Canberra's Centenary, and the Case for a Bigger ACT Assembly

I spoke today on a bill to give the ACT Assembly the power to set its own size.
Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Amendment Bill, 12 March 2013

It is a pleasure to rise to speak on the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Amendment Bill 2013 today, the 100th birthday of Canberra. This morning we had a re-enactment out the front of Parliament House of the ceremony of the laying of the foundation stone. I have here the program for that ceremony, which was held on 12 March 1913. Today's ceremony aimed to shadow that historic ceremony of 1913, when sheep greatly outnumbered the residents of Canberra. The ceremony this morning acknowledged the rich history of Canberra—not only the political heritage but also the social tapestry of the city. I was very pleased today to hear the member for Stirling speak so warmly of the city that I have the honour to represent in the federal parliament.

Walter Burley Griffin said that he was designing a city for a nation of ‘bold democrats’. To borrow a phrase from Seamus Heaney, I have always thought of Canberra as being the kind of place where hope and history rhyme. In the centenary celebrations, Canberra has been given an opportunity to celebrate but also to remember much of our history. Historian David Headon has produced a series of centenary booklets and centenary director Robyn Archer has made sure that history has been interwoven into the celebrations.

We have also taken the opportunity to invest in the city of Canberra. The Australian government has contributed $20 million to the development of a visitors centre, a children's play space, ceremonial gardens, an events pavilion and an events terrace at the National Arboretum. In building the National Arboretum, we really are reaching out to the generations to come, because arboretums often involve planting saplings that will only become great trees once we have shuffled off this mortal coil.

There is also an opportunity for communities to come together. One of my regrets about today is that I am missing out on the street parties that are being held throughout my electorate. The parties in Lyneham and Hackett in particular are ones that I would have looked forward to attending. They are in fact going on at this very moment. They are bringing together communities to have a bit of fun and enjoy their history.

One of my contributions to the celebrations has been through the celebrity suburb name competition, which involves thinking about who or what your suburb might have been named after if you had particularly wicked ancestors. For example, Cook might have been named after Master Chef, Dunlop after tyres, Latham after Mark Latham, Reid after Chopper Reid, Russell after Russell Crowe and of course Scullin after the Oarsome Foursome.

This is an extraordinary city to live in and to represent. Ours is the bush capital, where you can look up and see hills from inside a shopping centre. There are plenty of cockatoos and magpies and, yes, even galahs. When the scoping party visited Canberra in August 1906, a newspaper reported wrote: 'A deep breath of the air is like a draft of champagne.'

Federal parliamentarian King O'Malley turned Canberra's chilly climes to his advantage by saying: ‘I want us to have a climate where men can hope. We cannot have hope in hot countries.’ A sentiment, I am sure, thought of by many a pub-goer to King O'Malley's Irish Pub in Civic on a cold winter's night.

Canberra is Australia's sporting capital. We have the Australian Institute of Sport and a plethora of great sporting teams—the Comets, the Brumbies, the Raiders, the Capitals, Cavalry, Strikers, Knights, Lakers and GWS. But we also play more sport than people in other parts of Australia. Four out of 10 Canberrans play an organised sport compared with three out of 10 for the rest of Australia.

Canberra is Australia's ideas capital. Wi-fi was invented at CSIRO. Our most recent Nobel laureate is Brian Schmidt, the ANU researcher who won a Nobel Prize for his research on the expanding universe. We also have ideas generated by the public servants, such as HECS, Medicare, universal superannuation and plain packaging. We have social entrepreneurs in Canberra who are inspirational for the rest of the country.

We are also the country's history capital. We are not the oldest city in Australia but we are the only capital city in Australia named after the traditional owners rather than one of the white interlopers. All around us the nation's history is the local geography for Canberra—suburbs from Deakin to Curtin, Scullin to Chifley. In fact, the only one you feel sorry for is Prime Minister Gorton, the only Prime Minister to make Canberra his home after retirement but who missed having a suburb named after himself because the planners wanted to avoid confusion with 'Gordon'.

We are also Australia's social capital. Walter Burley Griffin wanted ours to be a community with 'great democratic civic ideals', and I think he would be pleased to know that Canberrans are more likely to volunteer than people in other parts of Australia and more likely to donate money to a charity. They are more likely to trust others and to join community organisations. Part of that is not just the fact that Canberrans are, on average, a touch better educated and a touch more affluent than the rest of Australia, because even when you compare like with like you see that Canberrans are more civically engaged than people of similar demographics. I think it is something to do with the urban design—the fact that in Canberra you do not have to burn a litre of petrol to buy a litre of milk; that you can live in the suburbs but walk to local shops. That means, for example, that a Sydneysider with a full-time job spends 13 days a year commuting—13 24-hour days just sitting in the car. A Canberran with a full-time job spends eight days a year commuting. That is an extra five days a year to spend with friends and family, playing an organised sport or getting involved with family and the community.

That is not to say that we should not work to improve Canberra. I do commend the member for Stirling for his bipartisan support for this bill. This bill is a recognition of the work that is being done by ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher appointing an expert reference group to review the size of the ACT Legislative Assembly. That expert reference group comprised ACT Electoral Commissioner Philip Green, who is the chair; Anne Cahill Lambert; Meredith Edwards; John Hindmarsh; and Louise Taylor. This expert review will look at the number of electorates and the number of members per electorate.

I have put a submission into that inquiry because I believe that it is important first and foremost that the assembly be able to set its size, as state parliaments can already do. The ACT assembly, now into its third decade, has proved itself the decision-making equal of any other parliament in Australia and I believe ought to be able to set its own size.

The workload of ACT parliamentarians is significant indeed. A standard rule for the size of an assembly body, if you look across parliaments around the world, is an assembly size of about the cube root of the population it represents. So, for example, if you take Australia's population—23 million—the cube root of 23 million is 284, not far off the 226 members of the Australian parliament. If you take New South Wales, for example, the population is seven million. The cube root of seven million is 191 and the New South Wales parliament has 135 representatives—in the ballpark of what the cube root rule would lead you to expect.

But if you apply that to the ACT's population—375,000—you get an assembly size of 72, four times larger than the current assembly. Put another way, you can ask the question: 'If you had an assembly of 17 people, what population size should it represent?' The answer is about 5,000 people, about the population of Palmerston, one of the suburbs in my electorate.

That may sound ridiculous, but if you look to Norfolk Island, for example, it has a nine-member assembly serving 2,000 people; Wreck Bay in my own electorate, with a population of 200, has a community council of nine people. So the ACT assembly is almost uniquely small for the workload that it deals with. Its current 17 MLAs are particularly hard working. I would particularly acknowledge the numerous mobile offices run by Chris Bourke, Mary Porter, Mick Gentleman and Joy Burch; the doorknocking work of Yvette Berry; and the hectic public speaking schedules of Katy Gallagher, Simon Corbell and Andrew Barr.

It is tough to be an MLA in the ACT for two reasons. The first is that the number of people they must represent is large. The second is the number of issues are vast, because there is no local council here, unlike, say, the Northern Territory or Tasmania. The work of the assembly ranges from everything from schools to garbage collection. The result of having a 17-member assembly is that government members who are in the ministry can hold between four and six ministries. These are exceptionally high workloads and they are replicated among the shadow ministers.

It is also worth pointing out that not only does the assembly represent a very large number of people for its size but that it is also true of federal electorates. My own electorate of Fraser now has 131,698 people on the electoral roll. That is either the largest or the second largest of any of the 150 members in the House of Representatives. At the last federal election the average number of electors per electorate was 94,000. But at current rates of population growth it does not look as though the ACT will receive a third seat in the House of Representatives. That then expands the workload on the ACT's House of Representatives members. We deal with a considerable number of local queries and I believe that the representation of the ACT population would be improved were we to have a larger assembly.

The assembly size is for the assembly, but my own view is that increasingly the assembly to 25 MLAs—five electorates each returning five members—is the minimum that ought to be considered. That would be is still well below the ratio of members per population that other states and territories have. In fact, it would only provide a level of representation comparable to 1989, when the Territory first attained self-government. I do think that the Territory, were it to go to only 25 members, should do so in conjunction with a commitment to steadily increase the assembly size as the population of the ACT grows. I think that would be appropriate, given the extremely large workload of the assembly.

So while I commend my assembly colleagues on the hard work, I do hope that there will be bipartisan support for this. I was very pleased to hear the member for Stirling speaking of the federal coalition's bipartisan support. But I am aware that there are always temptation to play politics with this. I can see the temptation that the ACT Liberals may face, where they decide that they can run some sort of cheap, populist line of saying that they are going to vote against extra politicians. While it might be in their immediate political interest, it would not be in the long-term interests of the ACT, and I do urge them to place those long-term interests first.

In closing, I make mention of a great Canberran, CEO of the ACT and Region Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chris Peters. Chris passed away on 27 February this year. He had a ready smile, a generosity of spirit and a willingness to engage in public debates on matters large and small in the ACT. His commitment to building this great city, I think, will live on beyond him. He is known as a great advocate for business in Canberra, and having great advocates for business—as I know the member for Canberra is and as am I—is so important to ensuring that this diverse city does well in its second century.

I commend the bill to the House.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.