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For other meanings see Canberra (disambiguation).

Canberra (pronounced CAN-bruh , CAN-berra, Can-BER-ra or Can-buh-ruh) is Australia's capital city and largest inland city (population 339,000), though only the 7th largest overall in the country. It is located at the northern end of the Australian Capital Territory, (ACT).

The word Canberra is believed to mean "meeting place" in the Ngnunawal language, though some accounts say that it means "women's breasts", a reference to Mt Ainslie and Black Mountain, two elevations in the central Canberra area. It was apparently used in relation to the Molonglo River, which flows through Canberra. As with other capital cities, the word Canberra is also used to refer by metonymy to Australia's federal government and especially the Parliament.

Canberra has many national monuments and institutions such as Government House, Parliament House, the High Court of Australia, the Australian War Memorial, the National Gallery of Australia, Telstra Tower, the Royal Australian Mint the National Library of Australia and the National Museum of Australia.

Old Parliament House
Old Parliament House

Canberra has a sister city, Nara in Japan. Canberra now also has a friendship agreement with Dili.



Location of Canberra in relation to other major Australian cities
Location of Canberra in relation to other major Australian cities

Canberra is located in a portion of the Brindabella Ranges, approximately 150 km inland from Austalia's east coast. Its latitude and longitude are 35°15' S and 149° 28' E. It is located at altitudes that range from 550m to 700 m above sea level. This results in temperature ranges from -5° C to 35° C. The hottest days are generally in December and January. In wintertime, the days can get very chilly, and once every few years snow can fall.

The soil in the Canberra is reasonably fertile, but is of a nature that makes it unsuitable for the construction of heavy-duty underground tunnels. There are also some limestone plains and some limestone caves in the region.

The Molonglo River flows through Canberra. At its western end, it has been dammed to form the body of water in the centre of the city called Lake Burley Griffin. Other rivers near the Canberra area are the Murrumbidgee and Queanbeyan River s. The Molonglo flows into the Murrumbidgee at a point northwest of Canberra, which in turn flows along Canberra's southwestern outskirts. The Queanbeyan River joins the Molonglo River at Oaks Estate just within the ACT's borders.

A number of creeks that flow off from the Molonglo River and Murrumbidgee River, such as the Jerrabomberra and Yarralumla Creeks, also exist in the Canberra area. Two of these creeks, the Ginninderra and Tuggeranong Creeks, have likewise been dammed to form Lake Ginninderra and Lake Tuggeranong .

The area had a history of sometimes lethal floods until recent times, and prior to its formation, the Lake Burley Griffin area was a flood plain.

A wetlands, known as the Jerrabomberra Wetlands, lies directly east of South Canberra. This is now a nature reserve area.

Numerous hills, such as Mt Ainslie, Mt Mugga Mugga, Mt Taylor and Black Mountain dot the Canberra area, but have been left unsettled. This does mean a colder existence for Canberra's residents as in winter cold air pours down from these peaks to form cold pockets of air in the inhabited valleys. At wintertime, snow has been known to form on the top of some of these hills, and on the more distant ones on the Brindabella ranges.

See also Canberra Region, notably for the rural uses and viticulture (wine making).

Climate and seasons

Canberra has four distinct seasons, unlike many other Australian cities that have their climate variations moderated by being near the sea.

Spring (September-November) is typified by cool days and lengthening sunlight, some rainy days, buds and then flowers on the fruit trees, flower festivals and particularly Floriade, Bogong Moths arriving on their annual migration, daylight saving coming on the last weekend of October, and the first plantings of garden crops although the collective wisdom is that tomatoes must be planted out not earlier than the first Tuesday in November (Melbourne Cup day) to avoid frosts.

In Summer, rain ceases before Christmas and humidity is generally low until March (or even April.) The light is stark, and hats are worn outside to protect from sunburn and ultraviolet light. Air conditioned shopping malls are used as havens from the heat. There is the threat of bush fires. The fruit trees make some weeks hectic as jam is made. In practice, summer ends for Canberrans after the Canberra Day festivities in late March.

Autumn brings freshening days and ANZAC Day (25 April) can be quite sharply cold when attending the dawn service at the Australian War Memorial. Rain begins again at odd intervals. Condensation trails can be seen in the skies as aircract track from Melbourne to Sydney.

Winter is typically the season of rain, but there was little rainfall in 2003 and 2004. The end of the financial year on 30 June is celebrated in government and business offices. Fog frequently occurs during winter mornings, and has often caused flights to and from Canberra International Airport to be cancelled or delayed. Canberrans leaving their heated homes know to wear layers of clothing that they take off in the heated offices and shopping malls. However, on days with still air and clear skies, Canberrans can wear a T-shirt even with air temperatures under 10 degrees Celsius.


Canberra's 311,000 residents live in a city originally planned by Walter Burley Griffin. The city is laid out on two major perpendicular axes, a water axis that stretches along Lake Burley Griffin, and a ceremonial land axis stretching from Parliament House northeastward to the Australian War Memorial at the foot of Mt. Ainslie. These two axes were in Griffin's plans for Canberra. In addition, there is an infrastructural axis stretching from the Federal Parliament House on Capital Hill to the seat of territorial government on City Hill, and a second one that stretches from Parliament House to Russell Offices and Duntroon. These two axes and the water axis constitute the Parliamentary Triangle .

Canberra is divided into seven districts. In order of development, they are: North Canberra, South Canberra, Woden , Belconnen, Weston Creek , Tuggeranong, and Gungahlin. The first two are based on Walter Burley Griffin's designs. The others all have a land contour design and a central shopping area known as a Town Centre. The districts are generally separated from each other by nature parklands, many of which have wildlife such as kangaroos and kookaburras.

The suburbs contained in these districts are generally named after famous Australians. Some are named after early settlers or Aboriginal terms. Street names within each suburb generally follow a particular theme. For instance, the streets of Duffy are named after Australian dams and weirs, Page streets are named after biologists and naturalists, and the streets of Gowrie are named after Australian Victoria Cross recipients.

There are also three suburbs that are considered to be industrial districts: Fyshwick, Mitchell and Hume . Streets in these areas also follow a theme - for instance, the streets of Fyshwick are named after Australian industrial towns.

In addition, there is Oaks Estate, a small suburb located near the ACT/NSW border which is not part of any of the above districts and which has close ties with the neighbouring NSW town of Queanbeyan. Many of its residents feel a greater affinity with Queanbeyan than with the ACT. On the other hand, Jerrabomberra is officially part of Queanbeyan but many of its residents work in the ACT and consider themselves essentially part of Canberra.

As well as the unusual road system featuring many circular streets and roundabouts, Canberra's highly planned nature has led to a striking absence of commerce on its major trafficked streets. There is also quick access and minimal traffic congestion along Canberra's roadways. Unlike most other capital cities in Australia, they have all been designed with motor vehicle traffic in mind.


Canberra is approximately 3 hours by road from Sydney on the Hume Highway (National Highway 23) and Federal Highway, 7 hours by road from Melbourne on the Hume Highway and Barton Highway (National Highway 25), and 2 hours on the Monaro Highway (National Highway 23) to the snow ski fields of the Snowy Mountains and the (Mount) Kosciuszko National Park.

Canberra International Airport has a full schedule of domestic services to several state capitals. There are long-term plans to introduce regular scheduled international flights, but up to July 2004 the only international flights have been those carrying heads of state such as the US President, and charter flights. In July 2004 international flights will commence to Fiji.

There is a rail service between Canberra and Sydney that takes about four hours. This service is operated by the New South Wales Railways. Plans to have a very fast train, with a travel time of about 81 minutes, operate between Canberra and Sydney have been contemplated, but not implemented.

A large number of interstate bus companies provide services that run to and from Canberra.

Aspects of Canberra


ACT Legislative Assembly & Ethos statue (Tom Bass, 1961)
ACT Legislative Assembly
& Ethos statue (Tom Bass, 1961)

Canberra is unique in Australia in that it is the only city within its State/Territory, the ACT. As such the traditional rôles of both a City Council and state Government are performed by the one entity, the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The Assembly building is located at Civic Square. Outside is a statue Ethos (Tom Bass, 1961, and erected there in 1962) representing "the spirit of the community".

From 2004, Assembly members are elected on fixed four year terms by the ACT's population using a proportional voting system (from 1989 to 2004 members were elected on three year terms). There are 17 members, who represent three different multi-member electorates. Voters only vote for the candidates running for their electorate. Seven of these represent the seat of Molonglo, and there are five each from Gininderra and Brindabella. The political party that wins the most seats wins government, and governs the ACT through the use of ministries.

Up until the 2004 ACT election, ACT governments have always been minority ones - ie. they have never won more than half of the assembly's 17 seats. This has led to some unusual alliances to bring about political stability. In one instance, two parties with conflicting political views formed an alliance and governed the ACT through the combined number of seats that this produced. More recently, an ACT Liberal Party government ruled the ACT with the help of an independent member who was given an ACT ministry in return for his support. The current membership of the Assembly was officially declared on October 29, 2004. Jon Stanhope's Labor Party was voted back into government; this time with 9 seats, the first majority ever held in the ACT.

The Federal Government retains some influence over the ACT's government. Under the provisions of s122 of the Commonwealth Constitution, the Federal government can overrule any law of an Australian territory of which it disapproves. This power is seldom used.

No ACT election can be called except with the Federal Government's approval. Also, a Commonwealth organisation, the National Capital Authority , can veto and influence decisions involving Canberra's urban development and growth.

Law and order

The Australian Federal Police carry out all police services normally provided by a state police force. Persons arrested on an offence are tried in the ACT Magistrate's Court (there are no ACT District Courts). However, persons sentenced to imprisonment are sent to a NSW jail as there are no prisons in Canberra. Various proposals to establish a prison within Canberra have been mooted over the years, but while these have led to heated public debate, none has so far been implemented.

Courts such as a small claims tribunal and a Family Court exist for civil law actions and other non-criminal legal matters.


Although only a minority of the Canberra workforce is now directly employed by government, the city's main industry is still government and public service. It contains the Federal Parliament and the headquarters of most government departments (for instance, Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Treasury).

A number of military establishments of the Australian Defence Force exist in or near Canberra, most notably RAAF Fairbairn (now effectively closed as a base for the Royal Australian Air Force, except for housing the VIP Flight that uses Boeing Business Jet ) and HMAS Harman (becoming a tri-service multiuser depot). Military colleges also exist - see Universities.

Canberra's second largest (and most noticeable) industry is tourism, with a large number of Australian and international visitors visiting the city each year. The most popular times are spring and autumn (fall), with the annual Floriade spring flower display (held each year in September/October) being the biggest. Other popular and noteworthy tourist spots in Canberra include the Parliamentary triangle (and in particular both the New Parliament House and the Old Parliament House), monuments such as the Australian War Memorial, and working national institutions like the Royal Australian Mint.

Canberra also has the High Court of Australia, which is the final court of appeal for lawsuits within Australia and which can make rulings on the Australian Constitution.

Unlike most other parts of Australia, there is no legal barrier to the production and mail-order sale of explicit (X-rated) pornographic material in Canberra, and this has led to a small, but thriving, export industry. This industry exists in the light industrial suburbs of Fyshwick, Hume and Mitchell.


Canberra is also home to foreign embassies and high commissions, the majority of which are located in the suburbs of Yarralumla, Deakin and O'Malley . The Yarralumla embassy area is another tourist attraction, as the embassies in that suburb are generally built in the style of their home country.

Embassies are sometimes open to public inspection or for public functions. They have also been the focal points of public demonstrations and protests. For instance, the French Embassy received attention from demonstrators during the French nuclear tests in the Pacific, whilst the Indonesian Embassy was the subject of demonstrations in relation to East Timor. Some protests have been violent - for instance, the embassy of the then Soviet Union came under attack in 1969 and 1971. In 2004, a man was convicted for his involvement in an al-Qaeda plot to bomb the Israeli Embassy.

There is also the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, located outside Old Parliament House. This consists of a portable building and a series of spears and ceremonial fires. In spite of its name, it is not a diplomatic mission, but rather exists to draw attention to indigenous rights and land issues. Its existence and some of the actions of its occupants have been the subject of some controversy, but its presence is tolerated by the Canberra authorities. In September 2004, it was subject to an arson attack and its future is in some doubt.


As Australia's political centre, Canberra is naturally the home of much of Australia's political reportage and thus all the major media organizations, including the commercial television networks, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and the metropolitan newspapers maintain bureaux there. Many are represented in the "press gallery", the group of media people that follows the national parliament.

The National Press Club is on National Circuit, in the South Canberra suburb of Barton, and it regularly broadcasts its weekly lunches, in which a guest gives a half-hour speech and then goes through a half-hour question session afterwards. This has been a popular means by politicians to give speeches, but other guests have included movie and TV celebrities.

Canberra has own its own daily newspaper, the Canberra Times which was was established in 1926.

Canberra has five television stations, two government (ABC and SBS) and three commercial (Prime, WIN and Southern Cross Ten).

Community Radio 2XX FM is Canberra's primary source of multicultural radio broadcast, featuring weekly programmes in twenty languages, in addition to community service and specialty music programmes.


Canberra is the home of the Australian National University, based in Acton , and the University of Canberra, based near Belconnen.

The Australian Defence Force Academy (or ADFA) and the Royal Military College, Duntroon (or RMC-D) operate near the suburb of Campbell, in Canberra's inner northeast. ADFA teaches military undergraduates and postgraduates as a faculty of the University of New South Wales; Duntroon provides Australian Army Officer training.

Two religious campuses are sited in Canberra: Signadou in the North Canberra suburb of Watson is a campus of the Australian Catholic University; St Mark's Theological College adjacent to the Parliament House is a campus of Charles Sturt University.

The multicampus Canberra Institute of Technology [1] also operates in Canberra.

Sporting and recreation

Canberra has a full range of sporting facilities. Perhaps the two most significant are Canberra Stadium (formerly known as Bruce Stadium) and the Australian Institute of Sport, a quasi-educational body that trains many of Australia's Olympic athletes.

Canberra also possesses numerous sporting ovals, golf courses, tennis courts and swimming pools that are available for use by the public. A Canberra-wide series of bicycle paths are available to cyclists for recreational and sporting purposes. The nature reserves around Canberra have a large range of walking paths.

It has several national sporting teams, the Canberra Raiders (Rugby League) and the ACT Brumbies (Rugby Union), the most prominent.

An annual sporting event of historical interest is the "Prime Ministers XI" cricket match, normally played at Manuka Oval in South Canberra.

Public transport

Canberra is serviced by a bus-based public transport system, called ACTION, short for Australian Capital Territory Internal Omnibus Network, as the city has no railway system other than an interstate railway that terminates in the Canberra suburb of Kingston. The ACTION bus service provides comprehensive services for Canberra residents.

There have been government proposals that tramways be added to Canberra, either a tourist-based one that would link many of Canberra's tourist attractions, or one that links the new and developing district of Gungahlin with the City Centre. As of 2004, nothing has come of these plans.

A private bus service also operates between Queanbeyan and Canberra.


Main article: History of Canberra

Aboriginal presence

Prior to white settlement, the Canberra area was inhabited by the Ngunnawal and Walgalu tribes. A third tribe, the Ngarigo, lived south-east of the Canberra area. The Aboriginal numbers appeared to have been relatively small - as few as 500. This was in part to a strong pro-marital culture that existed in the tribes in this area. These tribes appear to have been present in the Canberra area since the 11th century.

They seem to have lived well on local wildlife and fish, with Bogong Moths being a particular speciality. Corroborrees and dancing were also a part of their culture.

European exploration and settlement

European exploration and settlement began in the Canberra area as early as the 1820s. Four expeditions took place between 1820 and 1824. White settlement in the area can be said to have begun in 1824, when a homestead or station was built in what is now the Acton peninsula by stockmen employed by Joshua John Moore. He formally purchased the site in 1826, and named the property Canberry, or Canberra. Other stations were built in turn by other settlers who brought families.

The European population in the Canberra area continued to slowly grow throughout the rest of the 19th century. Some convict labour was also used in this area in the 1830s and 1840s.

As the European presence increased, the Aboriginal population dwindled, mainly from diseases such as smallpox and measles. By 1878, the Aboriginal culture and population had largely ceased to exist, with its members largely absorbed into European culture through half-caste marriages. The last full-blood Aboriginal, Nellie "Queen Nelly" Hamilton, died in Queanbeyan Hospital on January 1, 1897.

Choice for capital city location

The district's change from a New South Wales rural area to the national capital began during debates over Federation in the late 19th century. Following a long dispute over whether Sydney or Melbourne should be the national capital, a compromise was reached: Melbourne would be the capital on a temporary basis while a new capital was built somewhere between Sydney and Melbourne.

After an extensive search, the present site, about 300 kilometres south-west of Sydney in the foothills of the Australian Alps, was chosen in 1908 as a result of survey work done by Government Surveyor Charles Scrivener in that year. The NSW Government ceded the Federal Capital Territory (as it was then known) to the Commonwealth Government on January 1, 1910.

An international competition was held in 1911 by the Federal Government through the Minister for Home Affairs, King O'Malley, to select a plan for the new city, and the local name of Canberra was eventually settled upon. On March 12, 1913 the city was officially given this name by Lady Denman the wife of the then Governor-General Lord Denman at a ceremony at Kurrajong Hill (now Capital Hill and the site of the present Parliament House), and building officially commenced.

Development and growth

Canberra's growth over the first few decades was slow, and it was far more a small country town than a capital. This was especially the case before World War II, when Canberra was noted for being more trees, fields and sheep, than houses.

Building of the capital began in what is now North and South Canberra began in 1913. They were built in accordance with Walter Burley Griffin's designs for Canberra.

Melbourne ceded control of the Federal government to Canberra on May 9, 1927, with the opening of Parliament House (now known as the Old Parliament House) in Canberra. The Prime Minister Stanley Bruce had officially taken up residence in The Lodge a few days earlier.

During and after World War II it began to grow more rapidly. For instance, embassies and high commissions began to establish themselves in Canberra during the 1940s. New districts, such as Tuggeranong, were established and slowly built throughout the 1960s and 1970s to accommodate a growing population.

On 9 May 1988, a new larger and permanent Parliament House was opened on Capital Hill (formerly Kurrajong Hill) in State Circle, Parkes as part of Australia's bicentenary celebrations, and the Federal Parliament moved there from Old Parliament House. The opening ceremony had originally been scheduled for 26 January 1988, the actual bicentenary of European settlement of Australia, but progress on construction did not permit the opening on this date. 9th May was chosen instead, because the first Australian Federal Parliament had met in Melbourne on that date in 1901, and the original (Old) Parliament House was opened in Canberra on this date in 1927.

In December 1988, the ACT was granted full self-government through an Act of the Federal Parliament that made the ACT a body politic under the crown. Following the first elections in February 1989, a 17-member Legislative Assembly sat for the first time at its offices in London Circuit, Civic, on 11 May, 1989. The ACT's first government was led by the Chief Minister Rosemary Follett, who lead the ACT Labor Party and holds the record as the first female head of government at state or territory level in Australia's history.

On January 18, 2003, parts of Canberra were engulfed by a bushfire that destroyed 491 homes. The suburb of Duffy was especially affected, with some 200 homes burnt down there. The major research telescopes and the workshop at Mount Stromlo Observatory (run by the Australian National University) were destroyed in the fire. Four people died in the flames. See main article Canberra bushfires of 2003.

On June 7, 2004, Chief Minister Jon Stanhope and Dili (East Timor) District Administrator Ruben De Carvalho formalised the "City of Canberra and District of Dili Friendship Agreement", signed at a ceremony in Dili, attended by East Timorese President Xanana Gusmão and Prime Minister Marí Alkatiri.


"It is always easy to sneer and criticise, but now that a start has been made [it is] the duty of patriotic Australians to do all that lies in their power to make this capital worthy of a Commonwealth... That here a city may arise where those responsible for the government of this country in the future may seek and find inspiration in its noble buildings, its broad avenues, its shaded parts and sheltered gardens - a city bearing perhaps some resemblance to the city beautiful of our dreams."

Lord Denman gives a vision of Canberra at a formal dinner held after its christening, March 12, 1913.

"The best view of Canberra is from the back of a departing train."

Percy Deane, Secretary of the Prime Minister's Department, 1928

"It is an expression of bureaucratic Existentialism. It exists without existing."

Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was not impressed with the Canberra of 1958.

"It's just like a little country town, isn't it? Charming, of course, but just a little country town."

The Duchess of Kent after visiting Canberra in 1970.

"Canberra: There's nothing to it!"
"Canberra: Why wait for death?"
"Canberra: Gateway to everywhere else!"

Comments associated with British (American expatriate) writer Bill Bryson, 2000

See also

External links

  • A general Canberra tourist site
  • The ACT Government webpage
    • Canberra region map - all districts
    • ACT Government street names web site
  • ACT - Basic Community Profile and Snapshot - 2001 Census
    Australian Bureau of Statistics
  • A scenic look at Canberra's architecture.
  • Canberra & The Griffins; A Theosophical View
  • An Ideal City? The 1912 Competition to Design Canberra
  • This Australian ABC page gives an account of the new Parliament House.
  • This NCA webpage gives a summary about the National Capital Authority.
  • How do you pronounce Canberra? (see notes toward end of page)
  • This internet dictionary entry shows that there is more than one pronunciation of Canberra, though the phonetic symbols can be hard to follow.

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Last updated: 02-07-2005 02:12:00
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01