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Parliament House, Canberra

Parliament House Canberra: The Flag

Parliament House is the name given to two purpose-built buildings in Canberra, the capital of Australia, where the Parliament of Australia has met since 1927.

Before Canberra

In 1901, when the six British colonies in Australia federated to form the Commmonwealth of Australia, Melbourne and Sydney were the two largest cities in the country. But the long history of rivalry between them meant that neither could become the national capital. Section 125 of the Constitution of Australia therefore provided that:

The seat of Government of the Commonwealth shall be determined by the Parliament, and 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 one hundred miles from Sydney.

Such territory shall contain an area of not less than one hundred square miles, and such portion thereof as shall consist of Crown lands shall be granted to the Commonwealth without any payment therefor. The Parliament shall sit at Melbourne until it meet at the seat of Government.

Parliament House Melbourne

In 1909, after much argument, the Parliament decided that the new capital would be on the site which is now Canberra, in southern New South Wales. The Commonwealth acquired the land in 1911, but the First World War intervened, and nothing was done for some years to build the city. Federal Parliament did not leave Melbourne until 1927.

In the meantime Parliament met in the splendid 19th century edifice of Parliament House, Melbourne, much to the annoyance of the Victorian state Parliament, who were banished to the nearby Exhibition Building for 26 years. Begun in 1853 and ready for occupancy (though not actually finished) in 1856, it was built at the height of the gold rush when Victoria was awash with money, and was one of the finest public buildings in the British Empire.

Old Parliament House

Parliament House Opening, 1927

After World War I the Federal Capital Advisory Committee was established to get Canberra ready to be the seat of government, including the construction of a Parliament House. The committee decided that it would be best to erect a "provisional" building, to serve until a new, "permanent" House could be built. The government architect, John Smith Murdoch, therefore produced a fairly plain classical design. The general view has been that this gave the nation a building which was both functional and handsome, avoiding the grandiosity of some legislative buildings in other places.

Old Parliament House

Construction began in August 1923 and the building was ready for occupancy in May 1927. The interior of the House followed the same pattern of simple geometric designs and plain surfaces. The building cost about 600,000 pounds (1.2 million Australian dollars). The official opening was on 9 May, and the Duke of York, later King George VI officiated, accompanied by the Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce. Parliamentarians and public servants alike were not pleased at giving up the comforts of Melbourne for this remote, cold, dusty hamlet, particularly since alcohol was banned. (This ban was lifted soon after Parliament met in the new building).

Records of the opening state that there was too much food supplied for the opening, and that a large number of meat pies were later buried in a pit near the House.

This "provisional" House accommodated the Parliament for 61 years, and the city of Canberra grew up around it. By the 1960s the building was already too crowded, and the press in particular complained about their cramped quarters. A building designed to house 300 people was expected to cope with over 4,000. But successive governments blanched at the likely cost of building a new, much bigger Parliament House. There was also a prolonged battle over where to put a new House: either on the same site as the old one, or behind it on Capital Hill, which was where the original designer of Canberra, Walter Burley Griffin, has intended it to be.

Nonetheless, the building was the focal point for much political drama and history. One particularly famous historical moment occurred on November 11, 1975 when a notice announcing the dismissal of the then Prime Minister , Gough Whitlam, was read out on the front steps of the building to a large media contingent.

New Parliament House

New Parliament House

Finally in 1978 the Fraser government decided to proceed with a new building on Capital Hill, and the Parliament House Construction Authority was created. The design competition was won by the American architect Romaldo Giurgola, with an imaginative design which involved burying most of the building under Capitol Hill, and capping the edifice with an enormous spire topped by a large Australian flag. The facades, however, deliberately echoed the designs of the Old Parliament House, so that there is a family resemblance despite the massive difference in scale.

Construction began in 1981, and the House was intended to be ready by January 1988, the 200th anniversary of European settlement in Australia. It was expected to cost A$220 million. Neither deadline nor budget were met. The building was finally opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 9 May 1988, and cost over $1,000 million: the most expensive building in Australian history.

It was originally planned to open the new Parliament House on the actual bicentenary of European occupation of Australia, 26 January 1988, and for the opening ceremony to be the centrepiece of the Bicentenary celebrations. When this proved unfeasible, it was decided instead to coincide the opening with the anniversary of the opening of both the first Federal Parliament in Melbourne (9 May 1901), and of the Provisional Parliament House in Canberra (9 May 1927).

From above, the design of the building is in the shape of two boomerangs. There are 24,000 granite slabs on the curved walls which, placed end to end, would stretch 46 kilometres. The building required 300,000 cubic metres of concrete, enough to build 25 Sydney Opera Houses. The building has 4,500 rooms. The flag flown from the 81m flagpole is 12.8m by 6.4m, about the size of half a tennis court. Although security has been greatly tightened in recent years, much of the building is open to the public.

The original intention was to demolish Old Parliament House so that there would be an uninterrupted vista from the New Parliament House to Lake Burley Griffin and the Australian War Memorial beyond. Such was the outcry at this idea, however, that the historic building was preserved, and it now houses a constitutional museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

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