ACT Legislative Assembly


Federation: establishing Australia’s national capital

Federalism is a system of government in which the power to make and administer laws is shared between a central or federal government, and regional, or state/territory governments.

Before Australia because a federation, it had six self-governing colonies—New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania—that managed issues such as mail, roads and railways as independent authorities. There was a growing need for the colonies to work together in a federal system of government (when responsibilities are shared between a central, and regional governments). In the 1890s, a series of constitutional conventions took place to discuss cooperative approaches to the development of Australia as a nation.

The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900—known as the Australian Constitution—was passed by the British Parliament on 5 July 1900. It gained royal assent (was made law) on 9 July 1900. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution came into effect on 1 January 1901 and Australia became a federation after the colonies agreed to the terms of the document. The constitution established a federal system of government, sharing powers between the Commonwealth and states (and later, through self-government legislation, the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory).

Federal parliament chooses a new capital

The first Federal Parliament of the new Commonwealth of Australia was opened in Melbourne on 9 May 1901. Section 125 of the Constitution says that the Commonwealth seat of government should be within territory granted to, or acquired by, the Commonwealth. It also says that the territory ‘shall be in the state of New South Wales and be distant not less than one hundred miles from Sydney’. This was a compromise between New South Wales and Victoria, and meant the new capital would be located neutrally, at a distance from the two state capitals of Sydney and Melbourne.

The early parliaments conducted a series of ballots among federal members to determine the location of the new federal government, which resulted in the Yass-Canberra district being chosen as the site for the new capital. New South Wales surrendered land for this purpose on 1 January 1911. This is how the Federal Capital Territory, later known as the Australian Capital Territory, was established. Federal Parliament moved from Melbourne to Canberra in 1927.

The Australian Capital Territory was administered by the Federal Government through the Minister for Territories, under section 122 of the Constitution, until self-government was introduced on 11 May 1989.

The capital city was named Canberra on 12 March 1913. The word ‘Canberra’ is derived from an Aboriginal work ‘Kamberra’, which means ‘meeting place’.

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Page last updated on 20 March 2017
2015 Legislative Assembly for the ACT