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Discussion on the role of the national capital

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well, if you caught last Friday morning's program you would have had great difficulty not catching the great enthusiasm from academic, Katharine West, about this week's forum where some of the nation's top minds will canvass options for the future of Canberra. It's part of the Canberra Face of the Nation series which will culminate with a major seminar later this year, after the Canberra caravan has taken to Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. Last Friday, Katharine West suggested, well, she challenged really, that we should invite Mr Justice Rae Else-Mitchell and Professor Max Neutze, from the Urban Research Program at the ANU, into the studio to debate their view on Canberra, because they're speaking at this forum on Wednesday and they've got some challenging thoughts for us. We've invited them both in, never one to turn down a challenge. Professor Max Neutze, thank you for coming in.

MAX NEUTZE: Good ....

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Justice Rae Else-Mitchell, thank you for coming in.


MATTHEW ABRAHAM: To you first professor. I understand your view is that the Federal Government has dumped Canberra?

MAX NEUTZE: That's the fairly strong impression that I have, that since self-government the Federal Government seems to think that Canberra's pretty much like any other part of Australia, it happens to be a little State, and it's a bit inconvenient, but the fact that it is also the national capital, which is really it raison d'etre for existence, just seems to be forgotten.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Is that a bad thing?

MAX NEUTZE: Yes, it is I think, I think it's very serious. I can see the possibility of Canberra going back to the situation where it was before the 1957 Senate Committee, where everybody really thought of it rather as a joke.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Just as a little country town that happened to house public servants who happened to work for the Federal Government. Well, what role should it have beyond that? I mean is it getting too big for our boots to believe that we're really anything else?

MAX NEUTZE: Oh, I think that .... no, I think that we are something else. I think that we are really a symbol of Australia to many other people and we're also, and this is symbolic sort of language, but we're a symbol of Australia's own aspirations for itself. That was very strong among the early founding fathers when Canberra was established.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: This nation-building role, almost.


MATTHEW ABRAHAM: All right. Now, Justice Rae Else-Mitchell, your concerns are more pecuniary.

RAE ELSE-MITCHELL: They're based on the pecuniary proposition that Canberra ought to pay its way. The people who live in the ACT should be no different from the people who live in the rest of Australia. They are ordinary citizens, they work for their livings, they bring up families, they own houses and some of them contribute to the work of the nation through their association with Commonwealth departments and so on.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well, most of them do, don't they?

RAE ELSE- MITCHELL: No, they don't, and of course the proportion that are working in private enterprise and not in the public area is increasing and I believe that the notion of Australian population is there ought to be equality in services, benefits, and equality in burdens. Now, part of this is recognised by the Commonwealth's legislation and systems for social security and so on, but the notion that Canberra is a pampered society and that the people in Canberra have better facilities, services and benefits than people in the rest of Australia, is very well entrenched in the States and of course that is partly the reason why Canberra people are disliked. That's the reason why ....

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: They're surprised to find we pay tax for instance.

RAE ELSE-MITCHELL: Yes. It's surprising. If you go to the outlying parts of Western Australia and Queensland, they say: Do you pay taxes in Canberra? Now, we've got to disabuse people about that. I think we've got to pay our way, we've got to be seen as part of the bulk of the Australian population and pay our way in respect to the services we get.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: But, what you want to do is quarantine the parliamentary triangle effectively, or the Commonwealth powers in the parliamentary triangle?

RAE ELSE- MITCHELL: I think that the Commonwealth's responsibility should be defined and explicit in respect of 'the seat of government' which is what was prescribed in the Constitution. The Commonwealth has never done anything about that and I think that if that were done - and I don't care how big they make it but I'd say the parliamentary triangle is the obvious area - and the Commonwealth's responsibilities were dictated by legislation and by policy to that area, then the people of Australia would know better that the people who live in Canberra, ordinary residents, are not a privileged caste as I think they've been seen over the last twenty or thirty years at any rate.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Max Neutze, you don't like the idea of quarantining Commonwealth power to the parliamentary triangle, why not?

MAX NEUTZE: That's right. I think that Canberra, as a whole, is a city. It wasn't the parliamentary triangle that Walter Burley Griffin built, it wasn't the parliamentary triangle, I mean, that he planned I should say, it wasn't just the parliamentary triangle that people had in mind they really wanted to build a city. When you think of Washington, you don't just think of the mall and Pennsylvania Avenue and so on and so forth, you think of the city as a whole, and I think that's how people ought to think about Canberra. I just think that Canberra, actually, is probably the best-planned city in the world and it's the best-planned city in world partly because people earlier did have these high aspirations for it.

RAE ELSE- MITCHELL: I don't deny that Canberra is very well planned and I think that's one of the things that makes it an attractive place to live, but Burley Griffin never envisaged a city of 250,000 and he never envisaged ....

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: But does the size matter though?

RAE ELSE- MITCHELL: Yes, I think it does, because I believe that people live out at Tuggeranong and that people are going to live at Gungahlin don't identify themselves with what goes on in Parliament and they don't identify themselves with a lot of the things that happen in the parliamentary triangle. I think they are living ordinary lives like the citizens in the rest of Australia who live in the outlying parts of in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes, but one of the concerns, I suppose, is whether we have to wear sackcloth and ashes to earn the respect of the nation.

RAE ELSE- MITCHELL: Well, if the people in the States wear sackcloth and ashes, we should also.

MAX NEUTZE: But, I think this is really rather missing the point. I don't actually disagree with the view that Canberrans ought to pay and indeed pay for the privileges that they have but I think that's a different thing from simply the Federal Government saying to Canberrans: Okay, you're out on your own; you're not really anything special any longer and ....

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: But, how would you change the current mix then?

MAX NEUTZE: Well, I would go back to having a single planning authority for the whole of the ACT, that basically is what happens in Washington . The Federal Government ....

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: And that would be the NCPA?


MAX NEUTZE: No, it's not the old NCDC, although I think the old NCDC actually did a tremendous job for Canberra in thirty years. You only have to read about what Canberra was like beforehand. I think it's being sold down the ....

RAE ELSE- MITCHELL: The gurgler .... can you sell a gurgler?

MAX NEUTZE: .... too easily. But I think that Canberra needs to be planned and seen as a whole and I recognise that that may be more difficult to manage than drawing some lines around particular areas, but drawing lines around particular areas is not working terribly well either. I mean, the disputes between the NCPA and the ACT Government are, I think, only just beginning, and one of the problems that I have is that the NCPA gets very little support from the Commonwealth Parliament when it attempts to say what it thinks the national interest is in Canberra.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes, it's difficult isn't it, to define? I mean, do you envisage, for instance, the Commonwealth paying more to keep the whole place looking nice? I mean, we've just had the NCPA taking back control for mowing lawns and maintaining the parliamentary triangle. Do you see for instance, in purely mechanical terms, that they ought to be looking after the whole image?

MAX NEUTZE: No, I don't, I don't think so. But I think that they should be taking an interest in it and I don't see this as being financial. I see it much more as being .... having an influence more symbolic, more an assertion that Canberra still is the national capital and that it's not just like any other place, and that's not trying to be elitist about Canberra. It's attempting to do not only for .... I think not primarily for the people of Canberra but for the people of Australia, to give them a city that they can continue to be proud of.

RAE ELSE- MITCHELL: The national qualities, I think, are to be manifested by the great institutions that have been put here, the National Library, the Parliament House, the National Gallery, the War Memorial, the National Museum, if and when it's ever built.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Not the McDonalds at Tuggeranong?

RAE ELSE- MITCHELL: No, certainly not. And of course that's the real point. And of course, the Commonwealth ought to clearly undertake its commitment to maintain those national institutions and buildings that it has constructed and those should be the face of the nation as the people see it around the rest of Australia.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Judge Rae Else-Mitchell, thank you for coming in, and Professor Max Neutze, thank you.