s John Cockburn equally mocking said, “”All the capitals that have for any lengthened period occupied an important place upon the page of history have been cities situated on important rivers. On these grounds I should like to put in a claim first of all on behalf of Adelaide.” All colonies expressed the fear that NSW would get commercial advantage by having the capital, particularly if it were Sydney.
The debates read like a modern Hansard – full of childishness and point-scoring. People looking back now have marvelled at the statesmanlike character of the founding fathers. But the 1890s constitutional debates are full of petty jealousy, parochialism and self-serving point-scoring.
The issue was finally decided at a conference of the six colonial Premiers in 1899 conference. That conference met in secret. There were no minutes, just a memorandum at the end. It fixed upon the compromise that ultimately came about. The capital was to be in NSW, more than 100 miles from Sydney, more than 100 square miles (255 square km) in area on land owned by the Commonwealth as a federal territory. And Parliament would meet at Melbourne until the new capital was ready. The last element caused NSW to move to cede the territory for the new capital without delay.
Ownership by the Commonwealth became an essential element of the new capital. At the Adelaide convention, delegate Bernhard Wise proposed the Constitution prevent any Commonwealth land being sold as freehold. He held to the principles of Henry George, an American who went bust in the 1870s US depression. He propounded a theory that if the people, through Government, could capture all of the increase in land value which was created by population increase, settlement and infrastructure improvement, there would be no need for other taxes and land speculation would end. Wise cited unseemly land speculation in Melbourne compared to the farm-leasehold system in the Mallee. He wanted to end “”all the evils which have attended the reckless alienation of territory since the foundation of these colonies.” Another delegate said, “”Perhaps the best thing is to give away the land so as to get the people to reside on it and occupy it.” Another said, “”Wherever that capital is fixed there is bound to be a large influx of population and a rise in land values to a fabulous extent.” Wise said that if leasehold were not mandated in the Constitution, “”people will rush in a get the land beforehand”.
And so the present words were put into Section 125 of the Constitution:
“”The seat of Government of the Commonwealth shall be . . . within territory which shall have been granted to or acquired by the Commonwealth and shall be vested in and belong to the Commonwealth , and shall be in the State of New South Wales and be distant not less than 100 miles from Sydney. Such territory shall be not less that 100 square miles.”
There is now no freehold land in what has become legally known as the Australian Capital Territory. It is all leasehold. Residential leases are for 99 years and commercial leases for 50 years, but they can be renewed upon the payment of a small administrative fee. Leasehold, however, means that the Government can control land use on a block-by-block basis, in quite some detail, whereas in the rest of Australia land tends to be zoned resulting in planning controls being less rigid.
Soon after the first Parliament of the new Commonwealth of Australia met in 1901, the contest began between high ideals and political expediency as to the specific site of the new capital. The new Minister for Home Affairs in Prime Minister Barton’s first Cabinet was William Lyne. He represented the seat of Hume and immediately proposed the capital be in Albury, the main city in his electorate. In 1903 the House or Representatives voted for Tumut while the Senate voted for Bombala, in the south-east corner of the state. The following year the House of Representatives swapped to Dalgety. The Senate agreed to that, and Dalgety — 130 kilometres south of present-day Canberra — would have been the site but the Government changed a few days later and nothing happened for four years. Then new votes were taken and the House voted for Yass-Canberra and the Senate tied 18-all for Tumut and Yass-Canberra. The Senate had a re-vote in which one Senator changed his mind to Yass-Canberra and so the site was agreed and fixed by the passing of the Seat of Government (Yass-Canberra) Act in 1908.
When King O’Malley was appointed Minister for Home Affairs in 1910 he said the new capital would be “”the finest capital city in the world.” Now one of the suburbs that houses diplomatic missions is named after him.
It took until January 1, 1911 for the boundaries to be determined and passed into law in the Seat of Government Acts of Surrender and Acceptance which created the Federal Capital Territory, later named the Australian Capital Territory. It took five years – from 1910 to 1915 – to mark out the boundary of the 2359 square kilometre territory with a variety of wooden, concrete-pipe and metal markers. Many still remain, especially in the high country where the border reaches 1911 metres above sea level at Mount Bimberi.
NSW Government Surveyor Charles Scrivener was commissioned to determine the actual site of the capital city. He was told by the then Minister for Home Affairs that it “”should be a beautiful city, occupying a commanding position, with extensive views and embracing distinctive features which will lend themselves to a design worthy of the object, not only for the present but for all time”.
They were prophetic words, The city does not occupy a commanding position. To the contrary, it flows through the valley floor leaving the hills unbuilt upon, but Scrivener met the other parts of his brief, finding a site on the Molonglo River that embraced distinctive features that lent themselves to a design worthy of a nation’s capital — that of Walter Burley Griffin.
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From Canberra — Australia’s National Capital by Crispin Hull