Cabinet Room table

1972–1988 - A table fit for a Cabinet.

From 1972 to 1988, this hefty table was used by the Federal Cabinet. 

The original Cabinet table was designed for the building by John Smith Murdoch in 1926. By 1972, it could no longer seat the growing number of Cabinet ministers. The Cabinet Room was also renovated that year, and the old table clashed with the room’s new style.  

The new table was soon party to its own historical moments. In 1972, both the smallest and largest federal Cabinets in Australian history sat around the imposing six-metre-square table – the incoming Whitlam government’s two-member Cabinet and then the 27-member strong Whitlam ministry two weeks later. 

This black and white photograph is taken from one corner of the timber panelled Cabinet Room making the square table appear as a diamond. The all-male Cabinet are looking at the camera and are all in standard business attire.  On the far right three men stand in the doorway to the room. The table is relatively neat with papers in stacks and smoking accessories in neat groupings as the meeting has not yet begun.  A photograph of the cabinet room table.

The third Whitlam Ministry in the Cabinet Room, 1974

Credit: National Archive of Australia A6180, 11/6/74/44


Many important and far-reaching discussions occurred around this table over the next 16 years such as the policy underpinning the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and the withdrawal of troops from the Vietnam War.  

Like much of the furniture created as part of the 1972 renovation, the Cabinet table was not moved to Australian Parliament House.  

See the table in the Cabinet Room.  

Visual description

The table is almost six metres square, with rounded corners and a large well in the centre, and can seat up to 28 people. The table has 16 segments that fit together snugly. Each of these segments has two small white plastic buttons on the edge, used to summon the Cabinet Room Attendant.

Made of honey-coloured oak, the table has 20 thick wooden legs supporting a tabletop which is covered with yielding black leather.

This colour photograph is taken from behind Deputy Prime Minister Lionel Bowen who is seated beside Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Both are dressed in standard business attire.  Other members of Cabinet can be seen sitting around the table although only half of the seats are filled. In the background are a photographer and two cameramen photographing and filming the cabinet meeting.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke with media in the Cabinet Room during one of the final meetings in Parliament House in 1988. The media were generally not permitted in the Cabinet Room but on this occasion were granted brief access. Credit: Photograph by Robert McFarlane Department of the House of Representatives


Prime Minister Bob Hawke cuts the cake at the last meeting of the Cabinet in Old Parliament House.

Prime minister Bob Hawke and his Cabinet celebrate their last meeing at the Cabinet Table in 1988. Included was an elaborate cake fashioned in the shape of the table complete with the names of Ministers inscribed in icing at their positions. National Archives of Australia.


FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

What is a Cabinet?

The Cabinet is a group of senior government ministers that meet to discuss the government’s policies and their implementation. Led by the prime minister, cabinet meetings are top secret to make sure that members of Cabinet can express their views freely. To maintain this level of secrecy the only people in the Cabinet Room during meetings are the cabinet ministers, public service notetakers and a trusted attendant. Records of Cabinet meetings remain confidential for 20 years, and the Cabinet notebooks for 30 years.

Where did the prime minister and deputy prime minister sit at the Cabinet table?

The prime minister sat in the centre of the side of the table furthest from the door with the deputy prime minister sitting on his right. Their chairs were no different from any of the others surrounding the table despite their important roles. Sitting opposite the main door, the face of the prime minister would have been one of the first you would see as you entered the room. Behind the prime minister was a set of reference books and Australian flags.

What happened to the old table?

The original 1926 Cabinet table was placed into storage. It was later used in the Government Party Room at Australian Parliament House by the Howard Government. The table was returned to Old Parliament House in 2008 and is currently in storage.