Sensational World Of Civics – Episode 1: Why Canberra?

Politics … a total snoozefest, right? Wrong!

How our government works and the decisions it makes reaches into almost every part of our everyday lives. So settle in as we explore in a series of podcasts the history of Australian democracy and pull apart how our system of government works .. it’ll be heaps more fun than it sounds. Promise!

In this episode, we explore the history of Federation, how Australia became a country, why Canberra was chosen as its capital – and why thousands of meat pies were buried in the process…

Produced in association with the Museum of Australian Democracy



Hello there and welcome to the sensational world of civics. I’m Bryce Corbett, host of Squiz Kids, the daily news podcast just for kids.

Now before you start rolling your eyes at the thought of a whole podcast about civics and democracy— total snoozefest right?—stop and think about this for a moment. How our government works and the decisions it makes reaches into almost every part of our everyday lives: how and why you go to school, the sports you play the roads, you drive on, the hospitals you rely on, the kind of society you’re going to grow up and live in. So settle in as we explore the history of Australian democracy and pull apart how our system of government works. It’ll be heaps more fun than it sounds I promise.

Today we’ll explore how Australia became a country; why a non-existent town between Sydney and Melbourne became our nation’s capital; and the building of Parliament House. And to guide us on this journey I’m delighted to welcome to the Squiz Kids hot seat Stephanie Smith from the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra. Steph, welcome to Squiz Kids! 

Hello everyone, hello Bryce 

Shall we jump straight in?

Let’s go!


How Australia Became a Country 

Now Steph, I think we’re going to need to step into the Squiz Kids time machine to go back and understand how Australia actually became a country. What year should I set the dial to?

Bryce I think for this one we need to go really far back in time— at least fifty thousand years.

Whoa okay, why is that?

Because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived on these lands, practiced their traditional cultures and languages for a very long time. So we’ve come from these traditional backgrounds but from the late seventeen hundreds British colonies were established here in Australia.

So we’re talking about New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia they were all separate colonies weren’t they. 

They were and do you know what Bryce all of these colonies had their own governments and laws. So they were essentially countries of their own.

And what does that mean in practical terms?

It meant that it made it really hard for people to easily move from one of these colonies to another. So things like the train lines had different tracks, so at the border you had to get off and get on another train to be able to travel from New South Wales Victoria.

So obviously that would have been very confusing: different governments, different rules, different laws, different trains. So what did they decide to do?

By the late eighteen hundreds a lot more people had been born here, they were participating in sporting teams as Australians, like cricket, and so there was a growing sense of identity and wanting to become one.

And so the decision was made then that the colony should all join together and become one country?

Well there was a lot of discussion there was a lot of debate because each of these colonies wanted different things but eventually by 1900 the colonies had written the Australian constitution. A constitution is essentially a set of rules about how we’re governed. It tells us about what powers the federal government has, how the courts work, and our executive that works in federal parliament

So the constitution is basically like a rulebook for the running of the country?

Yes. And so we had to take our constitution all the way over to Britain to have it passed through the British parliament. 

Because we were still a British colony at that point, weren’t we?

We were. Now it was passed and it was given royal assent. On the first of January in 1901 we became the Commonwealth of Australia. It sounds like a good time for a party, doesn’t it Bryce?

It sounds like an excellent excuse for a party and was there a party?

Oh there were many parties. There was a fantastic party in Sydney in centennial park where our first Governor General Lord Hopetoun was sworn in and our first prime minister Edmund Barton was also sworn in. 

Fantastic! Well that explains how Australia formed into a country, but I guess then the next question was, Where was that country going to be ruled from?

Why Canberra?

Now this is a really good question that you bring up. It was written into the constitution that the capital had to be at least a hundred sixty kilometers from Sydney and Melbourne.

And was that because Sydney and Melbourne both wanted to be the capital of Australia and so they had to find a compromise?

Oh they sure did. There was lots of discussion Bryce, it took us until 1909 to officially decide on Canberra as the place for our capital. 

And what was there in Canberra in 1909? 

There were lots of sheep. Lots of fields and lots of mountains. And one politician had proclaimed a belief that the cold climate helped the brain work better so that we could have a better decision making process 

Ah, so that’s why the teachers leave the windows open during winter. It’s all becoming clear now. And was there any other significance to Canberra?

Yes, in fact Bryce the name Canberra means meeting place. It’s a local indigenous word and so I think it’s quite fitting that this is the place that they chose.

All right, so the builders are headed three hundred kilometers south of Sydney, but what exactly does a capital need?

Building Parliament House 

Well the capital needs lots of things including a Parliament House.

And what’s parliament, before we talk about Parliament House? 

Parliament is where our federal politicians, they gather.  So we have politicians that represent their electorates or states and territories and the federal parliament is where all of that rich debate and lawmaking happens. 

Right, so Parliament House was decided would be built.

Yes now it took us until 1913. I wonder if you know what significant event happened a year later in 1914. 

1914 let me see of course that was the beginning of the first World War

Absolutely right. So we didn’t quite have the money that we wanted to spend on our Parliament House and so we created a provisional Parliament House. That’s Old Parliament House now. This building was only designed to be used for fifty years.

So the building that you’re sitting in right now in the Museum of Australian Democracy is now housed inside Old Parliament House – the place where all the decisions were made about how to run the country for a long time.

It absolutely is. So it took until 1927 to open the Old Parliament House. When we opened, Parliament sat here for 61 years. But I need to tell you about the opening ceremony of this building it was such a special occasion

Was it a party? I do like a party. 

We’re always up for a good celebration. Our building was opened by the Duke of York, we also had lots of state premiers, judges, bishops, and plenty of members of the public. 

But Canberra was just paddocks full of sheep, where were all these people staying?

They were camping or staying in their cars!

I suppose that shows how enthusiastic people were about the fact that we had our own parliament. It  was an important step for us as a young country.

Absolutely, it was such a significant moment in our story. But can we talk about the food that they ate on the day?

Please! You know I love talking about food. 

The official party that was in attendance for this grand event enjoyed a lunch of mock turtle soup poached salmon, Canberra pudding,  and some fruit punch.

How very fancy. Although you could keep the turtle soup, I’m not so interested in that. 

Well you know what I think we might have been more excited by what the crowd outside was eating. They got Sargent meat pies and scones.

Oh, much better—and very Australian. 

But you know what? They over-catered. 

Too many pies?

Too many meat pies. And some of the food ended up in our local tip.

I love the idea that there are thousands of meat pies, or the remnants of them, buried somewhere in a tip nearby that speak to the foundation of our country. How fitting. So that building that you’re sitting in right now, the original Parliament House, ended up being in use for sixty one years. But by the 1980s it was starting to get a little bit crowded in there, wasn’t it? 

It was very crowded. When they started here in nineteen twenty seven we only had three hundred people working out of a little building but by the time they left in nineteen eighty eight there were three thousand people crammed into our tiny building. It was so cramped that they created offices in the roof spaces and when they had to get places quickly they climbed out windows and ran across the roof so they could get there quicker.

So it was time to build themselves a new Parliament House. 

So by the eighties we had enough money to be able to build Australian Parliament House up on the hill behind us and you will know it because it has the pointy flag on the top of it. What’s special about Australian Parliament House is that it very much represents Australian values. So if you ever compare, you’ll see a lot of British traditions in Old Parliament House. You’ll see a lot more of Australia in the shades of color and in the materials that have been used. 

Of course once you have a building, you need to fill it. 

Coming up 

In the next episode Amanda will be learning how we vote for members of parliament, what they do when they’re in Canberra, and why when we talk about parties… it’s unfortunately got nothing to do with fairy bread and balloons. And Steph, I’ll see you again in episode four. 

I can’t wait, Bryce. 

Me neither. But in the meantime, get out there and have a most excellent day. Over and out.