5 March 2019

30 years on, has self-government been worth it?

| Genevieve Jacobs
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It’s 30 years since the first ACT Legislative Assembly election. Has it all been worthwhile? File photo.

If you think politics these days is a wild affair, you weren’t in Canberra 30 years ago to the day when the ALP and Liberal Party slugged it out in the polls with the Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato Party, the Surprise Party and the Party! Party! Party! (party), and even the Abolish Self Government Party (which went on to join the new Assembly it had never wanted in the first place). There were three different governments in a matter of years and references abounded to Italian parliaments.

So 30 years on, has it all been worth it? Is Canberra better off with self-government?

Ellnor Grassby, who was elected for the ALP in the first Assembly, says bluntly that there was no choice. “They didn’t want us up on the hill, we were costing them too much money and the Federal MPs were determined to get rid of us. They just said to us ‘that’s how much money you’ve got, don’t come back asking for more’. It was sink or swim.”

Grassby credits chief ministers Rosemary Follett and later Kate Carnell with believing that the ACT could develop a functional economy. “People used to say that we couldn’t afford courts and the like, it was all going to be too hard, and self-government was a waste of time. You had to battle against that by building the economy.”

She says the first Assembly could be a fiery place, necessitating almost constant negotiation with the likes of Bernard Collaery who was deputy chief minister at the time and Dennis Stevenson from Abolish Self government, famed for sleeping in his office (Grassby once called him “Mr Hitler” in the chamber and got it into Hansard).

Former chief minister Kate Carnell was elected to the second Legislative Assembly. File photo.

Kate Carnell agrees it was tough to shift the Territory’s own mindset when there was so little Federal support or resourcing, pre GST allocations. But she dismisses outright any notion that we should turn back the clock. “Look, 30 years ago Gus was still arguing about whether he could put chairs out on the footpath,” she says.

“Fundamentally the people making the laws didn’t live here and were totally unconnected with here. The Territories ministerial portfolio was given to people on their way out or very junior people. Canberra is the national capital and it needed a government that was focused on the city, not people who were Canberra bashing in their own electorates.”

Carnell says that in addition to having no money at the start, the ACT government struggled with re-assigned Federal government staff. “I’ll get into trouble for saying this, and we had some talented public servants, but the Department of Territories didn’t necessarily move their brightest and best to the ACT,” she says.

She thinks with hindsight that wholesale adoption of the Westminster model was probably a mistake and that we should have spent more time thinking about the most efficient way to straddle the gap between state and local government, questioning whether the current system is fit for purpose.

Former MLA Bill Stefaniak says he wouldn’t have missed the Assembly’s first term for quids. File photo.

Bill Stefaniak, who was also in the first Assembly says that minority government encouraged a collaborative approach and strong committee work in the early days. “To get good legislation on the books you had to get a majority and that made for good government,” he says.

“The current assembly misses that because of the rock-solid Labor-Green coalition. We benefitted from independents who kept everyone honest and put their own views in.” While he’s rueful about the high-minded decision not to implement the old Commonwealth pensions scheme, Stefaniak thinks initiatives, like expanding the Cotter Dam and combatting Federal public service cuts, did us all good.

Carnell too is in no doubt about how much better off Canberra is for self-government. “Look at the Kingston foreshore, for example,” Carnell says. “We are starting to use the lake whereas not that long ago there was nothing. Look at the interface between ANU and Civic, the work that’s being done at the University of Canberra for accommodation and new degrees. Canberra is now a vibrant modern city with a personality of its own. The good old days were not that good. This is a much better city now.”

And as for the wild Assembly days, now long gone? Let Bill Stefaniak have the last word as one of its longest-serving members. “Oh”, he says chuckling, “I wouldn’t have missed it for quids.”

30 years on, has self-government been worthwhile for the ACT?


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Canberra ‘economy’ ‘self supporting’. What a laugh. Its all propped up by bloated federal government spending, slugging the rest of australia to pay for endless layers of ‘public servants’ in their cosy little bubble- the richest, most cossted part of Australia. Take the federal gravy train away and canberra would cease to exist- come to think of it thats not such a bad idea!

Given it was going to happen anyway, the pro’s and con’s of self government is a moot point

HiddenDragon5:58 pm 05 Mar 19

Some wise comments from Ellnor Grassby about the reason for ACT self-government (it was very much about savings for the federal Budget) and the appropriateness – or otherwise – of the model of government which was chosen.

The simple truth is, that even with high average (with the emphasis on “average” – there’s big variations around this town) household incomes, the ACT Government is probably not fiscally viable in the longer term. The current strategy, cheered on by our out and proud (Henry) George-ists, is to scrounge as much revenue as possible from land, but that is clearly already running into stiff headwinds and won’t be enough in the medium to longer term to fund the current style and scale of governance.

I recall the establishment of self-government being the time I realised how pointless and expensive government is.

We had an expensive referendum to decide whether or not the ACT should have local government, and the result from the public was an overwhelming “NO”!

But the Federal Government had already decided that we would have self -Government, so we ended up with it anyway.

So what was the point?

I was disillusioned with governments and politicians, at the age of 19. 30 years later, and things have turned out pretty much like I thought they would.

Capital planning arse-about. Narrow streets. Small blocks. Urban infill. A complete dump on the original design for Canberra, while adopting practices from states, whose urban planning stems from horse and buggy days…

Canberra is, without a doubt, the least respected capital of any nation in the western world. And this both saddens and angers me, at the same time. We, as a nation, should be proud of our capital, but somehow, Canberra is the butt of many jokes, and “Canberra-bashing” often seems like one of our national pastimes. And this is primarily due to the fact that, every once in a while, a bunch of criminals and muppets fly in to the capital, spend taxpayers money to achieve nothing, then fly back home again.

But the new always reports, “Canberra decided…”. Well I’m a proud Canberran, and I can tell you: I, and the rest the public in the Territory, didn’t decide anything today – it was decided by the criminals and muppets every eligible voter, nation wide, elected to represent them that made these decisions.

So, before you start bashing your capital, take a look at who you have elected to represent you here. They are responsible. And so are you.

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