Canberra is the Best City in Australia

My speech at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas is over the fold.

Canberra is the Best City in Australia


Andrew Leigh
Member for Fraser


Festival of Dangerous Ideas
Sydney Opera House
3 October 2010

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today.

Coming to Sydney to sing the praises of Canberra, I feel a bit like recruiters for the First Fleet must have felt when telling Londoners about the wonders of Australia. Your streets may be a little crowded at times, but the notion that a paradise lies southward is just too fabulous to be believed.

Indeed, I recognise that for some Sydneysiders, the only way you’d contemplate a move to Canberra is in leg irons. We’d love to welcome you into our city, but I hope that even if you end this talk unpersuaded to pack the car and drive on down the M5, you’ll take away from my talk a few ideas about ‘the Canberra model’, and how the rest of Australia can learn a few lessons from the way we run a city.

First Impressions

First, a confession. I wasn’t born in Canberra. I was born in King George V Hospital in Newtown, less than 10 kilometres from where we are now in the Sydney Opera House. As the child of academics who worked on south east Asia, I grew up variously in Sarawak, Melbourne, Jakarta and Banda Aceh.

But the largest part of my schooling was in Sydney, and like many Sydney school children, I visited Canberra every two years or so. My memories of the trips are dominated more by the journey than the destination. Cool kids on the back seat, nerds up the front. Endless games of ‘truth, dare, double-dare, torture, kiss or promise’. And the time a boy in my class overslept and his mother followed the school coach down the Hume Highway, tooting until it finally pulled over around the Big Merino, and he sheepishly stepped on board.

My first serious impressions of Canberra came when I moved to the city in 1997, to work as an associate for Justice Michael Kirby. It was a Sunday afternoon, and it was my 25th birthday. Having just graduated in law, I couldn’t imagine a more exciting job to be starting, so I turned the music up and accelerated down the highway. It wasn’t until the blue lights began flashing in the rear vision mirror that I realised what I’d done. When the officer came to the window, I was still too stunned to say the one thing that might have gotten me off ‘You know – it’s my birthday today.’ I still wonder whether he chuckled as he wrote 3 August onto both the birthday and date fields of the speeding ticket. It’s the last time I’ve been fined for speeding.

Arriving in Canberra, the first thing that strikes you is that even as it approaches its centenary, the city remains a ‘bush capital’. As you drive over the hill approaching Canberra, you see… well, let me quote from a newspaper report that accompanied the 1906 scoping party to choose a national capital.

‘In a district of fine landscapes, Canberra is one of the most picturesque of spots and presented a charming spectacle this morning under the sun from an unclouded sky. It was a clear, frosty morning, such as can be enjoyed at these high altitudes, where a deep breath of the air is like a draft of champagne. Canberra, which lies below Mount Ainslie, and about 200 miles from Sydney, is 2000 feet above sea level... the visitors caught sight from a high ridge of a beautiful panorama – an extensive plain ... the white homestead of Duntroon, nestling beneath a hill whose green dome contrasted in a striking degree with the higher and rugged peaks behind, and the rich blue of the mountain ranges still further off, with their tops of snow’

In the century since that passage was written, the decision not to allow development on the mountains that ring the city means that many of the 357,000 people who live in Canberra can look up from a suburban street and see a hill covered in gum trees. It also means that Canberra is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with pairs of rosellas and king parrots, not to mention squadrons of cockatoos and galahs. And if you get through Spring without being dive-bombed by a magpie, you’re doing well.

But when I first arrived in Canberra as a ‘cosmopolitan’ Sydneysider, I wasn’t going to let a little thing like natural beauty seduce me. I’d heard all the jokes about Canberra: ‘they spoiled a perfectly good sheep station’, ‘a cemetery with lights’, ‘best viewed out the window of a departing airplane’. After watching a promotional video about the city, Bill Bryson suggested renaming the campaign: ‘Canberra - Why Wait for Death?’. Responding to a ‘Live in Canberra’ campaign, NSW premier Morris Iemma called our city ‘Six suburbs in search of a soul’.

And there are a few jokes that Canberra adds to the mix. We do have an astounding number of roundabouts. And as you come down Northbourne Avenue into the city, there really is a sign that reads ‘City Centre’. Brothels are legal, regulated, and restricted in their location, which means that many end up in the light industrial suburb of Fyshwick.

But despite its quirks, a funny thing happened over my first few months living in the city. I began to like Canberra. Working as associate to Justice Michael Kirby at the High Court, I loved my job, and I realised that if you want to put in long hours and catch up with your friends, it helps to be in a place with fabulous restaurants and near-zero commuting time. I rollerbladed around Lake Burley Griffin, mountain-biked on Mount Majura, and popped off for day-trips to the nearby ski-fields.

One day, I was working on some legal research on the 9th floor of the High Court, while the annual hot air balloon festival was taking place on Reconciliation Place, which is right next to the High Court. Much as I tried to concentrate on the Commonwealth Law Reports, it was difficult to keep focus as inflatable bottles, kookaburras and koalas floated past. Eventually, I gave up trying to read the law reports, and watched as the balloon pilots took it in turn to drift down towards the mist-covered lake, firing up the burners just as the basket touched the surface, and leaving a line of ripples on the water as the balloon soared up again.

Choosing Canberra

When Canberra turns on its charm and offers that perfect day where the sun shines, the water glistens and the temperature isn’t too cold nor too hot, it’s easy to see how the city charmed the Federal Parliamentarians who visited in 1906 and 1907 on their tour of potential sites for the new nation’s capital. Federal politician King O’Malley once of the decision about where to site Australia’s national capital ‘I want us to have a climate where men can hope. We cannot have hope in hot countries.’

It is often said that success comes from a lot of hard work and a bit of luck. Reflecting on the cities which could have become the seat of government, Canberra had plenty of luck. At the outset, the city wasn’t the preferred location of either the media or the politicians. But for the perfect Canberra day on 13 August 1906 and then again on 23 August 1907, the parochial interests of a Premier and the change of heart and vote by a Victorian Senator, our nation’s capital could have been somewhere entirely different.

On the banks of the Snowy River, 50 kilometres south-west of Cooma, lies the town of Dalgety. With one pub and 75 residents, you’d hardly know that the town was named in the 1904 Seat of Government Act as the location of the new federal parliament. But state and local interest collided with the desires of national leaders. Dalgety was located in the electorate of the then Home Affairs Minister Sir William Lyne.  Keeping with the traditions of Macquarie Street NSW Premier Joseph Carruthers refused to cede the town to the Federal Government believing Dalgety to be too close to Victoria. Carruthers valiantly declared Tumut, Yass or Lyndhurst as the only sites for the national capital. By coincidence, all three towns happened to be in the Premier’s electorate.

Dalgety remained the favourite of Victorian and Western Australian senators who made numerous attempts to have it reinstated as the site for the capital. But Carruthers’ determination to act in the interests of New South Wales was such that he threatened to take the Federal Government to the new High Court for trespass should any survey pegs be driven into the ground.

Eventually, the Dalgety-backers gave up, and by 1907, there was a growing consensus that the site of the capital should be located somewhere within the triangle formed between the towns of Goulburn, Yass and Queanbeyan. With the trout-fishing contingent now having shifted their support to Tumut, the decision came down to Canberra versus Tumut. In December 1907, the House of Representatives voted 39 to 33 in favour of Canberra. But in the Senate, Canberra and Tumut were tied with 18 votes apiece.

Canberra owes its status to a Melbournian who believed the future lay in agriculture and mining.  Anti-Socialist Senator James McColl changed his vote and backed Canberra. Then, like now, the numbers in Australian politics were finely balanced. But the new Labor government of Andrew Fisher showed that a close vote doesn’t stop you moving forward (sorry, couldn’t resist). A decision was finally made to select Canberra as the national capital.

Besides its unique history, Canberra was also ahead of its time in terms of its planning. In a male-dominated era, the city can boast the influence of a woman’s contribution in its visioning. Modern Canberra was designed by a couple who had never visited Australia, much less Canberra itself. A colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Burley Griffin heard about the Australian government’s competition to design the national capital while on honeymoon with his wife Marion in 1911. Although it was Walter’s name that headed the entry, theirs was very much a collaborative effort. Without Marion’s elegant drawings, it is unlikely that Walter’s design would have grabbed the judges, and lifted it above the other 136 entries in the competition. Walter and Marion should be regarded as co-contributors to the design of Canberra.

Walter Griffin is said to have vowed to enter only one international design competition in his career, and the couple gave the Canberra plan his all. The Griffins’ ideas were ahead of their time. They embraced what was the then new science of town planning.  They were enthused by the Federal Government’s decision to make the land leasehold, rather than freehold.

Writing to the Australian Government, Walter Griffin lamented that the grant of freehold land had caused speculative holdings which had perverted the development of Washington DC. He believed that whoever owned land had influence and control over governments.

Walter Griffin considered that a city’s architecture, landscape and town planning ought to be integrated into a humanised and romantic environment. For a city to flourish Griffin believed it needed a community with ‘great democratic civic ideals’. He wanted our capital to be a place where citizens enjoyed a high quality of life based on ‘egalitarian legislation, genuine public spirit and organic scientific cities’. Speaking in Minneapolis in 1912, he told the audience:

‘We can all be interested in the Australian Federal Capital city not so much for what it is now or will be necessarily, but because of what it stands for; as an opportunity, the best, I believe, so far afforded for an expression of the democratic civic ideal and for all that means in accessibility, freedom, wealth, comfort, conveniences, scale and splendour’

Griffin in 1913 was appointed as the Director of Design and Construction of the capital and famously drew up the contract himself. The terms placed effective control of the project in Griffin’s hands and were humiliating to public officials, in particular to the head of the Department of Home Affairs and the Director General of Commonwealth Works.

Yet despite the lull in construction that occurred during World War I, the results were superb. Looking around at the building we are meeting in today, I wonder whether this great Sydney Opera House would have been even closer to its creator’s vision if Jørn Utzon had had Walter Burley Griffin’s contract negotiating skills.

The Griffin vision may live on in the city but the city’s success has also been due to the Prime Ministers who have called Canberra home. Andrew Fisher recognised the need for Canberra to have an art collection that befitted a national capital. Joseph Lyons laid the foundation stones for the National Library, saying:

‘for a young country like Australia, cut off by distance from direct and intimate contact with the progress and thought of older and more experienced nations, there was a greater need for the gathering into the National Library the greatest amount of literature and material possible’

A generation later, Ben Chifley saw the passing of the Australian National University Act, establishing the basis for what was to become one of Australia’s greatest universities.

Other Prime Ministers saw different virtues in Canberra. John Curtin liked it because he felt less vulnerable to those pressing special interests upon him.

The Country Party’s Earle Page, though only Prime Minister for three weeks, helped Canberra in a very practical way. Faced with a Canberra-bashing West Australian member of Parliament, Page induced him to visit for a weekend, whereupon he took the man trout fishing one night (he caught three large ones), hare shooting the next morning, and quail shooting in the afternoon. Henceforth, Page records, the West Australian parliamentarian became a Canberra enthusiast.

For Canberrans, the nation’s history is our local geography, with suburbs named after the great nation-builders, from Deakin to Curtin, Scullin to Chifley. On this front, you can’t help but feel sorry for Gorton, the only former Prime Minister to make his home in Canberra after retirement. The powers-that-be decided not to name a suburb after him because of fear that Canberrans would confuse it with the already-gazetted Gordon.

Speaking of names, I can’t help pointing out that Canberra is the only Australian capital city named by its Indigenous people rather than the white interlopers

Prior to white settlement, Canberra was best known by the local Indigenous people as the place where they held corroborees and feasted on bogong moths. White settlement began in the 1820s, when Joshua John Moore established a homestead on the Acton peninsula, where the National Museum and the ANU now stand. He called it ‘Canberry’, which he understood to mean  ‘meeting place’ in the Ngunnawal language. Newspaper proprietor John Gale claimed that actually the word meant something else. He argued that because of the prominence of Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain, the word Canberra meant ‘women’s breasts’.

As a politician in the present environment, it would be unwise of me to call either a farmer or a newspaper proprietor a liar. So I’ll leave it to others to judge the historical truth. But either way, it’s got to be better to let your traditional owners name your city than to name it after a bloke who lived on the other side of the world and inherited his title from his dad. Lord Sydney, Lord Melbourne, and Lord Hobart, I’m talking about you.

In his History of Australia, Manning Clark wrote of Lord Sydney that ‘Mr Thomas Townshend, commonly denominated Tommy Townshend, owed his political career to a very independent fortune and a considerable parliamentary interest, which contributed to his personal no less than his political elevation, for his abilities, though respectable, scarcely rose above mediocrity.’

Lord Hobart was a Tory who purchased his way into politics, representing one of the famous ‘rotten boroughs’ as the member for Bramber in the UK House of Commons.

And then there’s the Lord Melbourne. After his wife had an affair with Lord Byron, Melbourne famously referred to the poet as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Yet there was nothing safe about knowing Lord Melbourne. As British historian Boyd Hilton wrote ‘it is irrefutable that Melbourne’s personal life was problematic. Spanking sessions with aristocratic ladies were harmless, not so the whippings administered to orphan girls taken into his household as objects of charity.’

Admittedly, Canberra has its own ties to the darker side of life. One of our great bars is Tilley’s café, located in Lyneham in the inner north. Founded as a women’s space in 1984, the café originally operated on the rule that men could only enter if accompanied by a woman. The space quickly became popular as a lesbian venue, and as a live music venue, hosting everyone from Missy Higgins to Luka Bloom. Tilley’s was named after Matilda ‘Tilly’ Devine, the Sydney brothel madam who made her money from visiting US servicemen during World War II, and who was known for her utter ruthlessness in dealing with her rivals, including fellow Sydney madam Kate Leigh (no relation, so far as I’m aware). The NSW press may have called Tilley ‘the Worst Woman in Sydney’, but she’s now been immortalised in one of my favourite Canberra bars.

Australia’s Most Liveable City

But the seedy side of life feels far away most of the time in Canberra. Our home is in Hackett, a 10-minute drive from the city centre, and a 5-minute walk from the base of Mount Majura. When international guests come to visit, we’ll often pick them up from the airport (15 minutes away), then take them up for a walk to Mount Majura. The suburb is designed with walkers in mind, so footpaths conveniently allow us to cut through the streets and make our way up to the bush reserve. If we time it around dusk, the rosellas will swoop over our heads, the kookaburras will be letting out their belly laughs, and the kangaroos will be coming down to the edge of the reserve to graze on the thicker grass. After seeing the wildlife, we’ll probably stroll down to Wilbur’s, our new local café in the Hackett shops, which serves macchiatos and muesli in the morning, before switching in the afternoon to Coopers and gourmet pizza. The café is run by the three sons of James Savoulidis, a Greek entrepreneur who opened the first pizzeria in Canberra in 1966, and taught Gough Whitlam to dance the Zorba a few years later.

If we wanted different cuisine, we could easily enjoy terrific Ethiopian in Dickson, fabulous Chinese in Campbell, delicious Vietnamese in Griffith, or great Turkish in Barton. Or for that matter, we could pick up some fresh-baked pastries at Cornucopia or Silo, and have a picnic on Aspen Island in Lake Burley Griffin, at the foot of the National Carillion. If it’s a weekend, we might take the visitors to our favourite wood-carver at the Kingston Bus Depot markets, to the local farmers’ market at Exhibition Park, or to the Trash and Treasure market that the local Rotary Club have been running at Jamison since the 1970s.

We have a significant migrant base – not to mention nearly 80 embassies and High Commissions. I won’t pretend the city is free of racism, but I can’t imagine a race riot ever taking place on its streets. Canberrans are tolerant on other dimensions too. Canberrans wanting to worship can choose from Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Reformed, New Life, Christian Life Centre and Uniting Churches.

You can pray with the Salvation Army or at the Baha’i temple, the Synagogue, the Mosque, the Tibetan temples, the Hindu temples and the Buddhist temples.  If orthodoxy is more to your liking, there are Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Macedonian Orthodox Churches to choose from. Yet I’ve never heard a murmur from my churchgoing friends about the fact that the local ABC radio station uses the frequency 666, and most people seem quite relaxed about the group of witches that are said to gather on the slopes of Mount Ainslie.

Social Capital

There are many reasons to love Canberra, but the number one reason is its social connectedness. Since time immemorial, people have enjoyed the simple pleasure of sharing time with friends and neighbours; of working collectively together in clubs, groups and associations; of strengthening the social ties that bind us together as a people.

In this speech, I will refer to these ties as ‘social capital’, by which I mean the networks of trust and reciprocity that link multiple individuals together. These bonds exist between two friends who meet on Friday night for a beer. Such networks link together the members of a local cricket team, who know that trusting teams win more games. And social capital joins together co-workers, who find that working together gets the job done faster.

Social capital is the idea that the ties that bind us together have a value in themselves. The other main types of capital are physical capital – such as machines and roads, and human capital – such as knowledge and skills. Social capital is a bit controversial in some circles, but that was once true of human capital too. In the 1960s, people debated whether you could place an economic value on people’s skills like the value that you placed on a bridge. Eventually, we agreed that human capital had economic value. More recently, people have been debating whether social capital like interpersonal ties are economically important. My guess is that in a generation’s time, social capital will be accepted as just as important as any other form of capital.

It is easy to see how trust greases the wheels of commerce. A plumber who turns up on time and charges the quoted price is a guy you’ll hire again. The barista with a smile helps ensure that her customers will come back for their next day’s coffee. A boss who encourages workers to knock off early on quiet days is more likely to find employees willing to stay a little longer when times are busy. As Adam Smith once pointed out, when two people are repeatedly interacting with one another in a market, they are more likely to behave well towards one another in their society.

Of course, social capital isn’t invariably good. Criminal gangs rely on trust, and so are a form of social capital. But equally, such gangs have human capital and physical capital. The world would be a safer place if Osama bin Laden had fewer friends – but that doesn’t negate the general rule that societies are healthier if they have more social capital.

My interest in social capital came while I was studying my PhD at Harvard, where I worked as a researcher for Robert Putnam. Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, showed that social capital in the United States had declined from 1960 to 2000. The more I read about Putnam’s research, the less confident I became about the notion that the social fabric of my own country was as intact as a brand new pair of Speedos.

To test the theory, I began collecting snippets of evidence from Australia. How had community organisations fared? Were people more involved in politics? What about workplace engagement? Were churches emptying out? How about sports? Do we volunteer more or less? Can we drop in on our friends without calling to make an appointment?

Just as some people collect coins and others collect Pokemon cards, I collect pieces of data. Through dusty libraries, emails, telephone calls, and online, I have been steadily accumulating as much evidence as I can about community life in Australia. In a decade of on-again/off-again research, I have compiled a mountain of statistical evidence about social capital in Australia since about World War Two. The result is a book called Disconnected, and published this month by UNSW Press.

The data clearly point towards certain conclusions. When it comes to organisational membership, surveys show that we are less likely to be active members of any association today than we were in the 1960s. This is partly because organisations themselves have gone out of business. There are fewer associations in Australia today than in the late 1970s, and the average age of members of organisations has risen. This is also because existing organisations have shed members. As a share of the population, mass membership associations peaked in the late 1960s and have declined markedly since then.

As to people giving their time, Australia saw a rise in the share of people volunteering in the late 1990s (perhaps because of the Olympics), but volunteering rates are probably still below their post-war peak. And the proportion of us who give money to charity has stayed stable over recent decades.

One of the forms of civic activity that has suffered most over recent decades is religious participation. This is partly because Australians are becoming less religious over time. But it is mostly due to declining attendance among believers. Among the faithful, the share who attend a church, synagogue or mosque today is substantially lower than in the past. Younger Australians are considerably less likely to attend a religious service than their parents or grandparents.

Political life has also taken a hit. Since about 1960, the share of Australian citizens who cast a valid vote has fallen. Across all major parties, official membership numbers have collapsed. Among those who remain, many are inactive. Australians have low levels of confidence in politicians, which will make it difficult to reinvigorate our democracy.

In workplaces, unions have traditionally been one of the main forms of social capital. In three decades, the share of the workforce in a union has dropped from around 50 per cent to under 20 per cent. The institutions that have emerged to replace unions – such as employer-sponsored telephone helplines – make little attempt to perform any social capital function.

When it comes to sport, Australians are about as likely to watch a live sporting match as in the past. But we are substantially less likely to play an organised sport. On the cultural front, moviegoing rates are substantially lower than in the 1950s and 1960s, and rates of participation in cultural events (such as museums, art galleries and botanic gardens) have dropped since the early 1990s.

In tracking informal socialising, I found evidence of a decline in the number of close friends and neighbourhood connections from the 1980s to the 2000s. On average, Australians shed two friends who would keep a confidence, and half a friend who would help them through a difficult patch. Compared with respondents two decades earlier, the typical Australian in the 2000s has one and a half  fewer neighbours of whom they could ask a small favour, and three fewer neighbours on whom they could drop in uninvited. We are also more likely to live alone. In response to those who claim that informal socialising has merely moved online, I argue that new technologies may end up reducing trust and reciprocity rather than increasing it.

The last set of indicators are those relating to trust and honesty. Here, the picture is more positive. Interpersonal trust has risen slightly, and ratings of the ethics and honesty of professionals have improved (though bankers and lawyers have slipped backwards). It is also true that the best long-run measure we have of crime trends – the homicide rate – peaked around 1990 and has declined since then.

To the extent that social capital has been eroded in Australia, I conclude in Disconnected that there are several plausible explanations. The share of people working long and unsociable hours has made it more difficult for people to participate in community life. The feminisation of the workforce – on balance a terrific development – has meant that organisations historically run by housewives have struggled to stay afloat. Ethnic diversity – again a development that I think has been on balance a great strength for Australia – tends to be associated with lower levels of social capital.

Technologies have also played their part. With the growth of television, many of us have replaced friends with Friends and neighbours with Neighbours. It’s handy to be able to use ATMs and scanners rather than bank tellers and checkout staff, but that’s two more human interactions that we miss out on each day. Lastly, the growth of car commuting not only saps hours from our day, but makes us more frazzled when we return home.

The difficultly with these explanations is that we can say good things about most of them. Australia is clearly better off on balance for being a more ethnically diverse nation, in which more women participate in the paid workforce than in the past. Long working hours mostly reflect the preferences of workers, not bosses. Few of us would voluntarily relinquish cars, televisions or ATMs.

What this means is that any attempt to increase social capital in Australia will not involve a backlash against the causes, but new and innovative strategies to make us more socially connected. We need to shape a better future, not simply try to revive the past.

In thinking about how to boost social capital across Australia, it is worth asking the question: Where is social capital strongest? In which Australian city are people most likely to give time and money, engage in the political process, and participate in local sports?

Given the title of this talk, the answer is unlikely to surprise you. On virtually every social capital measure, Canberra is at or near the top. Canberra has the highest share of charitable donors and the highest volunteering rate. In a given year, 85 percent of Canberrans give money to other causes, compared with 73 percent of those in NSW. When it comes to giving time, 38 percent of Canberrans volunteer in a given year, compared with 33 percent of Victorians.

This weekend we’re celebrating not only the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, but also what Roy and HG have tagged ‘the Festival of the Boot Parts 1 and 2’ – or should that be Parts 2 and 3? So what do we know about attendance at sporting events? According to the latest data, 47 percent of Canberrans attended a sporting event in the previous year, compared with 44 percent nationally. There’s an even bigger difference when you look at those who actually take the field. 41 percent of Canberrans say that they play organised sport, compared with around 30 percent in the rest of Australia.

On the cultural front, Canberrans are twice as likely to attend an art gallery or museum than other Australians, more likely to go to the movies, and significantly more likely to go for a stroll around the botanic gardens.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. What’s the point of going to watch live sport when you can’t cheer for the  Raiders, the Brumbies, the Canberra Capitals, or the Prime Minister’s XI? Why go to your local gallery when you know that Canberrans are choosing between seeing Alfred Deakin’s portrait at the Museum of Australian Democracy or Ned Kelly’s death mask at the National Portrait Gallery? Sure, you’re saying, I’d go to the botanic gardens more often if I knew that the cool solitude of the National Botanic Gardens was no more than a half-hour drive from my front door.

Fine, let’s look at a few kinds of activities that other places pride themselves in. It’s true that we don’t have a Sydney Opera House, but we’re significantly more likely to have attended a musical or opera than NSW residents. We don’t have a Melbourne Arts Centre, but we’re more likely to likely to have gone to a theatre performance than Victorians. For that matter, Canberrans are more likely to have gone to a zoo, a pop music concert, or a dance performance than other Australians.

Perhaps less surprising is the fact that Canberrans are also more engaged in the political process than most other Australians. Across the country, 7 percent of enrolled voters failed to show up, while 5 percent showed up but voted informal. Put those two figures together, and you get a worrying 12 percent of the electorate who failed to cast a valid vote. Canberrans are both more inclined to show up, and less likely to vote informal. So the share of Canberrans casting an invalid vote is 10 percent.

Don’t get me wrong about this: 10 percent of the electorate failing to cast a valid vote is 10 percent too many.  In my own electorate of Fraser, I’m especially concerned that the number of informal votes rose from 2679 in 2007 to 5171 in 2010.  That’s more than five thousand people whose vote didn’t get the chance to affect the outcome of the poll. But it’s nonetheless true that people in the ACT are more likely to cast a valid vote than in most parts of the country.

So why has the ACT cracked the secret of social capital? Part of the answer lies in commuting times. The typical city-dweller in Australia with a full time job spends 270 hours a year commuting to work – the equivalent of 11 days a year. For Canberrans, it’s 182 hours a year, or more like 8 days. For Sydneysiders, the number is 13 days. That means Canberrans who work full-time have 5 more days a year than Sydneysiders to spend with their friends.

On top of these factors, Canberra’s physical environment is highly conducive to social capital.

There are so many local parks that it’s hard to kick a football without hitting one. Cycling paths are an integral part of the city’s development. Front fences are banned, which makes houses more open to the street. And neighbourhoods are designed around small commercial centres that typically contain a mini-supermarket, a café or bar and a restaurant or two. In other Australian cities, you have to burn a litre of petrol to buy a litre of milk. But plenty of Canberrans can walk down to their local shops. Canberrans don’t have to choose between living in the suburbs or having walkable access to neighbourhood shops. Many of us have both.

In terms of public housing, Canberra has always had a policy of spreading public housing across the territory. Indeed, all but three Canberra suburbs include some public housing. The policy focus today is to mix public housing not just within the same suburb, but within the same development.

State and territory governments in the rest of Australia could readily adopt many of the urban design features that have worked in Canberra. Wherever possible, new developments should be designed to be walkable, with plenty of parks, and small commercial centres dotted through the development. Although suburban Canberra does not have the population density to support the kind of sidewalk life that New York urban activist Jane Jacobs would have loved, the place seems to support high levels of social capital better than any other part of Australia.

Of course, urban form isn’t the whole solution to social capital. In Disconnected, I also argue that people should use their local stores, donate money and try a new activity each day. I advocate harnessing new technology to build face-to-face connections, not replace them. And I suggest that people should host a street party (my wife Gweneth and I have hosted ours three times over the past six years). Creating social capital can be fun too.


Last Thursday, I stood amidst the crowd at the opening of the National Gallery of Australia’s new Indigenous wing, which will house the world’s largest collection of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Like Canberra itself, the wing is an amalgam of the rest of Australia: South Australian Mintaro slate, Queensland red ironbark and Kimberley green marble. Amidst these beautiful natural materials, the wing showcases the art of a people who are perhaps the world’s oldest culture, and contains everything from dot paintings to modern art. To quote Seamus Heaney, it is the kind of place where hope and history rhyme.

If Canberra were a person, I like to think that it would be an egalitarian patriot, the kind who knows the past, but isn’t bound by it. Canberrans may be home to the Australian War Memorial, but we were the only state or territory to vote for Australia to become a Republic in the 1999 referendum. Canberra was the first jurisdiction in Australia to have a bill of rights, and the ACT government is committed to halving carbon emissions over the next decade. On most issues, Canberra is a touch more progressive than the rest of Australia.

In 2013, Canberra will celebrate its centenary. Already plans are in place to use this chance to re-engage Australians with their capital, and build legacies that last well beyond the celebration itself. Walter Griffin said that he was designing a city for a nation of ‘bold democrats’. We need to use this chance to think about how we want Canberra to develop over the century ahead.

Canberra happens to be my home, but it is our national capital. In this talk, I have tried to persuade you that the story of this extraordinary city is one of which all Australian can be proud. But Canberra is more than its parliament. It is also a place that takes seriously its environmental responsibility, and prides itself on its Indigenous heritage. In an era when Australians are becoming disconnected from one another, Canberra has some of the highest rates of civic engagement in the nation. Canberrans are more generous with our time and money, more engaged in our local community groups, more likely to play sport with our friends and neighbours, and more likely to participate in cultural activities. Part of the reason for this is that we spend less time in the car than most other Australians. But I suspect that we owe a debt to Marion and Walter Griffin for helping to forge a city in which local communities really mean something.

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Canberra is the Best City in Australia - Sunday, 3rd October 2010

Andrew Leigh
Member for Fraser
Festival of Dangerous Ideas
Sydney Opera House, 3 October 2010
I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today.
Coming to Sydney to sing the praises of Canberra, I feel a bit like recruiters for the First Fleet must have felt when telling Londoners about the wonders of Australia. Your streets may be a little crowded at times, but the notion that a paradise lies southward is just too fabulous to be believed.
Indeed, I recognise that for some Sydneysiders, the only way you'd contemplate a move to Canberra is in leg irons. We'd love to welcome you into our city, but I hope that even if you end this talk unpersuaded to pack the car and drive on down the M5, you'll take away from my talk a few ideas about 'the Canberra model', and how the rest of Australia can learn a few lessons from the way we run a city.
Read more
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Broadband in Gungahlin

This story from IT News has more detail on the fast broadband rollout for Gungahlin residents.
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Doorstop on IMF, GST, Mining Tax, Julia Gillard, Poker Machines

A transcript of my doorstop this morning is over the fold.

30 September 2010


Topics: IMF, GST, Mining Tax, Julia Gillard, Poker Machines

Andrew Leigh:

What we have seen this morning is the IMF came out with the results of its Article IV consultations. IMF Officials visited Australia in July and they have now written up their views on the Australian Economy.  And what they find is that the Australian economic is performing extraordinary well. That’s thanks in part to commodity prices and China but also because of the macro economic flexibility, reforms that past Labor Governments and critically to fiscal stimulus the Australian Labor Government put in place. 

The IMF also finds that Australia’s debt consolidation is proceeding rapidly, more rapidly than most advanced economies and the IMF strongly backs in the economic calls that Labor made in 2009.

I’ve talked to my friends who are economists in the US or the UK and you get a real sense as to what’s going on in those countries. Unemployment is going to take the best part of a decade to recover, debt loads which means that Governments don’t have any choices, they’re constrained by a tight fiscal straight jacket.

In Australia we have seen rapid fiscal stimulus but also a debt pay down which puts us in a good place to deal with Australia’s future economic challenges.


If you’re serious about reform why not expand the rent resource tax and look at increasing the GST, that is inevitable at some point, isn’t it?

Andrew Leigh:

Well the deal has been done over the mineral resource tax. That deal is going to deliver ten and half billion dollars in infrastructure. It’s going to ensure that we are able to cut the company tax rate, ensuring that small business are able to prosper and its going to ensure that we can also raise superannuation, providing retirement savings for many Australians. I think that’s a terrific deal and one which I’m going to be very proud to support when it comes to the floor of parliament.


The deal might have been done but the legislation hasn’t been passed.

Andrew Leigh:

That’s absolutely right but I think on this issue a deal is a deal. The Australia’s biggest miners have sat down and agreed to this deal and I think frankly it’s a terrific deal. It ensures that Australians regional communities …



Andrew Leigh:

I would be very happy. I think the critical thing for people who are unemployed is having a job. The Labor Governments fiscal stimulus ensured that we had a lot more jobs than we would have had otherwise. Treasury think about 200,000 more jobs now then if we have backed in the Opposition’s plans in 2009.


What about raising the GST, is that inevitable at some point in the future as the population grows?

Andrew Leigh:

No … I mean an increase in the GST is firmly off the agenda. Certainly when I talk to people in Fraser they are not clamouring for an increase in the GST at the moment.


Well nobody ever wants an increase in tax but isn’t it a necessary reform as the mineral resources tax wasn’t really liked by everyone but you still argued it was  necessary.

Andrew Leigh:

No … I mean there are plenty of other important reforms. The big for me is cutting this company tax rate and raising superannuation contribution rates for ordinary Australians that’s going to ensure dignified retirement for thousands of Australians and I am honestly astonished as to why Tony Abbott is not willing to back in an increase in superannuation contributions from 9 to 12%. Does he really think Australians are really saving enough?


You came here this morning to talk about the IMF. The IMF has firmly put the GST on the agenda. Why is it not on yours?

Andrew Leigh:

The IMF is providing advice to the Australian Government, as many other people do. Its terrific to get advice from lots of different sources.


You’re taking what you like but you’re not willing to listen to their comments on the GST.

Andrew Leigh:

Well what I am saying is that the IMF has strongly backed in the Australian Government’s response to the fiscal stimulus. The IMF has given us advice, many other Australians and many other international agencies have given the government advice, but on this issue Labor has been clear.


Did Julia Gillard tell a fib yesterday when she said that not one cabinet threatened to resign and cause a by-election if they didn’t get to stay in cabinet?

Andrew Leigh:

Julia Gillard is a woman of her word.


What do you think about the idea of putting a fingerprint on a USB stick and using that to enable you to gamble on poker machines?

Andrew Leigh:

Well I think that Australians recognise that problem gambling is a real challenge and that sometimes problem gambling can tear apart families, it can cause personal heart ache and people recognise that we have to work out ways of dealing with problem gambling. One of those may well be pre-commitment devices. When the Productivity Commission Gambling Report came out, it said that pre-commitment devices were a cost effective and sensible way of dealing with problem gambling, so that’s a road I am comfortable going down. We have just set up a House of Representatives gambling committee so the last thing I want to do is prejudge where that committee is going to go.

Thanks very much.

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Working Together

On 21-22 September, I was one of 32 new members of parliament who met at Parliament House for a training session. Over two days, we learned about everything from parliamentary procedure to the computer system, and had a chance to mix socially with new members from all sides of politics. Among the class of 2010 are Ed Husic (the first Muslim to sit in the House of Reps) and Ken Wyatt (the first Indigenous person to sit in the House). Like others I met, they’re both impressive people, who will bring new skills and perspectives to the policy debate.

Being in the Federal Parliament is a rare honour. On the first morning, we were each given our ‘number’. Mine is 1078, meaning that I’m the 1078th person to sit in the House of Representatives since 1901. It sends a chill down your spine when you realise that you’re part of a legacy that reaches back to great figures like Deakin and Curtin, Hasluck and Hawke, Killen and Daly.

I learned a great deal from chatting with my fellow new MPs, and the friendly interchange among us gave me hope that the Opposition may be able to put aside petty bickering to help pass an important legislative agenda over the coming months. Julia Gillard’s to-do list for just this week includes measures to establish a National Preventative Health Agency, set up an Australian Civilian Corps, and strengthen ASIC’s investigative powers.

Both sides of politics have a duty to get on with the business of governing in the national interest. The Australian people don’t want squabbling on the floor of their national Parliament – they want politicians of all stripes to roll their sleeves up and get to work.

(cross-posted at the ALP blog)
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Schools and Growth

My AFR op-ed today is on education and productivity. Full text over the fold.

Students Vital to Growth, Australian Financial Review, 28 September 2010

The noughties may well be remembered by historians as a terrific decade for gadgets. But when it comes to productivity, Australia has had a disappointing decade. Although we don’t yet have all the data, the noughties looks set to record a rate of productivity growth about half as fast as we enjoyed in the nineties.

Since productivity is the key to raising living standards, the challenge for the future is to crack the nut of higher productivity. During the 1980s and 1990s, tariff cuts, competition policy and enterprise bargaining were among the underpinnings of productivity growth.

Today, one of the policies most likely to raise the rate of productivity growth is education reform. Raising the human capital of the workforce is essential if we are to adapt to changes in the labour market. This agenda involves raising the quantity of education – boosting the average number of years of schooling that each person receives.

A higher school leaving age recognises the simple fact that today’s school leavers will be in the labour market until the 2060s. Over the next half-century, students who drop out in year 9 are likely to struggle with the advance of technology and the need to keep updating their skills.

As the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher puts it: ‘In 1930, all the coded information for a GM car could be captured in 230 pages. Now a single car involves some 15,000 pages of coded knowledge which workers will need to be able to access, manage, integrate and to evaluate.’ As electric cars replace petrol vehicles, the job of a mechanic will change substantially.

By 2015 the Government hopes to have 90 per cent of students completing year 12 or an equivalent level of study. Recognising that costs of raising a teenager increases as they get older the Government has committed to increasing the Family Tax Benefit A by up to $4,000 from 1 January 2012 per year for teenagers aged 16 to 18. Supporting students is an investment in our future productivity.

Another part of the quantity agenda is boosting the number of university places. The Government is delivering a critical reform to ensure places in Australian universities will be set based upon student demand from 2012, ensuring every student who has the marks to get into university will have a government funded place.

The other way of boosting human capital is through raising the quality of Australian education. Work by Eric Hanushek (Stanford University) and Ludger Woessmann (University of Munich) demonstrates that countries with higher mathematics and science scores on international tests such as the OECD’s PISA exam tend to experience faster rates of economic growth. This implies that if Australia were to increase our scores to the level of Finland, our economy would grow 0.5 percentage points faster in the long-run.

Reforming schools is contentious, but the evidence points clearly towards the benefits of school accountability. As the MySchool website is updated with value-added data and school financial information, it will play a significant role in driving change.

Another reform that will enhance educational outcomes and contribute to the Government’s productivity agenda is improving the salary structure of teachers, in order to encourage the most talented young people to become teachers, and create incentives for high-performing teachers to be recognised for their achievements. During the election, Federal Labor promised to implement a performance pay system that will see the top 10 percent of teachers paid rewards worth around $8000 per teacher. Under the proposal, performance will be based on criteria set out by the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, including raising student achievement and assisting other teachers.

By boosting the quality of the education system, Labor will increase the level of innovation in the Australian economy, and allow for more rapid diffusion of new technological changes. Creating the incentives for students, teachers and principals to perform at their best would rival the great economic reforms of past decades.

By focusing our reforms agenda on the neediest students, there is another payoff too. Education is a social policy as good as any we’ve yet developed. Because unemployment is the best predictor of disadvantage, having the skills to do the jobs of the future is essential to staying out of poverty. By raising the performance of schools in low-income neighbourhoods, as well as raising the overall growth rate, education reform will narrow the gap between the rich and the poor.

Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fraser.
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Gungahlin NBN Consultations

Jon Stanhope, Kate Lundy and I have put out a media release on the 13 October public consultations for the Gungahlin NBN rollout.


Jon Stanhope

ACT Chief Minister

Kate Lundy

Senator for the ACT

Andrew Leigh

Member for Fraser

NBN public consultation for Gungahlin announced

ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, Senator for the ACT Kate Lundy and Member for Fraser Andrew Leigh have today welcomed the announcement that there will be an open public consultation on the early NBN deployment to approximately 3000 premises in the Gungahlin region, which is planned in the second quarter of 2011.

The consultation will be held by the Gungahlin Community Council at their October 13th meeting at the Palmerston Community Centre on Tiptree Crescent at 7.30pm.

Glenn Holdstock, the NBN Co Community and Stakeholder Relations Manager will speak about the early NBN deployment to Gungahlin, and then will open the floor for community discussion and questions.

“I welcome this opportunity in Gungahlin to see what is possible in terms of the benefits for economic productivity, local businesses, e-health and digital education,” ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope said.

“NBN Co really want to hear from the community about their needs, and how they want to utilise a high speed network in their communities, whether it be for families, schools, businesses or health and community services, just to name a few examples,” said Senator Lundy.

NBN Co will also be meeting with territory and federal representatives, local businesses, domain experts and community groups for consultation.

“This an opportunity for the Gungahlin community to drive the roll out of high-speed broadband, ensuring NBN delivers in service areas important to Gungahlin residents,”  Member for Fraser Andrew Leigh said.

More information about the meeting is on the GCC website at

Please find more information and related links about the early NBN deployment to Gungahlin at

Media contact:

Jess Wurf (Stanhope) 0411 772 700

Annika Hutchins (Lundy) 0418 488 295

Shobaz Kandola (Leigh) 0421 838 038
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The benefits of taking rocks out of our harbours

Here's the full text of the speech I gave on trade at the recent GAP National Economic Review conference.

The Outlook for Australian Trade in the 21st Century
Andrew Leigh
Member for Fraser

Global Access Partners’ National Economic Review 2010
Sydney, 17 September 2010

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on whom we are meeting today. I would also like to thank Peter Fritz, Catherine Fritz-Kalish, and Lisa Middlebrook for involving me in this really stimulating discussion. 

As I understand my role, it is to provide a relatively high-level overview on trade to kick-start discussion with the other speakers, who will focus on more direct policy-relevant topics.

My interest in trade comes about partly as an economist - it's almost a stamp of entry into the profession that one must be a free trader.  But also then having a policy interest through having worked for 18 months for the later Senator Peter Cook. 

Peter Cook was at that stage the Labor spokesperson on Trade and somebody who believed passionately that if you were committed to globalisation you must be a social democrat.  And if you were a social democrat then you had to be committed to globalisation.  Peter Cook was a man who very much took the argument on free trade    to his Labor colleagues.  He taught me a lot about how a great politician ought to behave. 

The underlying approach I have to trade is to think of it as an official case of the principle of comparative advantage.  Most things I attempt in life have been better done by other people.  If I were to appear before you today having cut my own hair and my own clothes, I would be a rather more dishevelled person than that stands before you today.  If I had fixed my own car I probably would not have even got here. 

The notion of comparative advantage was described by Paul Samuelson as the best example in the social sciences of a principle which is true and non-trivial. That is that many educated people still do not understand the subtleties of comparative advantage.  And, of course, in the world of free trade what comparative advantage means is that the person who can perform the service or supply the good better than you, is sometimes a foreigner.  That means that when countries trade with another then they both benefit from that. 

It is a simple proposition, but one which policy makers been extraordinarily unsuccessful at persuading the general public of.  I have not been able to find a recent public opinion survey looking at free trade versus protectionism.  However, the last one I could find, about a decade old, suggests that when you ask Australians whether they prefer free trade or protectionism, the protectionists outnumber the free traders two to one.  This is despite the fact that Australia has seen a substantial reduction in tariffs over recent decades.   

There has been a strong bipartisan consensus in the Australian parliament that trade liberalisation is good for Australia.  But we failed to convince Australians that as a nation we benefit from being free traders. 

This is despite the historical record, which shows large social welfare large gains from freer trade.  For example, Federation can be thought of as a battle between the Free Traders and the Protectionists within the national parliament.  But Federation itself is a huge free trade movement, because the Constitution required that the former colonies not impose trade barriers on interstate commerce.  There were huge economic gains in Federation delivered by getting rid of those different colonial borders. 

In more recent years, we have seen large social welfare gains from removing barriers to trade across national borders. For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimates that the tariff reduction that have taken place in the last two decades have delivered somewhere between three and four thousand dollars back into the pockets of the typical Australian household.  That is a substantial boost in anyone's language. 

I think back to when I was a kid, and buying a new pair of school shoes was a really big deal.  Those school shoes were an expensive item my parents had to shell out for each year.  And the largest proportion of that cost came from footwear being subject to very large tariffs, sometimes over 100 percent.  The removal of the tariffs on kids' school shoes has made many households better off and meant that the typical working household in Australia today does not have to worry about scrimping and saving for a new pair of school shoes at the beginning of the school year.

Thinking also about the impact that trade liberalisation has on social welfare, it is important to recall the great backsliding that occurred in the 1930s, when the US raised tariffs and Australia followed suit.  That huge increase in tariff barriers made Australian consumers dramatically worse off, but it also hurt Australian businesses.  It means that Australian businesses were much less exposed to the new ideas, less exposed to the new innovation that that occurs when competing with the best countries and firms in the world.  In more recent times, those competitive benefits that Australia has enjoyed over the last couple decades have been to a large extent due to more recent tariff reductions.  

There is also other sort of other, less tangible benefits from free trade.  Tim Harcourt just joined us now and his terrific book The Airport Economist has a lot of wonderful little anecdotes talking about trade building those little interpersonal ties.  Business people travelling across borders meet friends who speak other languages, have other customs.  School children are encouraged to learn a language not their own, and in that sense Australia becomes more deeply enmeshed in the region in which we live.  So trade has definite interpersonal benefits. 

Recent work by Daron Acemoglu and Pierre Yared has also shown that countries that do more trade spend less on their military.  So far from thinking that we ought to bunker down and produce everything ourselves in case war comes, we are actually better to trade with the rest of the world because by that action we make one another safer. Countries that trade are less likely to go to war.  You can name exceptions for this, but a general rule is that as trade expands militarisation declines and military spending goes down. 

Trade liberalisation has brought enormous simplifications to business as well.  The 1987 tariff schedule, which ran to five hundred pages because it had different tariff rates for everything from bicycle inner tubes to umbrellas.  Stripping that away means one less thing that business needs to spend time worrying about.  Another simplification which would allow businesses to focus on what they do best. 

Trade of course is not universally good.  We can easily point to products like AK-47s and heroin that flows freely across borders, but on balance the world is far better off on balance for having greater flows of trade. 

What that means in a policy sense is that - as the great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson used to say - we benefit from taking the rocks out of our harbours regardless of whether other countries do the same.  The main beneficiaries of trade liberalisation and tariff cuts are Australians.  In a secondary sense, overseas countries keen to export to Australia benefit as well, but we are the first to benefit from removing those rocks in our harbours. 

In terms of reducing global trade barriers, successive World Trade Organisation deals have substantially boosted world GDP, with the impact of each successful round begin equivalent to a large injection of foreign aid across the world.  However, we have not had a WTO round concluded since 1993, a trade deal which was then negotiated by Senator Peter Cook, for whom I worked, and signed off on by Bob McMullan, my predecessor as the member for Fraser. 

One reason that a new WTO round has been a long time coming is that there are more countries to deal with now than in the past.  At the end of World War II, there were 74 countries in the world. Today, there are nearly two hundred.  That means when you get everyone in the room and you try to ask them to strike a consensus trade deal, it is harder than it ever for countries to agree. 

Ironically, one of the reasons that countries are proliferating is because of free trade -- as tariff barriers have fallen, splitting up is easier to do.  I think there is a little window for another hard push on WTO rounds after the US mid-term elections.  It is going to be a tough push in any case, but I think that's the moment at which we can try and get the next WTO round over the line.  It will be hard to achieve, but if successful would greatly raise world living standards.
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New MP training

I was in new MP training at Parliament House yesterday, and the sessions continue today. A few impressions:
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Territory Rights

With Gai Brodtmann and Kate Lundy, I've put out a statement today on the issue of ACT political rights and euthanasia. Full text over the fold.

Territory Rights

Senator for the ACT Kate Lundy, Member for Canberra Gai Brodtmann, and Member for Fraser Dr Andrew Leigh reaffirm their strong commitment to the political rights of Territorians.

Senator Bob Brown’s proposal regarding the 1997 Euthanasia Laws Act is an issue where there will obviously be strongly held views on all sides of the debate.

The Labor Party has previously allowed Members of Parliament to express their views on this issue with a conscience vote and if, as a result of these discussions, a conscience vote is called for, there is no reason why Members of Parliament would not be afforded this opportunity again.

As members of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party Senator Kate Lundy, Ms Brodtmann, and Dr Leigh will be urging their federal colleagues not to override the rights of the ACT Legislative Assembly. 

Canberrans should enjoy the same political rights as all other Australians.

Senator Lundy, Ms Brodtmann and Dr Leigh will continue to strongly advocate on behalf of Canberrans.
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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.