Why Canberra? | What is the Capital of Australia?

What is the Capital of Australia?

What is the Capital of Australia?

If you’re not well-versed in geography, you might be inclined to say that the capital of Australia is Sydney. With its famed opera house, proximity to popular Bondi Beach, and sunny weather, Sydney is the most populous city in the country. It is not, however, the capital.

After Sydney, you might next think of Melbourne, which is considered one of the most livable cities in the world. Melbourne is sometimes referred to as the “cultural capital” of Australia, but alas, it is not home the nation’s government. So what is the capital of Australia then?

Have you heard of Canberra?

Introducing Canberra

Located 170 miles southwest of Sydney, and 410 miles northeast of Melbourne, Canberra is the capital of Australia and the country’s largest inland city.

As the main seat of the government of Australia, Canberra is home to many government departments and agencies, including the Parliament House and the High Court. It is also the location of may other social and cultural institutions, like the Australian War Memorial, the Royal Australian Mint, and the National Library. Furthermore, the Royal Military College and the Australian Defense Force Academy are both located in the capital.

Similar to Washington, D.C. in the United States, or Brasília in Brazil, Canberra started out as an entirely planned city outside of any state. It was selected as the location of the nation’s capital in 1908. If you are like most, however, you may be wondering why Canberra was chosen as Australia’s capital in the first place? Why is Canberra the capital of Australia and not Sydney or Melbourne?

To get to the bottom of that question, we need to look back at the history of Australia.

Brief History of Australia

In 1606, Dutch explorers were the first Europeans to reach Australia. Prior to European arrival, the continent had long been home to Indigenous Australians, who came to the region some 60,000 years ago. These Indigenous peoples lived mainly as hunter gatherers, but their population would decline after European contact, primarily due to disease but also because new settlements disrupted patterns of land use and movement.

In 1770, Australia’s eastern half was claimed by Great Britain. Eventually, New South Wales would be established as a penal colony. In the following decades, the European population of Australia would grow steadily. By 1850, most of Australia had been explored and claimed. By that time, five more self-governing crown colonies had been established.

Around that same time, in 1851, gold was discovered in Australia. This would lead to a wave of many new migrants, hoping to get rich. Cities like Sydney and Melbourne would quickly feel the effects of this growing population and increased economic activity. Sydney would go from a colonial outpost to a major cultural and economic center. The gold rush would transform Melbourne into one of the world’s largest and wealthiest cities.

On January 1st, 1901, the six colonies federated, joining to form the Commonwealth of Australia as a dominion of the British Empire. A Commonwealth Parliament was formed. This new government would need a place to call home, however, so a report was commissioned outlining possible locations for a new capital.

Why is Canberra the Capital of Australia?

We know that Canberra was ultimately chosen as capital of Australia, but this selection was made for reasons you might not necessarily think.

Contrary to popular myth, Canberra’s selection was NOT the result of a compromise between Sydney and Melbourne. In reality, Sydney and Melbourne were never seriously considered. Why? Well, one popular rumor is that many of Australia’s politicians thought both of those cities would be too hot in the summers. Furthermore, the federation of colonies were pretty much in agreement that the capital should be inland and relatively unsettled, where there would be less disease, and less of a chance of attack.

A few places were suggested as a possible site for the capital, but ultimately it was Commonwealth surveyor Charles Scrivener who was tasked with coming to a decision. He was asked to find a “beautiful city, occupying a commanding position.” Scrivener would choose Canberra as the location he best felt met those qualities.

On January 1st, 1911, the Australian Capital Territory was declared. An international competition was held to design the new capital city. More than 130 entries were received, but in the end, it was an American architect named Walter Griffin and his wife Marion who had the winning bid. The Parliament House opened in Canberra in 1927.

Canberra Today

Today, Canberra continues to serve as the seat of Australia’s government. It is a major tourist destination, attracting visitors who come to see all the many cultural organizations and landmarks. While it may be surprising to learn that Canberra is the capital of Australia, at least you know a little more about why that is.

With a rich history and lots of charm and cultural appeal, Canberra certainly has a lot to offer. Next time you visit Australia, be sure to add Canberra to your list!


Mark Heald

Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 131 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.