Why the ACT is miles in front

Aug 1, 2022
Andrew Barr portrait pic
Image: Wikimedia Commons

You might not immediately see the correlation between the average Australian politician and the sportspeople who advertise the products of Nike, but the ACT Government is very much living the “Just Do It” mantra.

Under Chief Minister Andrew Barr, the Territory can list considerable nation-leading achievements, topped by its boast of being a jurisdiction already using 100 per cent renewable energy and being the first to declare a climate emergency.

As well, the ACT has:

SHIFTED from stamp duty (which cruelled many first-home hopefuls) to land tax. It’s a gradual program, running now for some time, but with barely a ripple of dissent.

ENCOURAGED the HomeGround not-for-profit real-estate agency, by supporting landlords to knock 20 per cent of market rates for lower-income renters via a generous land-tax concession.

PROTECTED pedestrians and cyclists with legislation making them “vulnerable road users” and providing more severe penalties for those at fault in accidents with them.

And the ACT is:

BANNING new internal-combustion vehicles from 2035 and targeting 80-90% of new light vehicle sales to be zero-emission vehicles by 2030.

RAISING the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.

DECRIMINALISING small amounts of commonly used illicit drugs, such as ice, heroin, cocaine and speed. Users of small amounts of illegal drugs are to be fined rather than charged. This follows the ACT legalising the personal use of cannabis in 2019.

SANCTIONING pill testing, initially at festivals (a national first in 2018) and over federal opposition, but, as of this week, via the Civic-based CanTEST Health and Drug Checking Service, Australia’s first fixed drug-checking and pill-testing site.

It’s a long, worthy and growing list, and achieved in Nike-esque fashion: it’s just been done.

Other jurisdictions are timid plodders by comparison. So how come it happens here? Has there been uproar? Blood on the streets? Rebellious march after rebellious march? Not a bit of it. Why?

The ACT has long had the highest incomes and longest educations in the nation. That combination has often been linked to a left-of-centre electoral preference and a generally progressive approach to policy.

Canberra was, broadly, a left-leaning town before self-government. Representation of any sort came only in 1949 with one seat in the House of Representatives, occupied for a term by an Independent. From 1951 to 1974, the seat was in Labor hands. From 1974, the two, and then three, Reps’ seats have been Labor-held for all but two and a bit terms (the seat of Canberra with “hard-working” John Haslem, 1975-1980; and Canberra again, under Brendan Smyth, 1995-96, after the Ros Kelly whiteboard implosion). The two Senate seats were split between Labor and Liberal from their creation in 1975 until this year, when progressive Independent David Pocock displaced Liberal Zed Seselja.

The ACT has been headed by a Labor Chief Minister for all but eight years of the 33 since self-government and those eight years included the 18 months of the unelected, ramshackle Alliance of Libs, Residents Rally and anti-self-government MLAs under Trevor Kaine that overthrew the initial Labor administration during the fabulous running bun fight that was the first ACT Legislative Assembly.

Labor has had an outright majority only once, under Jon Stanhope from 2004 to 2008. Before and after that term, it governed with Green and, early on, Democrat support until 2012 when Labor and the Greens formed a majority coalition government under Katy Gallagher, which has extended to this day and a third term for Barr.

Now there are six Greens in the parliament to Labor’s 10 MLAs and the Liberals’ nine, and three Greens ministers work alongside Labor’s six, including Greens as Attorney-General; Environment Minister and Community Services Minister. So much for the supposedly “radical Green agenda” scaring off Canberra voters.

But it’s not just the parliamentary make-up that makes this city exceptional. Look at our media. Yes, we get the oracle, Ray Hadley, here, same time as Sydney, 9am to 12 weekdays in his hectoring, know-all mode, and on the weekends doing what he does best, calling the National Rugby League.

Big rooster in Sydney. Feather-duster here.

He comes to us on 2CC, which started with a high-rating pop-music bang in the 1970s as the town’s second commercial station but which now rates way below the two FM outfits and also, critically, behind both the ABC’s local station and Radio National. In Sydney, Hadley is king, improving his ratings in Survey 3 of 2022 (Feb-May) at 2GB, which remains the ratings champion. When Ray says jump, Macquarie Street choruses, “How high?” But his power in Canberra’s suburbs is close to zilch.

Hadley, like Alan Jones and John Laws before him, feeds off the morning tabloids, principally The Daily Telegraph in his home town. The Tele is of course a News Ltd paper, as are the Courier-Mail (Brisbane), where Hadley also broadcasts each morning, the Herald-Sun (Melbourne), the Advertiser (Adelaide), the Mercury (Hobart) and the Northern Territory News.

It’s only those cave-dwellers out west and us in the ACT who don’t have a local News Ltd paper, though we all share in Mr Murdoch’s once-great flagship, The Australian, which for some time now has been sadly listing to starboard.

Could the absence here of a state-based, fiercely parochial and firmly redneck tabloid have something to do with fostering an environment that allows progressive legislation to flourish? I think it could. The Canberra Times, for whom I admit previously committing journalism, has always been seen as balanced and fair in its news columns, if broadly left of centre in the editorial, while still being fiercely parochial. It was an advocate of self-government for decades before it was achieved in 1989 and continues to present both sides of big local issues, like the cost v efficacy of trams, the reach of the National Capital Authority, the placement and cost of sporting stadia and planning issues generally.

Maybe it’s because we’re small and the rest of the country can pass us off as that eccentric uncle who does all the party tricks.

Maybe it’s those incomes and educations, to say nothing of the thousands of well-informed people who work in the business that is the federal government.

Or maybe it’s just because its’s cold in winter.

Alexander Oliver, commissioner into the siting of the federal capital, spent 11 months outdoors investigating potential capitals. He insisted that the new, ideal city must arise somewhere with a “bracing climate” which would see its citizens’ physiques improved and “their faculties and energies raised to a higher pitch of usefulness”.

Maybe our ACT Government trend-setters could borrow from the prescriptive Oliver as they urge their interstate colleagues to take up their lead. Or perhaps the gentle approach of Coleridge will work best: “Advice is like the snow. The softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon and the deeper it sinks into the mind.”

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