House of farce no more

by Crispin Hull on May 16, 2009

Article written for The Canberra Times’s special edition on the 20th anniversary of self-government for the Australian Capital Territory.
THE House of Farce. The words stared out from the newsagents’ posters.

They were written by a bright young journalist thrown into a leading executive role in a busy metropolitan newspaper by serendipity, staff shortages and his own brash willingness to take on whatever was thrown at him. He was Andrew Fraser, son of Jim Fraser, the first Federal Member for the ACT with voting rights, who after a short time in journalism had any political idealism or unthinking loyalism to Labor crushed by day-to-day reality.

My idealism, too, had been severely dented in the days leading up to that poster.

In the four years before self-government and for several years afterwards I was editor of The Canberra Times.

As a graduate in political science and later law, I took for granted that people should choose their government and be governed by law.

Young, naïve, sure. I supported self-government and wrote editorials and opinion pieces to that effect, while obviously opening the pages to opposite points of view.

We got self-government.

At least in those first four or five years, Oscar Wilde was proving correct: there is only one thing worse than not getting what you want, and that’s getting it.

Fraser was right. It was a House of Farce.

The first election under the proportional Modified d’Hondt system had resulted in 5 Labor; 4 Residents Rally; 4 Liberal, 3 No-Self Government; 1 Abolish Self-Government The No- and Abolish- Self Government MLAs had no background in community service or political action. Some had weird political and social agendas which had little to do with how the ACT should be governed. But Canberrans who took little interest in local politics after decades of benevolent federal dictatorship saw the label and voted accordingly.

Labor Leader Rosemary Follett with five of 17 members had an impossible task. She made a reasonable fist of government in the nascent system, but was done over before the year was out by the Brutus of the Liberal Party egged on by the Cassius of the Residents Rally.

These were days of political hypocrisy. That they were played on a small stage did not make the play any less dramatic.

There was the Residents Rally – elected on the basis of having a town council – with the balance of power in a state-level parliament where ministries — real ministries where bureaucrats called you “Minister” — were there for the taking.

Do the sums. Four Liberals, just two or three Residents Rally, and just three of the No Self-Government people and there was a majority of nine.

The Rally corralled the No-Self Government people. One was offered a ministry another the Speakership and the other was married to the first. A member of the Rally – a party that stood for local-level government – took a high state-level Ministry. Too easy. Even when the Rally’s Michael Moore would have no truck with the deal and opted for Independence, the numbers were there.

A vote of confidence in the Chief Minister was forced and Follett lost with only six of the 17 votes. The Liberals’ Trevor Kaine became Chief Minister. Debt ballooned. The Ministers were mostly not up to it. At one stage we had: a Minister for Transport facing a drink driving charge; the new Speaker of the Assembly was a member of the No Self-Government Party who literally donned the gown of office; a Deputy Minister for Finance was on tax charges; a Deputy Minister for Education had been retired out of the ANU – a dear man but not up to it – all led by a Colonel Blimp figure who could not lead.

And the Abolish Self-Government MLA Dennis Stevenson, supporter of various crackpot far-right ideas, used the offices of the Government and Parliament he supposedly despised as a hotel – regularly staying there overnight.

The private agenda of No Self-Government MLA David Prowse was allowed to make the ACT a laughing stock. The Liberals went along with his mad scheme to take fluoride out of the water. The backlash resulted in it temporarily going back in before a compromise halved the level.

In the meantime, Prowse went on holiday to Thailand and was bitten by a monkey. He feared he had rabies and said so publicly.

Andrew Fraser was right: this was a House of Farce. Those who had championed self-government, like me, had egg on their faces.

Mercifully, the Kaine Government collapsed in acrimony and shambles before the 1992 election, but it has taken a long time to repair the damage.

We should not have been surprised. You cannot hand a Constitution or a structure on paper (such as the ACT Self-Government Act) and expect it to sun smoothly. The early days of the Australian Federation (during which the Prime Minister reported on his own government as a journalist to a London publication) and the American Republic had similar ructions and instability.

In the late 1980s, the Feds – Labor or Liberal – were going to financially hack into the ACT self-government or not. At least we got some say in how the shrunken cake would be divided.

And since around 1992 we have been as well or better governed than any other state or territory.

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