Canberra turns 100. (Credit Ben Sanders)

A capital idea: Canberra at 100

  • BY Robyn Archer |
  • March 12, 2013

Canberra’s centenary is an opportunity to re-establish what's important about Australia's identity, says Robyn Archer.

THE 12TH MARCH 2013 marks 100 years since the founding of Canberra. Many Australians mistakenly believe that the establishment of the national capital was simply the result of a stoush between Sydney and Melbourne.

The misconception is that both cities vied for the title of capital and, when this competition could not be resolved, a mid-point was chosen.

But this is not the case. Even before Federation was achieved, there were hints that the citizens of the emerging nation would want a brand new capital.

After 1901 this conversation widened and for a decade the dialogue about a new capital included the ideals and hopes of the new nation.

It was decided the capital would be in NSW, but at least 100 miles (about 160km) from Sydney. The senators conducted a reconnaissance tour that was captured photographically, and the album resides at the National Library of Australia.

They decided the capital should be inland so as not to be at risk of invasion by sea, and they believed men thought better in cold climates.

Canberra: a splendid destiny before it

On 12 March 1913 - the day it was announced our capital would be called 'Canberra' - the aspirations for the city were echoed by then governor-general Lord Denman. In a speech from a dusty paddock in what was then known as the Canberra--Yass pastoral district he said, "The city that is to be should have a splendid destiny before it, but the making of that destiny lies in your hands... Remember the traditions of this city will be the traditions of Australia."

Australia's finest early filmmaker, Raymond Longford, was also in that dusty paddock to record the event.

His film has been restored by the National Film and Sound Archive and was premiered in a screening in the Senate Rose Gardens of Old Parliament House (now housing the Museum of Australian Democracy) on 10 March 2013, amid Canberra's Big Birthday Weekend.

The centenary celebrations include a whole year of such events that have been planned with two things in mind. First, we invite all Australians to re-imagine their capital. So many people wish to move to Australia precisely because of our successful democratic system, but recent surveys have suggested that some young Australians undervalue democracy, even to the point of believing that another system of government might work just as well.


Symbols of Australian democracy

It's therefore clear we need more powerful symbols of our democracy. Canberra can fulfil this role, not only because it is the seat of federal government, but because stowed away in the national collecting institutions are the stories, histories and treasures owned by all Australians.

Second, we want Australians to recognise Canberra as a 21st-century city. Many people rely on outdated notions of the capital, yet today's Canberra holds many of the nation's most admirable statistics: more green buildings than other cities, and more people who participate in sport, attend cultural events and cycle to work.

Next year Canberra will see the completion of Australia's first eight-star environmentally rated apartment building, complete with an eight-screen cinema and bike shop. This is also a city where you can rub shoulders with the rest of the world through some 100 embassies and high commissions.

Canberra was born of genuine ambitions and a tradition of innovation that it has maintained to this day. Holding an international competition for the city's design and another for the design of Parliament House (which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2013) were bold and innovative steps, but that tradition prevails today, with scientific endeavour and achievement still among the capital's hallmarks. 


The city beautiful of our dreams

How many Australians know that the CSIRO invented wi-fi? Or that NICTA - the national information and communications technology research body - is helping develop a bionic eye prototype.

And, in regard to the recent Mars landing and the assistance it received from the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla, NASA tweeted: "Thanks to all our friends in Canberra, we couldn't have done it without you."

Visit Canberra in its centenary year and you'll see that Lord Denman's aspirations for our nation's capital were realised.

"Let us hope will be reflected all that is finest and noblest in the national life of the country," he said. "That here a city may rise where those responsible for the government of this country in the future may seek and find inspiration...a city bearing perhaps some resemblance to the city beautiful of our dreams."

ROBYN ARCHER AO is creative director of the Centenary of Canberra. For details of the program visit

Source: Australian Geographic Jan - Feb 2013.

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