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Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Page: 1752


Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (17:13): It is fitting that we discuss the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Amendment Bill 2013 on the day that Canberra celebrates its centenary. This bill is very timely, because it enhances the ability of the ACT assembly to be the master of its own destiny, and I think that is a reasonable aspiration for the parliament here within the ACT.

One hundred years ago in 1913, Lady Denman, who was wife of the then Governor-General, Lord Denman, stood upon the newly laid foundation stone and announced that the name of the new Australian capital would be Canberra. In an article by Ian Warden that was featured in the Canberra Times today, he described it as such:

The site that people descended on for the day (VIPs coming on special trains from Sydney and Melbourne to Queanbeyan from whence they were taken on in a fleet of new-fangled horseless carriages) was totally pastoral. There were just 1700 people in the federal territory, hopelessly outnumbered by 320,000 sheep.

Warden notes, spine tinglingly, that the name chosen by cabinet had not been leaked, and that the public had deluged the Department of Home Affairs with 750 suggested names, such as Eros, Cooee, Swindleville and Kangaremu. Those were discounted by the cabinet at the time but there were some other names that were taken seriously such as Federata, Parkes, Myola and, interestingly enough, Shakespeare.

Finally, the name of Canberra was chosen by the cabinet. That word is a derivation of an Aboriginal word Kamberra which means meeting place. As was noted by the Prime Minister quite aptly today in her comments about the centenary of Canberra, that was quite an interesting decision for a cabinet in 1913 to have taken. I think it fits very well with the nature of our society today.

In 1913 there was nothing much more here than a sheep paddock. In 1927 the capital was moved from Melbourne to Canberra. There would not have been a lot here. There would have just been politicians coming in for, I presume, much lengthier periods of time, given the nature of how difficult it would have been to travel from the various parts of the country then. I reflect about how it must have been then and how it is for us today. As politicians, funnily enough we would spend more time here than anywhere besides our home, but we can have very little interaction with the city. Shamefully, I can say I can come here for weeks on end and not leave the area within walking distance of Canberra Avenue. But I do actually know the city very well because I studied at the ANU. I was a little disappointed to be missed when the member for Fraser was going through the significant alumni. I assume that I will appear at some stage on that list.

It is true that we can interact very little with the city itself but I have the privilege of knowing the city very well because I have lived here for many years. I studied here and I subsequently worked here. I have been down to Tuggeranong and Belconnen and Woden. It is perhaps a shame that, when we come here for work for lengthy periods of time, we just do not get out to see the sorts of delights that Canberra does have to offer. I offer my personal congratulations to Canberrans on what is a very significant event in the life of their city.

The capital was administered by the national government up until 1989 and Canberrans were very reluctant to embrace self-government. Indeed, it came eventually after asking Canberrans whether they wanted it and Canberrans consistently saying no. The Hawke government at the time just insisted and passed the self-government act in 1989. It took a while for Canberrans to seriously embrace self-government. Prior to that, all the decisions had been made by the minister for territories. I think that was a good decision by the Hawke government to give the ACT self-government. I do not think it was necessarily that great to be administered directly by one federal government minister, even though there were advisory bodies that had been set up to advise that minister of matters of concern for residents of the ACT. Those advisory committees had existed since 1920 and were initially made up of appointed officials until some of them started to be elected in 1928 and in 1930 an ACT advisory council was established to advise the minister on matters that directly affected Canberrans.

The first fully elected body, the Legislative Assembly, originally consisted of 18 members and began operating in 1974. That is an interesting number to ponder because the current assembly only has 17 members, so it has less than that original advisory committee that was established in 1974 when Canberra would have been a significantly smaller place. The name was officially changed from the Legislative Assembly to the House of Assembly in 1979. However, the federal government was under no obligation to take the advice that was given by any of the appointed or elected bodies.

An advisory referendum, or plebiscite, was held on 25 November 1978 to ask residents whether the ACT should be granted self-government. A resounding 63½ per cent of electors voted against Canberra being granted self-government. So it was not until the late 1980s that the then Hawke government decided that the Australian Capital Territory with a population of 270,000 people did need its own system of self-administration. Then the federal parliament passed the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 along with other related legislation which established self-government in the ACT.

Notably, however, section 122 of the Constitution allows the Commonwealth to override a territory law at any time. The Commonwealth has used its power under section 122 on a few occasions only and in cases where the territory law has created much debate or controversy within the Australian community. I think that is right. I think that for one parliament, where the federal parliament overrides the wishes of another democratically elected parliament, the circumstances need to be extremely dire for that course of action to be warranted. Once a territory has been given self-government and once they elect their own officials, it is really quite improper in my view—apart from the most extreme circumstances—for another group of elected officials to override the wishes of that lawfully elected parliament.

Up until 2011 the self-government acts covering the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory gave federal ministers the right to veto or change territory laws without referring the matter to the federal parliament. That is quite an extraordinary power for a federal minister, if you think about it, to be able to unilaterally override the wishes of the elected parliament within the ACT or the Northern Territory, and that act has now been amended to remove this veto power.

This bill is a further enhancement of the ability of the ACT Legislative Assembly to set its own course, and in this case it has set the course about how many elected officials should sit within the Legislative Assembly. It is a unicameral legislature. All states with the exception of Queensland have two houses of parliament from which to draw a cabinet and the expertise. Seventeen members of parliament for a city of 325,000—

Dr Leigh: 375,000—

Mr KEENAN: 375,000 in Canberra! It has grown rapidly! I think Tasmania has about 500,000 and so you can see that Canberrans, funnily enough, as the seat of the federal parliament, are not overly represented by their own politicians. It makes sense that if it is the will of the Assembly to expand the number of politicians within that Assembly, that they should be allowed to do so, and it is my understanding that both of the major parties represented in the Assembly wish to do this. It seems highly likely that they will vote—and they will need a two-thirds majority under this legislation—to increase the number of members within the Assembly itself and, if they feel that that is the appropriate course of action, then they should be entitled to do that and this legislation will enable them to do just that. This bill will change the mechanism by which the size of the Assembly can be adjusted. It does not itself make any changes to the size of the Assembly, but it will leave that now within the hands of the Assembly itself.

In conclusion, I wish to point out the very good work that the one opposition representative within the coalition party room representing the ACT, Senator Gary Humphries, does on behalf of his constituents, which are all the people of Canberra. He has had a very distinguished political career in the ACT parliament where he was Deputy Chief Minister and subsequently served as Chief Minister. He has served his city with great distinction. Clearly, sometimes he has been at odds with some of his colleagues within the coalition party room about what he believes is an appropriate course of action for his community. I respect him greatly for the efforts that he has gone to to stand up for his community. I have seen him take on the vast majority of the party room when he believes the interests of Canberra are being threatened. I have not necessarily agreed with his positions but he has been a very strong and vocal advocate for his constituents. I just want to note that here today, because it is a great privilege to work with Gary both as the one opposition representative for the ACT but also somebody who works within my portfolio areas as well. He is an exceptionally capable and intelligent member of the upper chamber. In this centenary year of the ACT, he will hold a significant place within the history of the self-governing territory. I wanted to acknowledge that here today.

In conclusion, in the centenary year of Canberra it is appropriate that the Legislative Assembly of the ACT be allowed to set its own destiny in regard to it size. The opposition therefore supports this bill. I note that it has had the strong support of both of the major parties within the assembly. It is right that the federal parliament pass it.