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The Capital of Australia is Sydney, Right?

No, it’s not.

If you have any questions or comments, please join the community and share them!


Sunrise English Conversation. (2015, 14 October). Misconceptions About Australia. https://www.sunrises.jp/blog/2015/10/14/misconceptions-about-australia

Alright, alright, so maybe that’s a bit too flippant.

Much like Ankara is the capital of Turkey, not Istanbul (Lexico, 2020), and Washington is the capital of the USA (Grogg, 2013), not New York City (and in fact, New York City isn’t even the capital of New York state!) (City of Albany, n.d), the largest city in Australia, Sydney, is not its capital.

Canberra is (Royal Australian Historical Society, 1923).

But why?

For tens of thousands of years, the Canberra region was home to the Ngunnawal (ACT Government, n.d.c) and Ngambri peoples (Gore, 2023), and then after British colonisation, the most prominent developed structure here was a homestead known as “Woden”. In fact, before Canberra was decided upon to be the national capital, the area was basically a sheep paddock, which is why some people unkindly refer to Canberra as “a good sheep paddock ruined” (ACT Government, n.d.a.).

As I’ve previously mentioned (Vaughan, 2023), at the time of the British colonisation of Australia, more than 200 separate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations had already been established here (Walsh, 1991). By the late 1800s, many colonial statesmen in Australia and New Zealand were taking seriously the idea of joining the colonies together (Gillespie, n.d.): New Zealand was a single colony (National Museum Australia, 2023), and Australia consisted of six colonies (New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland).

Ultimately, New Zealand decided to go their own way (National Museum Australia, 2023), and eventually all six Australian colonies/states passed referenda paving the way for the Federation of the Commonwealth of Australia, which came into effect on 1 January, 1901 (Gillespie, n.d.; Pegrum, n.d.).

And for your viewing pleasure, here’s a nifty animation showing all of the colonial, state and territory borders of Australia:

History of Australia's territorial borders
(Golbez & Roke~commonswiki, 2021)

In comparison, here’s a link to a map that’s an estimated reconstruction of the main Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups.

But for Federation of the colonies to occur, there was a major problem that needed to be overcome. The two largest cities in the colonies, Sydney and Melbourne, could not agree which of them should be the national capital. Ultimately, neither one would be, and a compromise was agreed upon: a new city, a planned city, would be established between the two (Gillespie, n.d.; Pegrum, n.d.).

The stipulations were that it would be within New South Wales, the state of which Sydney was the capital, but be more than 100 miles away from Sydney itself (Gillespie, n.d.; Pegrum, n.d.). It was also deliberately placed far inland, not on the coast, in order to avoid the threat of harm due to war (Gee, 2017). Thankfully, only warships are a threat to national defence, and weapons of war will never come from the air or space.

An example of the 100-mile exclusion zone for the national capital placement:

Map demonstrating a 100-mile radius around Sydney, Australia
(ABC News: Ryan Kerlin)

Many names were considered for the new capital. And to prove that phenomena like Boaty McBoatface are not a new condition in the human spirit (Ellis-Petersen, 2016), here are some names submitted for consideration of the naming of Australia’s capital city more than a hundred years ago:

  • Cookaburra (a bird)
  • Wheatwoolgold (the three things Australia was considered to be good at: producing wheat, wool and gold)
  • Kangaremu (the two animals on the Australian coat of arms: kangaroo and emu)
  • Sydmelperadbrisho and Meladneyperbane (godawful combinations of all six state capital city names squashed together inelegantly) (Pegrum, n.d.)

Instead, it was decided upon to name the city “Canberra”, said to have been derived from the local Ngunnawal people’s word for “meeting place”, as the national capital would be the place to which representatives from all over the country would converge. This name was publicly announced on 12 March 1913 by Lady Denman, the wife of the Governor-General who declared, “I name the capital of Australia, Canberra – the accent is on the Can” (Pegrum, n.d.).

In fact, this naming of Canberra is the source for Canberra Day, a public holiday held on the second Monday of March each year (so yesterday in my timezone), and enjoyed only by people who live within the Australian Capital Territory (ACT Government, n.d.b.), that is to say anyone who lives in Canberra plus the handful of small villages located around it (AIC, n.d.).

As I mentioned earlier, Canberra is a planned city. As a result of an international competition, the American husband-and-wife team of architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin designed the layout of the new city. Their plan included a central lake, surrounded by parkland and gardens, and an arrangement of geometrically planned town centres that were designed to blend with the natural landscape (National Museum Australia, 2023; Pegrum, n.d.).

Canberra has become a socially progressive place, one of the most in Australia. The ACT Government has an Office of LGBTIQ+ Affairs to “make Canberra the most LGBTIQ+ welcoming and inclusive city in Australia” (CMTEDD, n.a.). The territory assembly legislated marriage equality four years before it became federal law (unfortunately, the High Court overturned the territory law a few days later because federal law took precedence) (ABC News, 2013a; ABC News, 2013b; Byrne, 2013). The current Chief Minister of the territory (equivalent to the Premier of an Australian state, or the First Minister of Wales or Scotland, or the Governor of a US State), Andrew Barr, has been in power for eight years now and was the first Australian head of government to marry his same gender partner in 2019 (Mannheim, 2019b).

In fact, based on statistics, Canberra is officially the LGBT+ capital of Australia (eat your heart out, Sydney and Melbourne!) (Mannheim, 2019a).

… I might have got sidetracked there. Ahem.

To conclude, now you know why Canberra, not Sydney, is the capital of Australia.

And if you already knew that … well … thank you for reading, anyway. Hopefully this wasn’t too redundant!

Why don’t you tell me yourself by joining the community and commenting?


Author’s note: This article did not originally mention the Ngambri people. This has now been corrected.




ABC News. (2013a, 7 December). First same-sex marriages in Canberra. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-07/an-first-same-sex-marriages-in-canberra/5142036

ABC News. (2013b, 13 December). Same-sex marriage: How Australia’s first wedding can happen within a month. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-13/why-the-first-ssm-wedding-will-happen-in-under-a-month/9256610

ACT Government. (n.d.a.). Ainslie’s Sheep. https://www.arts.act.gov.au/public-art/ainslies-sheep

ACT Government. (n.d.b.). Daylight Saving and Public Holidays in the ACT. https://www.cmtedd.act.gov.au/communication/holidays

ACT Government. (n.d.c.). Ngunnawal Country. https://www.act.gov.au/ngunnawal-country

Australian Institute of Criminology. (n.d.). Australian Capital Territory. https://www.aic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-07/tbp027_08_act.pdf

Byrne, E. (2013, 12 December). High Court throws out ACT’s same-sex marriage laws. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-12/high-court-decision-on-act-same-sex-marriage-laws/5152168

Chief Minister, Treasury and Economic Development Directorate. (n.a.). The Office of LGBTIQ+ Affairs. https://www.cmtedd.act.gov.au/policystrategic/the-office-of-lgbtiq-affairs

City of Albany. (n.d). About Albany. https://www.albanyny.gov/510/About-Albany

Ellis-Petersen, H. (2016, 17 April). Boaty McBoatface wins poll to name polar research vessel. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/17/boaty-mcboatface-wins-poll-to-name-polar-research-vessel

Gee, S. (2017, 13 November). Why was Canberra established as an inland city and not on the coast? ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/specials/curious-canberra/2017-11-13/why-was-canberra-established-as-an-inland-city/9123568

Gillespie, L. (n.d.). Federation and the National Capital. https://www.nca.gov.au/education/canberras-history/federation-and-national-capital

Golbez., & Roke~commonswiki. (2021). Australia History2. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Australia_history2.gif

Gore, C. (2023, 27 April). ACT government apologises to Canberra’s Ngambri people for failing to recognise them as traditional custodians. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-04-27/act-government-apologises-to-ngambri-over-indigenous-protocol/102274536

Grogg, R. (2013). Introduction: Where Oh Where Should the Capital Be? https://www.whitehousehistory.org/where-oh-where-should-the-capital-be-white-house-history-number-34

Lexico. (2020). Ankara2. In Lexico. https://web.archive.org/web/20200322182007/https://www.lexico.com/definition/ankara

Mannheim, M. (2019a, 1 November). Canberra, not Sydney, is the gay and lesbian capital of Australia. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-01/canberra-the-gay-and-lesbian-capital-of-australia/11650758

Mannheim, M. (2019b, 14 November). ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr marries his partner, Anthony Toms, 20 years after they met. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-14/act-chief-minister-andrew-barr-marries-anthony-toms/11699170

National Museum Australia. (2023). New Zealand Becomes a Separate Colony. https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/new-zealand-becomes-a-separate-colony

Pegrum, R. (n.d.). The Siting and Naming of Canberra. https://www.nca.gov.au/education/canberras-history/siting-and-naming-canberra

Royal Australian Historical Society. (1923). Journal and Proceedings, 9(2). http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-594747918

Sundran, D., & Gee, S. (2017, 4 September). How did the town centre of Woden come to be named after a Norse god? ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/specials/curious-canberra/2017-09-04/why-is-woden-named-after-a-norse-god/8860178

Vaughan, D.P. (2023, 27 January). Australia Day, Invasion Day. https://dpvaughan.com/index.php/2023/01/27/australia-day-invasion-day/

Walsh, M. (1991). Overview of indigenous languages of Australia. In S. Romaine (Ed.), Language in Australia. Cambridge University Press. pp. 27–48. ISBN 978-0-521-33983-4. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=odXuIsxHaOYC&pg=PA27&redir_esc=y