Sydney vs Melbourne: the real Canberra story

By Cate Cadell 7 November 2013
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We uncover the truth behind the decision to name Canberra as our nation’s capital.

ON CANBERRA’S 100th BIRTHDAY, the century-old story of Australia’s capital being named as a hasty compromise between rivals Sydney and Melbourne rears its head once again.

The truth, however, according to contemporary historians, is that neither Melbourne nor Sydney was ever seriously considered for the role as capital.

“The Sydney-Melbourne idea is nonsense, just a perpetuated myth,” says Dr David Headon, Canberra historian.

“It was theoretically possible that any state could host the capital,” says David. However, after the constitution was finalised, one section dictated the capital must be in NSW.

David says the section was included at the insistence of George Reid – later to become Australia’s fourth Prime Minister – who decreed that if NSW was not chosen, the state would not join the Federation.

Finding a capital city for Federation

While the other colonial delegations conceded that NSW should be the chosen host, they refused to allow the Government to sit in Sydney, insisting they all had an equal vested interest in the new capital.

One rumoured explanation for why neither Sydney nor Melbourne were considered is because of their hot summers.

“The most significant reason, which all politicians agreed with at the time, was that whites could only really thrive and lead by living in a cold climate,” says David.

Despite having the largest urban sites, the NSW government delegations based in Sydney and Melbourne weren’t necessarily considered the most appropriate for leadership.

“It was often said that the South Australian colonial delegation was the best of all the colonies – so there was no way in the world were they going to allow Sydney or Melbourne to be the capital.”

How Canberra was chosen as capital

The only other early consensus, apart from cool temperatures, was that the site should not have a significant settlement, nor should it be on the coast.

“They couldn’t have it on the coast because of the possibility of sea bombardment,” says David. “But also it was a very bad period for disease, particularly at sea level, so there was a double worry.”

Sites were considered all over NSW, from Yass to Armidale, Orange, Bathurst, Dalgety and more. Those politicians who did eventually put their weight behind the Yass-Canberra site – Watson, Reid, Fisher, Hughes and O’Malley – are recognised among the suburb names of their winning bid.

Cate Cadell