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

Genevieve Jacobs 5 March 2019 63

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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63 Responses to 30 years on, has self-government been worth it?
Mike Cairns Mike Cairns 10:36 am 06 Mar 19

Born and bred Canberran, yes indeed in my 50s now, lived in other cities both in Oz and OS (currently watching from afar in Zurich). Watched this train wreck from the very start. We needed the infrastructure of a typical local council. Instead we got a full blown Westminster system. Stupidest idea ever.

John Smith John Smith 1:12 am 06 Mar 19

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!

Wing Nut Wing Nut 9:03 pm 05 Mar 19

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

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 5:58 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.

Elizabeth Ann Thurbon Elizabeth Ann Thurbon 8:46 am 05 Mar 19

I am a born and bred old Canberran and I love this town. I’m pleased we have a say in who governs this beautiful place.

Jeff Brewer Jeff Brewer 7:30 am 05 Mar 19

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.

Michael Drew Michael Drew 6:24 am 05 Mar 19

One thing the local government has been very successful in is revenue raising well beyond the CPI.

Karen Baldwin Karen Baldwin 6:03 am 05 Mar 19

Now we live in Geoconberra 🙄

Douglas Roth Douglas Roth 2:51 am 05 Mar 19

No, because I never got to vote for the Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato Party, as I was just shy of voting age or couldn't register or something. That's all I wanted to do with elections at that point, besides the fact, that someone had graffitied "Don't vote, it only encourages them" at our local shops for local people: no one ever bothered to clean it up at all. It could have been there for ten years or more.

Jim Jim Jim Jim 11:23 pm 04 Mar 19

No...we had fireworks back then.

Laurie Byron Laurie Byron 10:12 pm 04 Mar 19

Do you remember this. And didn't one of the No Self Government candidates end up being part of the First ACT Government. https://static.ffx.io/images/$width_1024/t_resize_width/q_86%2Cf_auto/2566e44d381d2d3ddad1007b1a5b4c1397053a1b

Jason Ad Nauseum Jason Ad Nauseum 10:05 pm 04 Mar 19

Oh no the world developed around me.

Judith White Judith White 10:02 pm 04 Mar 19

I don't know why we need 26 representatives for 500,000 citizens and so many apartment blocks look like slum areas - not to mention the horrible narrow streets in Gungahlin. The place has become Hawke's multi-function polis where people come to work, and leave to retire !

Hamish Lardi Hamish Lardi 9:58 pm 04 Mar 19

Daniel Bryan thoughts?

Stan Vizovitis Stan Vizovitis 9:50 pm 04 Mar 19

Overpaid over governed a city council could do a better job for its residents

Nat John Nat John 9:47 pm 04 Mar 19


Dee Sharpe Dee Sharpe 9:37 pm 04 Mar 19

NCDC did a pretty good job, in my opinion.

Rob Chalmers Rob Chalmers 8:40 pm 04 Mar 19

Voting for No self government was a waste of time,that was effectively saying Canberrans are to stupid to look after there own affairs. I didn't want to live in an autocracy. Maybe things would be better now if we had stopped throwing ourselves on the ground like a 2 year old chucking a tantrum over self government.

Keran Niquet Keran Niquet 8:28 pm 04 Mar 19

Absolutely NOT!

Mark Dando Mark Dando 8:26 pm 04 Mar 19

Commentators here sound like a bunch of 50 somethings still bitter they were forced off the federal teat 30 years ago.

    Amanda Evans Amanda Evans 8:36 pm 04 Mar 19

    Mark Dando probably does sound like that but

    after WW2 and in the years leading up to self government, it was a beautiful carefree city and had a strong community made up mostly of people who had taken the plunge to move here from our other 'big' cities where life wasnt always a lot of fun. Perhaps this is why so many people get upset when they see these iconic places being replaced by everyday run of the mill buildings and suburbs. People were invested in the idea of a young capital with modern and unprecedented planning ideas, designs and lifestyle. I guess people felt like and in fact were the pioneers of a great experiment.

    Mark Dando Mark Dando 9:52 pm 04 Mar 19

    Amanda, yes but in many ways a failed experiment. BTW, can you give me some examples of the iconic places that have been replaced? Seriously, apart from the Capital cinema in Manuka the only buildings I can think of are some motor dealerships and workshops in Braddon - and of course all those beautiful asphalt car parks that used to surround the Monaro Mall. I'm not old enough to remember what it was like after WW2, but when I grew up here in the 60s and 70s Canberra was dull and lifeless, really just a dusty collection of suburbs in search of a city, lacking even the connectedness and civic amenity of a small country city. Along with most of my age group, I left. Like any group of exiles, people forced to live here made the most of it and formed some strong communities, but if you had any aspirations beyond that of the public service you had to move. If I remember correctly you couldn't even study medicine, engineering or architecture let alone pursue any creative path. Planning was dictated by the unaccountable commissars of the National Capital Development Commission, inspired by a strange mix of the post-war English new town movement (with its landscaping totally unsuited to our climate and soils) and modernists in love with Los Angeles (dinky freeways and mini-cloverleaves - why would anyone need public transport, let alone walk or cycle - just look at the space available for pedestrians and cyclists on Commonwealth and Kings ave bridges). City administration was by repressed bureaucrats (no eating outside and no front fences). In the 1990s Canberra was accurately described by my perceptive son as a 1970s-era dustbowl. I started to come back regularly for work over the past couple of decades, and ended up liking the emerging urban Canberra so much I decided to make a base here.

    Mark Valerius Mark Valerius 10:43 pm 04 Mar 19

    Mark, I’ve lived here for 52 years and I agree with everything you wrote. The city has evolved.

    Dean Gallegos Dean Gallegos 10:31 pm 06 Mar 19

    Mark Dando my sisters and I were born and grew up in Canberra in 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Unusually during that time my Dad always worked in the private sector mostly for NASA during the moon landings and later US computer companies. My parents, after living there for 20 years, made the decision to move the whole family out of Canberra in 1986 and I can remember him saying “you kids wouldn’t know an opportunity if it slapped you in the face”. It was a nanny state, everything was laid on like a Whitlam utopian society. I’ve probably visited maybe 6 times since then, the last time about 12 years ago and I can remember that the Civic area was downright depressing. I’m going back again in July so it will be interesting if anything has changed.

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