Ch 6 — The political heritage

From Canberra — Australia’s National Capital by Crispin Hull
Ch 6 — The political heritage
The reason for Canberra’s existence is to house the national government.
So Canberra is the locus of the great conflicts and contests of politics. These go beyond the contest between the two major parties which is played out every few years in a federal election. Australia is a Federation with a written Constitution which separates and divides power among several institutions: some to the States and some to the central Commonwealth. The power given to the Commonwealth is further divided: to the legislature (comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate), to the Executive (comprising the Prime Minister and Ministers appointed from the party — or combined parties — with a majority in the House of Representatives) and to the judiciary headed by the High Court of Australia.
The Constitution of the new federation was approved by the people in referendums in the late 1890s. A majority of people in all colonies approved it. It set up a system of Government similar to that in Canada. It is a hybrid between the Westminster system in Britain (where members of the Executive Government must also be Members of the legislative Parliament), and the United States federal system which divides power between the states and the central authority. It is often called the Washminster system. It has provided Australia with a stable democracy for more than a century.
The Constitution lists the powers of the Commonwealth Parliament. It may make laws with respect to foreign affairs, defence, the currency, international and interstate trade, corporations, post and telegraphs, industrial relations, family law and so on. Some of these powers have qualifications and limitations and their precise meaning has been the subject of much legal argument in disputes between the states and the Commonwealth in the High Court. States or citizens will often ask the court to rule some Commonwealth legislation as invalid because it goes beyond the powers set out in the Constitution.
The scene for the greatest recent tussle over the limits of power between the states and the Commonwealth was argued before the High Court in Canberra in 1983. The Tasmanian Government, through its Hydro-Electric Commission, wanted to construct a dam over the Franklin River which the new Federal Labor Government argued would destroy a pristine wilderness. But the Commonwealth had no constitutional power over the environment. So it passed a law based on other powers, such as the corporations power, prohibiting corporation (even a State-owned one like the Hydro) from building a dam or the foreign-affairs power, prohibiting dam building in any place subject to an international treaty on environmental heritage. The Commonwealth got its way.
Over the past century, the Commonwealth has ever widened the ambit of its power — often through holding the purse strings. There is provision to change the Constitution by referendum to give the Commonwealth more (or less) power or to make other changes. But only eight of the 52 attempts have succeeded. Every year the Council of Australian Governments is held in Canberra to argue over how much Commonwealth revenue should go to the states. Frequently State Premiers from different political parties will form alliances against the Commonwealth in seeking more money. Through the purse strings, though, the Commonwealth can exert influence over such things as education and health policy — areas not given it in the Constitution.
In these fights the Commonwealth Government is frequently referred to as “”Canberra” in media reports. Headlines such as “”Canberra hits states”, “”Canberra cuts pensions” or “”Canberra targets roads” are typical. This metonymy annoys the people of Canberra who do not see their city as being the same as the Federal Government. Indeed, the people of Canberra have fewer representatives per head of population in the Federal Parliament than anywhere else in Australia. But the sensitivities of the people of Canberra will not stop the practice. It is unfortunate, because many Australians who have not visited Canberra to see and experience the city have a jaundiced view of their capital. They see it solely as a place where politicians tax them and misspend the proceeds. In particular, they see the spending on Canberra itself as a waste of public money — until they visit the city themselves and see it as an expression of national aspiration.
Another tussle played out in Canberra is that between the legislature and the Executive Government. The Prime Minister and other ministers are appointed by the Governor-General — officially the Queen’s representative in Australia, but now always an Australian nominated by the Prime Minister to the Queen who always seals the appointment. The Governor-General is usually appointed for five years. In short, the Governor-General appoints the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister appoints the Governor-General. Their terms never coincide. Moreover, the Governor-General almost always has to follow the advice (orders) of the Prime Minister on things such as the timing of elections. The only significant exception has been in breaking the deadlock between the legislature and the executive government in 1975.
The legislature comprises the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Government has a majority in the House, which has about 150 Members representing roughly equal electorates throughout the country of about 80,000 voters each. The Government usually does not have a majority in the Senate, because the Senate is elected differently, usually enabling some independents and minor party candidates to get seats and hold the balance of power with neither major party having more than half the senators. The Senate comprises 12 senators from each state and two each from the mainland territories. Senators are elected proportionately, with each state and territory as a single, multi-member electorate. Senators have a fixed six-year term, with half the Senate retiring every three years. Usually, the half Senate election is run at the same time as the House of Representatives election, the House having a maximum (but unfixed) term of three years.
All legislation, including the annual appropriation of money for the Government to operate, has to be approved by the Senate. In 1975 for the first, and only time in Australia’s history, the Senate — dominated by the Liberal-National conservative Coalition and some independents — refused to pass the appropriation legislation of the Labor Government of Gough Whitlam. The stand-off lasted weeks, with the situation getting ever more tense as the Government ran out of money and Whitlam refusing to be forced into an early election. Public servants’ pay in Canberra was under threat. Eventually Governor-General John Kerr broke the impasse by dismissing the Whitlam Government and calling on the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Fraser, to form a caretaker government with an election to be held within five weeks. Kerr’s Official Secretary read the prorogation of Parliament from the steps of Parliament House in Canberra in the face of an incredulous and angry crowd. Fraser won the election, but debate over whether the Senate should have such power has continued ever since.
Since 1975, the Senate has always passed the appropriation bills, though it often amends or blocks other legislation. If legislation is blocked twice by the Senate, the Government can order an election for both the House and the Senate (a double dissolution). If after the election, the Senate still blocks the legislation, it goes to a joint sitting of both Houses (where the Government’s extra numbers in the House would usually ensure its passage). There have been more than half a dozen double dissolutions, but only ever one joint sitting as a consequence — in 1974.
One of the most severe consequences of the events of 1975 for Canberra was the attitude of the incoming Fraser Government to the city. He cut spending on the city (and the public-sector elsewhere) under the watchful eye of a special committee of Cabinet which became known in the media as the Razor Gang. Unemployment in the city rose. Construction companies left or even went broke. It was an economic and political lesson for the people of the city — Canberra could no longer rely on “”Canberra” (in the metonymic sense).
The other dramatic tussle for power usually played out in Canberra is the struggle for party leadership. Unlike in the United States where the President is elected for a fixed term by the people, the Prime Minister is elected by the members of the majority party in Parliament. If those members believe the Prime Minister might lose the next election, they will replace him mid-term. Similarly, the leadership of the Opposition (the other major party not in power) is open for contest. Otherwise, leadership usually changes hands after electoral defeat, or rarely, on retirement (in the case of Menzies) or death (in the case of Harold Holt by drowning in 1968).
Sometimes a leader will be told the numbers are against him and he resigns. Often there is a showdown in the party room — which always takes place in Parliament House in Canberra. Perhaps the most dramatic was when William McMahon challenged Prime Minister John Gorton for the Liberal leadership in 1971. The party room vote was tied, so Gorton exercised his casting vote against himself and McMahon became Prime Minister. Other leadership fights were on the Labor side between Whitlam and Arthur Calwell in the late 1960s; Jim Cairns and Whitlam in the early 1970s; Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke in the early 1980s; and Hawke and Paul Keating in the early 1990s (with Keating wresting the Prime Ministership from Hawke). On the Liberal side, Billy Snedden and Fraser in 1974 and 1975; Andrew Peacock and John Howard (three times in the 1980s); and John Hewson and Alexander Downer. More recently, a new tussle between John Howard and Peter Costello has been speculated upon.
Canberra is also the place for the contest of policy ideas — often fought out behind bureaucratic closed doors. Should foreign policy concentrate on the US and Britain or be more attuned to Asia? Should Australia have more forward defence or concentrate on home defence? What government businesses should be privatised? How much should the Commonwealth leave to the states in aras of health and education? Should immigration be increased or decreased and what mix of business, family and refugee categories should it have? And so on. Sometimes the battles are on smaller issues, like the boundaries of a National Park.
All these battles have been fought and power exercised in a built environment which in turn has affected how the battles were fought and the power exercised.
As noted elsewhere, by the early 1920s, NSW MPs were getting unsettled at the length of time Parliament was sitting in Melbourne. In 1923 the House of Representatives called for the first meeting of the 10th Parliament in the new capital in 1926. It was in fact opened in 1927 and Government architect John Smith stark white building became the signature building of Canberra for six decades.
By the 1980s it was far too small for the burgeoning number of political staffers and press, as well as the increased number of politicians — almost double the number who had arrived in 1927. The smallness of the House meant a greater friendliness among politicians, even across party lines. But it also meant that no meeting was secret for long. John Howard once remarked that in the old Parliament House he got wind of any challenge to his leadership that might be brewing well before it happened. In the new Parliament House, however, he had no idea that he was being stalked by Peacock’s backers and he lost the leadership without warning. The new House with its 75,000 square metres of floor space holds the equivalent of a small township of people. The Ministry is more physically distant from the back-benchers’ offices, leading to the assertion (in both Labor and Liberal periods of Government) that it is more aloof and out-of-touch politically. Moreover, the extra space has allowed for extra political staffers. Ministerial offices are no longer the intimate places where the Minister would know everyone and everything. Staffers now have a large amount of power in sifting what the Minister sees. It has enabled some Ministers to hide behind the actions of their staffers, pleading ignorance to critical pieces of politically embarrassing pieces of information. More staffers also means more massaging of information that goes to the media — spin doctoring as it is known.
When Parliament moved to Canberra in 1927, so did the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister’s Lodge — a few hundred metres from new Parliament House was built by the Federal Capital Commission in 1927, on a suburban block to an undistinguished design. Prime Minister John Curtin died there on 5 July, 1945. His successor Ben Chifley refused to live there, preferring his lodgings at the Hotel Kurrajong. Prime Minister John Howard has refused to make the Lodge his home, staying there only when necessary when in Canberra.
As to the judicial arm of government, in the first 80 years of federation the High Court sat mainly in Melbourne and Sydney, going on circuit to the other state capitals. In 1980 a new building in the Parliamentary Triangle next to the lake was opened in Canberra, and the court no longer has to go on circuit. It occasionally sits in Sydney, but all the major constitutional cases are argued in Canberra, sometimes with 16 barristers — representing states, Commonwealth and parties — arguing before the seven justices. The court also hears matters on appeal from state courts as the highest court of appeal.
The city itself, of course, has had its own politics. After the Menzies period, the population had swelled so there was more to the city than federal administration. Many citizens started to question the autocratic powers of the National Capital Development Commission. Until the mid-1960s, there was very little democracy within this capital city of a democracy. A seven-member advisory council was set up in 1930, with little power, and only three of its members elected. The territory got a federal member of the House of Representatives in 1949, but with limited voting rights until 1966. The advisory council gradually became fully elected, but could (and often was) overruled by the federal minister. In the 1970s the territory got two federal senators and another Member of the House. There was much talk of self-government and a parliamentary committee recommended it in 1975. In the period of the Whitlam Government (1972-1975) Canberra was given a special place as a social laboratory. Under the Constitution, the Federal Parliament had power over the territories. Whitlam felt he could institute radical policies in Canberra free from conservative state governments interfering – abortion and drug law changes, maternity leave, local medical centres and 24-hour liquor licensing were some of the changes. As this meant considerable federal funding for the city, few Canberrans objected. In 1978 a referendum on self-government was held and 63.5 per cent voted No, preferring the benign despotism of federal rule. But in 1988, the Federal Government forced the issue, passing legislation for self-government with equivalent to state powers, whether Canberrans liked it or not. The noble insistence that democracy was a duty as well as a right carried with it, though, a feeling by the Federal Government that the people of the federal territory should have to pay their own way, just like the states. With self-government came a detailed funding arrangement that saw sharp decreases in federal funding. The first ACT Government was elected in 1989 — headed by Labor’s Rosemary Follett, the first woman to be elected head of government in Australia. However, the funding cuts caused Canberrans to complain bitterly about self-government, which they continue to do to this day.

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