Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: ACT Politics

20 years on

20 years ago today the Australian Capital Territory obtained self-government. This move came despite the people voting in 1978 overwhelmingly (65%) against. Despite the “benevolent dictatorship” of federal government rule, most Canberran’s had (and maintain) a fond view of the bureaucrat run administration of the capital. Indeed, in the first election 4 (of 17) candidates from the ‘No-Self-Government’ party were elected.
Of course, with Hawke declaring there was ‘no turning back’ and the old adage of ‘a government power unearned is never returned’, the ACT’s path to self-government was set. Most notable of the early days however, was the election of Rosmary Follett as the first woman to lead a state or territory in Australia. In that regards the ACT has always been the most progressive of constituencies in the country. This is not surprising if you examine the demographics of Canberra (via Possums Graph look at the Federal seats of Fraser which covers the north of the city, and Canberra which covers the south). The ACT has led the way in the country on issues such as Euthanasia, the Republic, Injecting rooms, and civil unions. All to be knocked back by the Federal Government under its constitutional power (Article 52) for control ‘over the seat of government’.

For that reason it is very very welcome to see the 5th Chief Minister to use this 20th anniversary to demand that the Federal Government make good on its pledge for ACT self-government:

Mr Stanhope says the Federal Government promised to give ACT residents the same democratic rights as other Australians but it has not delivered.
“Over the past 20 years we have come to understand this is not entirely so,” he said.
The Commonwealth has over-ruled the Assembly on issues such as civil unions.
Mr Stanhope says he will write to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd asking him to review the Self-Government Act and federal veto powers.
“Perhaps this anniversary is an opportunity to join with the Commonwealth with a review of the self-government act, to see if it serves this community as well as it might, to see if it is equal to our maturing needs as we hit our 20s and 30s,” he said.
ACT Opposition Leader Zed Seselja says it is the right time for a debate on the act.
“There are no doubt a number of provisions within it are archaic,” he said.

The bipartisan nature of the support for this is indicative of the broad community support. Whatever public views here in the ACT about such progressive moves, the entire community was united in its outrage and anger at the Federal Governments interventions in ACT affairs. The ACT is not just subject to a federal government veto, it also faces the bureaucratic interfearing via the National Capital Authority which regularly proposes schemes that indicate none of their members actually live in the city, such as Lake side Winter Night Time markets (As I write this in calm May evening, the temperature is about 4 degrees). But whilst such schemes are easily ridiculed, more insidious were the contest over Pierces Creek, where the NCA prevented the ACT Government rebuilding homes destroyed in the 2005 bush fires, under the most extensive of interpretations of their powers.

Yet for residents of the ACT, the problem doesn’t just stop with the gross restrictions on the ACT’s ability to government its own territory, for Canberran residents are also the least represented citizens in the country. In the House of Representatives, the Senate and at Referendums. In the HOR :The Seats of Canberra and Fraser are some of the largest in the country in population size (With 122’000 and 116’000 respectively) when the AEC tries to maintain all electorates at a much lower level. Indeed the NT with 200’000 citizens gets 2 seats, the ACT with 325’000 also gets 2 seats, and Tasmania with 480’000 gets 5 seats.
A similar pattern (though even more disadvantageous!) occurs in the Federal Senate with the ACT gaining only 2 senators for our population, with Tasmania and all other States enjoying 7 senators. This in a house which is held up around the world as a landmark in proportional representation.

Finally, when it comes to Federal Referendums, residents of the ACT are given only a half vote. A referendum needs to pass a majority of states, and a majority of australian citizens to be made law. Yet votes from the ACT are not counted as representing an area in their own right, and only contribute to the overall majority. As such the ACT’s overwhelming support for a Republic is often ignored by critics and supporters. Well over 240’000 Australians living in the ACT voted for a republic, yet their votes did not essentially count, for sheer virtue of where they live. The country may well complain about “bloody canberra” imposing legislation on them, but in truth, we of the ACT are the least represented people in the country.

Yet, as was regularly remarked on recently with the opening of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House (Conflict of Interest Declaration: I was a contractor helping with some of the exhibits), Australian democracy is egalitarian, pragmatic and ultimately has been very successful in delivering government of the people, by the people and largely for the people. The ACT election, from its initial popular rejection, and unstable minority governments, to the short lived experiment with majority rule, and all the bumps, bruises and high spots in between has proven again the resilience of democracy within the Australian Community. Much like the Australian democratic story writ large, it may have been foistered on us by a government wanting us off their balance sheets, but we’ll be damned if we let them interfere with it anymore.

Praise however, belongs with all those who stood for election, and or won a seat in the chamber. None have escaped personal criticism, few have gained great reputation or future success out of their membership (only Liberal Senator and former Chief Minister Garry Humphries has bucked the trend), and yet all deserve our heart felt thanks for their collective efforts and wisdom. The experiment with self-government in the ACT has proven a great success, now if only the federalies would let us get on with actually running ourselves.

(And sadly this post is my first on the ACT in 5 months. Given the lack of ACT Bloggers (save the indefatigable Johnboy at RiotACT), this needs to change. Much more to come soon. Promise.)