Old Parliament House was the home of the Federal Parliament from 1927 to 1988. During this time, great changes took place in Australian social and political life. This is the building in which democracy matured in Australia. It was here the nation was shaped.
The building was designed by John Smith Murdoch; the first Commonwealth government architect. He was asked to design a ‘provisional’ building intended to serve as a parliament for 50 years. Around the building grew the new Australian capital city of Canberra. The need for a national capital arose when the Australian colonies united to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.
Parliament House was like a town within the city of Canberra. It had its own library, post office, barber, carpentry workshop, bars and dining room. By the 1980s, thousands of people worked in the building including politicians, parliamentary staff, Hansard reporters, journalists, dining room and bar staff. During its life as a working parliament, this building was the setting for many of Australia’s major political events. Debates that influenced the future of the nation took place here, key decisions were taken, political careers were made and ended.
While the building is important because of the events which occurred here, it is also significant in terms of architectural values. The House was designed by John Smith Murdoch, the first Commonwealth Government architect. He was asked to design a ‘provisional’ building that would serve as a parliament for fifty years. Murdoch worked with the ‘stripped classical’ style, common in government buildings in the 1920s and 1930s. It is recognisable in Murdoch’s other Canberra buildings, including the Hotel Canberra (now Hyatt Hotel Canberra), Hotel Kurrajong and the East and West Blocks, which are the original government office buildings in Canberra.
Murdoch’s provisional parliament building was modest and functional, and was filled with natural light from windows, skylights and light wells. With its verandahs and colonnades, and strong horizontal lines, the building was not as some people expected a parliamentary building to be, and it attracted criticism from some architects at the time.
In the 61 years that the building served as Parliament House, there were many changes in the size and nature of the Federal Parliament. During this time the House of Representatives grew from 76 to 148 members and the Senate from 36 to 76 members. In 1927, only the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Government in the Senate and ministers had their own offices.
By the 1980s, the building had exceeded its capacity with almost 3000 people crowded into a building originally intended for a few hundred . Members and senators had offices of their own, most of them tiny and overcrowded. A new and permanent Parliament House was completed in 1988. In June of that year, members sat for the last time after 61 years in the old building. Today, the building is listed on the National Heritage Register and is home to the Museum of Australian Democracy—a museum that tells the story of Australia’s democracy, including the history and heritage of the building.