On this day in history: Canberra given to NSW

By Grant Lubyckij 3 February 2015
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To get New South Wales to agree to federation, the other colonies gave it Canberra at this ‘secret’ conference.

ON THE 3 FEBRUARY 1899, in the backrooms of Melbourne’s Windsor Hotel, it was agreed by at a semi-secret gathering of the Australian colonies’ premiers that neither Sydney nor Melbourne would be Australia’s capital.

But, to get federation over the line with NSW, the premiers agreed that the capitol would exist close to Sydney.

The political climate in the lead-up to this announcement was complex; half the states were keen to unite, with NSW being the most significant of the hold-outs. Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia had voted ‘Yes’ to federation in the first federation referendums the year prior.

Western Australian and Queensland didn’t hold referendums – afraid that NSW and Victoria would hold all the power, as they were already the most successful colonies.

In 1898 NSW had been the only state not to pass a yes vote. Then-NSW Premier George Reid’s ambivalence towards federation played a major role, says Dr Benjamin Jones, a historian at the University of Western Sydney.

‘Yes/No Reid’s’ stance on federation

One of the criticisms Reid levelled at the federation bill was that it proposed trade taxation between the colonies, says Benjamin. Reid was a firm believer in free-trade, but other states were championing tariffs to protect their existing industries.

Another concern was that the smaller states would be equally represented in the new federal government, and NSW wasn’t keen to lose the heft its size sometimes afforded it.

But Reid also saw the need for federation. “I see serious blots in it [the draft federal constitution] which have put a severe strain upon me,” said Reid stated at a speech at Sydney Town Hall in 1898.

However, in the same speech he also said, “I consider my duty to Australia demands me to record a vote in favour of the bill.”

A series of similar conflicting announcements earned him the nickname ‘Yes/No Reid’.

The arguments for and against federation

The premiers who supported the federation bill saw the triumphs it would bring, such as a united approach to defence and immigration. Michael Evans, a resident historian at Old Parliament House, says that ‘Billite’ premiers essentially gave NSW the capital to win its support.

In 1900 this was officially penned down in ‘Section 125’ of the Australian Commonwealth Constitution, which stated that the Australian federation’s capitol would exist within NSW, not less than 100 miles (161km) from Sydney.

Following the Premiers’ conference, Reid was interviewed by a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald who wrote that “Mr Reid stated that he felt convinced that the agreement arrived at would give general satisfaction all round, and that he thought federation would shortly be an accomplished fact”. And it was, on 1 January 1901.