Parliament House, Canberra

From Academic Kids

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Parliament House Canberra: The main entrance and 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.

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 control over the land in 1911, but World War I intervened, and nothing was done for some years to build the city. Federal Parliament did not leave Melbourne until 1927.

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Parliament House Melbourne

In the meantime Parliament met in the 19th century edifice of Parliament House, Melbourne, at the request of the Victorian State Parliament, who met in the nearby Royal 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

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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 for a predicted 50 years until a new, "permanent" House could be built. The government architect, John Smith Murdoch, therefore produced a fairly plain "stripped classical" design, making use of simple geometric forms. Although this received some criticism from architects at the time as lacking in the grandiosity of legislative buildings in other places, the general view has been that this gave the nation a building which was both functional and handsome.

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Old Parliament House today

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. 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).

This "provisional" House accommodated the Parliament for 61 years, and the city of Canberra grew up around it. Despite being deliberately planned for future growth, 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, behind it on Capital Hill, or by the lake shore, which was where the original designer of Canberra, Walter Burley Griffin, had intended it to be.

New Parliament House

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Parliament House: The flagpole seen from Commonwealth Avenue Bridge

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, 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). The final cost was over $1,000 million, making Parliament House the most expensive building in Australian history.

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The flagpole of Parliament House

From above, the design of the site is in the shape of two boomerangs enclosed within a circle. Much of the building is buried beneath Capitol Hill, but the meeting chambers and accommodation for parliamentarians are free-standing within the boomerang-shaped arms. 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.

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New and Old Parliament house, seen from the northeast across Lake Burley Griffin

The building was designed to "sit above" Old Parliament House when seen from a distance, but when the idea was floated 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, there was an outcry at this idea. The historic building was preserved, and it now houses a parliamentary museum and part of the National Portrait Gallery.

The original concept was for Parliament House to be freely open to the public, and the sweeping lawns leading up to the entrances were intended to symbolise this. Since the terrorist attacks of recent years, however, security at Parliament House has been greatly tightened. One measure has been the erection of crash barriers blocking access to the lawns, as can be seen in the photo heading this article. The ugliness of these barriers is widely regretted, and construction of less obstrusive barriers is nearly complete.


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The Great Hall

Parliament House is structured into a main foyer leading into a Great Hall, which features a tapestry based on a painting by Arthur Boyd (also situated in the building on display). Functions that have parliamentary and federal relevance often take place here, but the Great Hall is also open to functions for the general public, such as weddings, and the nearby Australian National University hosts graduation ceremonies here also.

Below the tapestry of The Great Hall is a removable division, which opens on to the Member's Hall, with a water feature at its center. Directly ahead of the Member's Hall is the Ministerial Wing, housing the office suites of the Prime Minister and government ministers. Member's Hall has access to the House of Representatives and the Senate buildings to the left and right of the main entrance to the Halls respectively. Public access to the visitors' galleries and the Main Committee Room is via an upper level reached by impressive staircases ascending from the entrance foyer.

The House of Representatives

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The House of Representatives

In a reflection of the colour scheme of the United Kingdom House of Commons, the House of Representatives is decorated in green. However, the colour is muted to suggest the color of eucalyptus leaves.

From the perspective of the image to the right, the press gallery is ahead, with public galleries to the left and right. Soundproofed galleries for school groups lie directly above these, as no talking is permitted when the House is sitting.

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A part of the front bench, and the dispatch boxes

Frontbench members approach the ornate box pictured, known as the dispatch box, to speak. Backbenchers have a microphone on their desk, and merely stand to speak (unless they cannot stand), in accordance with standing orders 59 and 60.

As is the custom with Westminister parliaments, members of the governing party sit to the Speaker's right, and the Opposition sits to the Speaker's left. Independents and minor parties sit on the cross-benches. The long benches (the front benches) closest to the dispatch boxes are reserved for the Cabinet on the government's side and the Shadow Cabinet on the Opposition's side.

The Senate

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The Senate

The Senate building follows the colour scheme of the House of Lords, decorated in red, this time muted to tints of ochre, suggesting the earth and the colours of the outback.

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Senate and advisor seating

The gallery arrangement is identical to that of the House of Representatives. Like the House of Representatives, frontbench members approach the lectern pictured, and backbench members have their desk microphone. As can be seen from the illustrations, unlike the House of Representatives, there is no distinction between the front and back benches in the Senate chamber; Senate Ministers and their opposition counterparts have the same two-seat benches as all other Senators.


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A Parliament House clock. The indicators are the small squares between 4 and 5 (green), and 7 and 8 (red)

The Parliament House has 2,416 clocks[1] (, which, beyond serving the usual purpose, remind members of events such as Question Time at 2pm, when all members are expected to attend. When the House of Representatives or the Senate divides (where a vote must be tallied), all members are called to the chamber to vote. Bells audible throughout the house are rung, and one of two separate panels (one green, one red) lights up to indicate whether the division is for the House of Representatives or the Senate.

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