Melbourne - the seat of government

Melbourne was the home of the Australian parliament for 26 years.

The opening of the parliament was held at the Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens in May 1901. After the opening, the federal parliament met in Spring Street and the Victorian State Parliament moved into the Exhibition Building. This continued until the parliament moved to its new home in Canberra in 1927.


Federal Parliament in Melbourne

Their Royal Highnesses entering the main gates Argus 10 May 1901 p.6On 9 May 1901 His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall and York, amidst much pomp and grandeur, opened the first Federal Parliament of Australia at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, Victoria.

This much anticipated event was surrounded by a 10 day programme of celebrations.

Following the opening, the new Federal Parliament took over the Victorian State Parliament building. The State Parliament moved their proceedings to the Exhibition Building. The business of both legislatures was conducted in these temporary accommodations for a quarter of a century.

It was not until 1927 that the Federal Parliament moved to its permanent home in the new Australian capital city of Canberra and the Victorian State Parliament regained its building.

Melbourne became the long term temporary home for the Federal Parliament as a result of negotiations between the colonies over the Federal Constitution.

In 1898, the referendum on the Constitution Bill was carried in South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania (it was not contested in Queensland or Western Australia). In New South Wales, despite winning a majority of the vote (52%), the 'yes' case failed to attract the 80,000 votes required in that state for it to be carried. (It fell 9,000 short).

Caricature of Reid and Deakin New South Wales Premier George Reid was roundly blamed by the federal movement for the referendum loss. Reid, though, took the next step towards Federation when he instigated a meeting of the colonial premiers in Melbourne. This meeting is generally known as the Secret Premiers Conference. During an intense few days between 29 January and 2 February 1899 the Premiers hammered out an agreement on amendments to the draft constitution. One of the issues agreed on was the siting of a new Australian capital in New South Wales, but not within 100 miles of Sydney. In the interim it was agreed to house the Federal Parliament in Melbourne. These decisions are reflected in Section 125 of the Australian Constitution.

Reid pronounced his satisfaction at the outcome of this meeting. Alfred Deakin, Reid's implacable opponent, saw Reid's attacks on the Constitution Bill as "merely tactical". He felt the requirement for the capital to be in New South Wales as just a "vote catching proviso" and a "local bribe".

Regarding the choice of Melbourne as the temporary home of Federal Parliament Deakin added "If he (Reid) had been a little more exigent, the last provision in favour of Melbourne would not have been insisted upon. The Victorians were quite prepared to accept a share of the parliamentary annual sittings pending the choice of a permanent capital and to have allowed Sydney a similar compliment and if necessary Brisbane and Adelaide as well." (Federal Story: the inner history of the Federal cause by Alfred Deakin, Melbourne, Roberston and Mullens, 1944 p.192)

Parliament House Melbourne 1903.This arduous conference lay the foundation for the success of the 1899 referendum and the Federation of the colonies. It was also at this meeting where it was agreed that Melbourne be the temporary home of the Federal Parliament until a new capital was built.


Melbourne grandly celebrated the opening of the first Federal Parliament. Sydney had been an extravagent host of the Commonwealth Celebrations of 1 January 1901 when the interim government of Barton had been sworn in.

Melbourne had looked northwards with a little envy at the tumultuous welcome given to the Commonwealth by Sydney. Now, following Barton's success in the Federal election (29 and 30 March 1901), it was Melbourne's moment.

Fireworks Display at the Domain, by Pain from the Official Programme of Celebrations p. 29 The celebrations were centred around the royal visit and included the obligatory receptions, concerts and official dinners. There were also fireworks displays, a procession of Australian stockmen, a Chinese dragon parade along Little Bourke Street, a military tattoo, street bands and illuminations of various parts of the city.

Argus 7 May p.9 Bourke St looking towards Parliament House The city was abundantly decorated with flags and bunting. The Argus (Melbourne) breathlessly reported that for the celebrations Melbourne had been transformed into "a veritable Paris of the South, the city of a faerie dreamland. Not however the mere baseless faerie vision which leaves not a wrack behind but such a reminiscence of the civic glories of the older world as leaves the noble suggestion of a future glory for the new…." (The Argus 7 May 1901 p.10)

Parallel lines of Venetian masts (1264 in all) lined the tramways, dividing the city streets into three avenues. Each mast had a shield and a flag. Lines ran between the masts and trailed 8,240 pennants. Many of the city buildings were draped in decorations often in the colours of the British Flag. One feature of the celebrations was the construction of many celebratory arches.

The opening in Melbourne of the first Federal Parliament was an opportunity to express great civic pride. The citizens so did in great numbers.

Kings Arch Swanston St near Flinders Lane The Duke's Arch near the GPO Queen Victoria Arch  Corner of Collins and Russells Streets
St Kilda and Prahran Municipalities Arch, St Kilda Junction German Citizens Arch, near Russell Street Butter Arch Collins St. near Williams St. Citizens Arch, Bourke Street near Russell Street Chinese Arch, Swanston Street near Little Bourke Street