Old Parliament House

Old Parliament House was fundamental to the development of Australia as a nation as the first purpose-built home for the Australian Parliament. It witnessed 61 years of Australian legislature, with a myriad of associated events, and was central to the development of Canberra; the opening of Parliament heralding the symbolic birth of the nation’s democratic capital.

Old Parliament House
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Old Parliament House was fundamental to the development of Australia as a nation as the first purpose-built home for the Australian Parliament. It witnessed 61 years of Australian legislature, with a myriad of associated events, and was central to the development of Canberra; the opening of Parliament heralding the symbolic birth of the nation’s democratic capital.

Old Parliament House
1901

Federation

Federation

The Federation of Australia is formed from the six separate British self-governing colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. When the Constitution of Australia comes into force on 1 January, the colonies collectively become states of the Commonwealth of Australia.


First federal parliament

First federal parliament

On 9 May, the Duke of York (later King George V) opens the first federal parliament in the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne. Federal parliament meets in Melbourne’s Parliament House until Provisional Parliament House is completed in Canberra.


1908

Andrew Fisher becomes Prime Minister

Andrew Fisher becomes Prime Minister

Labour Party leader Andrew Fisher becomes Prime Minister when the Deakin government falls after Labour withdraws its support. Fisher’s first government establishes the Canberra region as the site for Australia’s new capital city. For more information, visit the Australian Prime Ministers Centre.


1909

Site chosen for federal capital — Canberra

Site chosen for federal capital — Canberra

In October, the Senate finally agrees to the site of the new national capital. Two years later, the government launches an international design competition and, in 1913, Lady Denman announces the name for the new city will be ‘Canberra’. The choice of the site is the subject of considerable debate. In 1899, however, the premiers of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania propose that the site should be in New South Wales, but at least 100 miles from Sydney. This is finally accepted in a second round of referendums. It is also agreed that, like Washington, DC, the new capital should have a territory with a minimum area of 100 square miles.


1914

Andrew Fisher becomes Prime Minister for the third time

Andrew Fisher becomes Prime Minister for the third time

In Australia’s first double dissolution election, Andrew Fisher and the re-christened Australian Labor Party are returned to power, ousting the Cook government. Fisher is Prime Minister during the now-legendary Anzac landing at Gallipoli. For more information, visit the Australian Prime Ministers Centre.


1923

Stanley Melbourne Bruce becomes Prime Minister

Stanley Melbourne Bruce becomes Prime Minister

Following the 1922 election, Country Party leader Earle Page, whose party holds the balance of power in the House of Representatives, refuses to form a coalition with the Nationalists unless Billy Hughes resigns as Prime Minister. Hughes eventually does so and the party elects 40-year-old Treasurer Stanley Bruce as the new Prime Minister, governing in coalition with Page. The Bruce–Page government formalises Cabinet as a decision-making body and is the first government to sit at what is now Old Parliament House, on 9 May 1927, when the federal government formally moves to Canberra. For more information, visit the Australian Prime Ministers Centre.


1927

A parliament house for Canberra

A parliament house for Canberra

The Provisional Parliament House is opened by the Duke of York in Canberra on 9 May, with 36 Senators (six per state) and 76 Members of the House of Representatives. The building is opened one year after the Balfour Declaration, which decrees that Australia is an autonomous community within the British Empire, ‘equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.


Journalists in federal parliament

Journalists in federal parliament

The new federal Parliament House in Canberra is one of the first parliamentary buildings in the world to provide specially built accommodation for journalists within the legislative chamber, indicating the increasing importance of the media to parliament and in everyday life.


1931

Australia’s first native-born Governor-General

Australia’s first native-born Governor-General

Sir Isaac Isaacs is appointed Australia’s first native-born Governor-General, despite King George V’s opposition to a ‘local’ appointment. A former Member of Parliament for Bogong in the Victorian Legislative Assembly and a High Court Judge, Isaacs serves as Australia’s ninth Governor-General until 1936.


1938

Indigenous parliamentary representation refused

Indigenous parliamentary representation refused

The Commonwealth government refuses to send to the King a petition signed by Aboriginal people from all over Australia requesting an Aboriginal Member in the House of Representatives.


Pig-Iron Bob

Pig-Iron Bob

As tensions rise over Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Port Kembla waterside workers refuse to load a cargo of pig-iron destined for Japanese munitions factories. The Commonwealth government intervenes to contest the right of a trade union to determine national foreign policy. The Attorney-General, Robert Menzies, earns the nickname ‘Pig-Iron Bob’ for his role in the dispute.


1941

Child endowment

Child endowment

The Child Endowment Act 1941 provides for an allowance to mothers for each child under 16 years.


1942

Government powers extended

Government powers extended

In November, Prime Minister John Curtin argues at a special Federal Conference of the Labor Party that it is necessary for the war effort to extend government powers to compel service in the south-west Pacific comprising Australia, New Guinea, the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies. During World War I, Curtin had argued passionately against compulsory enrolment for overseas military service. Amidst bitter debate within the Labor Party, the War Cabinet approves a Bill to empower the Australian Government to send conscripts out of Australian territory to a defined south-west Pacific war zone. The Bill becomes the Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act 1943 (Cth). It obliges soldiers in the Citizen Military Forces to serve in Australia, all of the island of New Guinea and the adjacent islands. This is called the South-West Pacific Zone.


Curtin’s cable war

Curtin’s cable war

In an extraordinary exchange of cablegrams, Prime Minister John Curtin defies British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt and orders Australia’s 7th Division home rather than to Burma. In March, Rangoon falls to Japanese forces and Allied troops are interned as prisoners of war, with many forced to work on the notorious Burma railway.


Widows' pension

Widows' pension

The government introduces the Widows Pensions Act 1942 and the Widows Pensions Act 1943 when it acknowledges that many widows are forced to work to provide for their children.


Statute of Westminster

Statute of Westminster

Most political and legal ties between Australia and Britain are severed with the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 (Cth), adopted 10 years after Britain formally recognised the independence of the dominions within the British Commonwealth. In accepting the provisions of the Statute in 1942, Australia ratifies the free and equal status of its government in relation to the government of Britain and is no longer required to reserve certain Bills for the assent of the sovereign. Nine Bills reserved since Federation, mostly related to shipping and navigation, finally receive the Royal Assent.


1943

First women in federal parliament

First women in federal parliament

Dorothy Tangney (Australian Labor Party, later Dame Dorothy) and Dame Enid Lyons (United Australia Party and later Liberal Party) become the first women to be elected to federal parliament, in the Senate and House of Representatives, respectively. In 1949 Enid Lyons becomes the first woman to hold a rank in the federal Cabinet.


1945

Post-war employment and housing

Post-war employment and housing

The Chifley government tables the White Paper on Full Employment in Australia in federal parliament, reflecting the growing influence of Keynesian theory and defining economic policy in Australia for the next 30 years. For the first time, the Australian Government accepts an obligation to guarantee full employment and to intervene as necessary to implement that guarantee. The Chifley government also introduces the first Commonwealth–State Housing Agreement after the Commonwealth Housing Commission estimates a housing shortage of 300,000 dwellings and advises the Commonwealth to take an active role in providing funds for the construction of public housing. Subsequent governments see the value of controlling the demand for housing as a means of controlling employment.


Parliamentary broadcasting

Parliamentary broadcasting

The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) broadcasts the proceedings of federal parliament for the first time, with Acting Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s announcement of the end of World War II in Europe. Regular broadcasts of parliament begin on ABC Radio the following year.


1947

Senate Opposition Whip

Senate Opposition Whip

Dame Florence Cardell-Oliver is the first female Cabinet Minister in an Australian parliament (Western Australia), while Senator Annabelle Rankin (Liberal Party) becomes the Opposition Whip in the Senate. Two years later, Dame Enid Lyons becomes the first woman to hold a rank in the federal Cabinet.


Registering ‘aliens’

Registering ‘aliens’

The Commonwealth Parliament passes the Aliens Act 1947, making it compulsory for all ‘aliens’, or non-British residents 16 years or older, to register with local authorities and to notify them of any change of name, address or occupation.


1948

Australian citizenship introduced

Australian citizenship introduced

The Australian Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948, proclaimed on 26 January 1949, recognises that Australians are now citizens of their own country as well as British subjects. Unlike previous laws, the new Act implicitly includes Aboriginal people by including the category ‘natural-born’. It still refers to non-British subjects as ‘aliens’ (except Irish citizens and ‘protected persons’). The concept of ‘British subject’ is removed in 1973.


1949

Indigenous ex-servicemen granted voting rights

Indigenous ex-servicemen granted voting rights

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1949 extends the franchise to Indigenous ex-servicemen.


Proportional representation in the Senate

Proportional representation in the Senate

Proportional representation is introduced in the 1949 Senate elections via the Electoral Act 1948 (Cth). It ensures that seats are awarded in proportion to each political party’s share of the vote. Previous ‘first past the post’ and group preference systems had meant all Senate seats in a state could potentially be held by the same party. Proportional representation was proposed at Federation, but rejected by the Senate on the basis that it would undermine strong party government. Advocates of proportional representation, however, saw it as a way of promoting wider community representation.


1951

Australian Communist Party ban fails

Australian Communist Party ban fails

The Australian people reject, by a narrow margin, a proposal to give the Commonwealth Parliament the power to make laws regarding communism. The referendum resulted from a High Court ruling that a Bill introduced by the Menzies government in 1950 to dissolve the Communist Party was constitutionally invalid.


1953

Government and commercial television

Government and commercial television

The Television Act 1953 provides for both government and commercial stations.


1954

Royal Commission on Espionage (Petrov Affair)

Royal Commission on Espionage (Petrov Affair)

Prime Minister Robert Menzies announces to parliament the defection of Soviet Embassy official Vladimir Petrov and his wife Evdokia, on the eve of the 1954 federal election. The defection, together with the subsequent Royal Commission into Espionage, become known as the Petrov Affair. It adds to existing tensions within the Labor Party over the issue of communism, tensions that ultimately result in a split in the Party and the formation of the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party.


1958

Acts Interpretation Act 1958

Acts Interpretation Act 1958

The Acts Interpretation Act 1958 states that words referring to the masculine gender are deemed to include females unless otherwise stated.


1959

First televised broadcast of federal parliament

First televised broadcast of federal parliament

Federal parliament is televised by the Australian Broadcasting Commission for the first time on 17 February at the official opening of the 23rd Australian Commonwealth Parliament in Canberra.


Divorce laws

Divorce laws

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1959, introduced by Attorney-General Garfield Barwick, outlines 14 grounds for divorce including adultery, desertion, cruelty, habitual drunkenness, imprisonment and insanity. A spouse must prove marital fault and private detectives are often employed to gather evidence to prove fault. This means divorce is more accessible to wealthy couples, but only then after three years of marriage without leave of the court. The laws are designed to protect the institution of marriage while providing a way out for spouses suffering ‘harsh and oppressive’ circumstances (in the court’s view). Marriage is a Commonwealth power under Section 51(xxi) of the Australian Constitution, but states and territories administer marriage law (excluding divorce) until the introduction of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth). In 1975, Senator Lionel Murphy introduces his Family Law Bill into the Senate as a replacement for the Matrimonial Causes Act 1959, paving the way for no-fault divorce.


1960

Restrictions lifted on social welfare

Restrictions lifted on social welfare

The Social Services Act is amended to remove restrictions on social welfare benefits for Indigenous Australians, and makes old-age pensions and maternity benefits available to most people except those deemed ‘nomadic’ or ‘primitive’. While broadening eligibility, however, the amended laws provide for allowances to be managed by third parties on behalf of Indigenous people. In some cases, allowances are redirected into trust accounts administered by state Aboriginal welfare authorities.


1962

Voting rights for Indigenous Australians

Voting rights for Indigenous Australians

The Commonwealth Electoral Act is amended to entitle all Indigenous Australians to enrol to vote at federal elections and referendums, although enrolment and voting is not compulsory. In Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the voting registration of Indigenous people is not enforced.


1966

White Australia Policy — beginning of the end

White Australia Policy — beginning of the end

Hubert Opperman, Minister for Immigration in the Holt government, effectively spells out the end of the White Australia Policy by announcing that applications from prospective settlers will be considered on their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and whether they have qualifications useful to Australia. Opperman downplays the effects of the changes, reassuring Australians that the government’s ‘primary aim in immigration is a generally integrated and predominantly homogeneous population’. However, the changes effectively end the White Australia Policy. By 1975, when the Racial Discrimination Act is adopted, the practice of discriminating against non-European migrants is completely abolished.


1968

United Council of Aboriginal Women

United Council of Aboriginal Women

A group of 120 women arrive in Canberra for the first United Council of Aboriginal Women meeting, and play a vital role in marshalling support for the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns opposite (Old) Parliament House.


Copyright introduced

Copyright introduced

The Copyright Act 1968 gives individuals the right to protect their moral and economic interests arising from their work, including works of art and literature, which cannot be used or copied without the owner/creator’s permission.


1971

First Indigenous person in federal Parliament

First Indigenous person in federal Parliament

Neville Bonner becomes the first Indigenous person in federal parliament when he is chosen to fill a vacancy in the Senate caused by the resignation of a Liberal Senator for Queensland. He is subsequently returned at 1972, 1974, 1975 and 1980 elections.


1972

Aboriginal Tent Embassy opens

Aboriginal Tent Embassy opens

On Australia Day, 26 January, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy is established on the lawns in front of (Old) Parliament House. Protesters draw attention to the issue of Indigenous land rights and, over the following decades, the Embassy grows to be a symbolic centre of all protest for Indigenous groups. It is the best-known site in Australia associated with ongoing political struggle for Indigenous people.


1974

Joint sitting of parliament televised

Joint sitting of parliament televised

A historic joint sitting of parliament is held shortly after the double dissolution election of 18 May, and becomes the first parliamentary debate to be televised in Australia.


Territorial representation established

Territorial representation established

The Senate (Representation of Territories) Act 1973 (Cth) provides for each of the territories to be represented by two Senators.


1975

Racial Discrimination Act passed

Racial Discrimination Act passed

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 makes racial discrimination illegal. It aims to ensure everyone is treated equally, regardless of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin. By the end of the 20th century more than 10,500 complaints are received, including 3500 from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and 4000 from people from non-English speaking backgrounds.


No fault divorce

No fault divorce

The Family Law Act 1975 introduces a no-fault system for divorce and women’s traditional work in the home is recognised in the division of assets provisions.


The Dismissal

The Dismissal

In the greatest constitutional crisis in Australia’s history, the opposition parties in the Senate block supply for 27 days in an attempt to force Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to call an election for the House of Representatives. He refuses, and the resulting crisis becomes a bitter contest for political power. Chief Justice, Sir Garfield Barwick, accepts the opposition argument and the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, acts on his advice by dismissing the Prime Minister. He commissions Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister on the assurance that Fraser will call a general election. He grants Fraser a double dissolution of both Houses, and Fraser’s Liberal–National Party Coalition wins a landslide victory at the general election held in December. This issue remains contentious in Australia. The question remains as to whether the exercise of the Governor-General’s reserve powers under the Constitution are compatible with Australia’s system of parliamentary democracy.


First female Cabinet Minister

First female Cabinet Minister

Senator Margaret Guilfoyle is the first woman to be appointed to a Cabinet portfolio following her appointment as Minister for Education in the first Fraser government in 1975 and subsequently as Minister for Social Security. In 1979 she is appointed to the Order of the British Empire (Dame Commander) for her services to public and parliamentary life, and in 1980 she is appointed Finance Minister — the first female Member of Parliament in Australia to hold a major economic portfolio.


1981

Federal human rights laws

Federal human rights laws

The federal Human Rights Commission Act 1981 comes into force, based on the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


1982

Freedom of information laws

Freedom of information laws

The Freedom of Information Act 1982 (Cth) creates a legally enforceable right of public access to documents in the possession of Commonwealth ministers and agencies. The new law aims to increase transparency in government decision-making and to improve the accountability of government for administrative decision-making.


1984

Sex discrimination

Sex discrimination

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) provides a legal avenue for addressing discriminatory practices based on gender and sexuality.


1986

First female Speaker

First female Speaker

On 11 February, Joan Child becomes the first woman to be elected as Speaker of the House of Representatives in the federal parliament. She is unanimously nominated by the Australian Labor Party, and her appointment is not opposed by the Liberal opposition. Child is liked and respected by Members from both sides of the Chamber. She resigns as Speaker in 1989.


First female political party leader

First female political party leader

Janine Haines from South Australia becomes the first female federal parliamentary leader of an Australian political party after being chosen by Australian Democrats members as Senate leader on the retirement of inaugural leader Don Chipp. She was previously the first member of the Australian Democrats to enter the federal parliament after the party’s formation in 1977, and she plays a key role in transforming the Australian Democrats into a party that eventually holds the balance of power in the Senate.


Affirmative action in employment

Affirmative action in employment

The Commonwealth Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986seeks to eliminate discrimination against women in employment and encourage consultation with employers to promote equal opportunity.


Human rights and equal opportunity law

Human rights and equal opportunity law

The Commonwealth Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986 deals with breaches of human rights as defined in Australia’s international treaties, as well as complaints about equal opportunity on the grounds of race, colour, religion, sex, political opinion, national extradition, social origin, age, medical record, criminal record, sexual preference, trade union activity, marital status, nationality, disability and impairment.


Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986 is enacted. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is established and replaces the existing Human Rights Commission.


1987

Protection against domestic violence

Protection against domestic violence

The Crimes (Family Violence) Act 1987 provides for restraining orders to be taken out against offenders in cases of domestic violence and child abuse. This follows the Crimes (Amendment) Act 1985 that gives legal protection to women from rape in marriage.


1988

Australian Parliament House opens

Australian Parliament House opens

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II opens the new Australian Parliament House on 9 May, as Australia commemorates 200 years since the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove. The new Parliament House is designed by Romaldo Giurgola of Mitchell/Giurgola & Thorp Architects. It replaces Provisional Parliament House, which had become over-crowded during the 1960s and 1970s. The new building is the result of an international design competition announced in 1979, attracting 329 entries from 28 countries.


1993

Peacekeeping troops to Somalia

Peacekeeping troops to Somalia

Australia sends 1000 troops to join UN peacekeeping forces in Somalia, the largest deployment since the Vietnam War.


1999

No to an Australian republic

No to an Australian republic

Following a constitutional convention in February 1998 at which members resolve in favour of Australia becoming a republic, the Howard government invites the people of Australia to vote at a referendum. The first question asks Australians whether they approve of altering the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a president appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament. The second question seeks approval to change the Constitution by inserting a preamble. About 55 per cent of Australian voters vote no, and Australia remains a constitutional monarchy.