Canberra 1983-1993 — 8th decade

Decade 8: 1983-1993 Letting go the apron strings
When Labor’s Bob Hawke swept to power in 1983 after seven and a half years of Coalition rule, some people in Canberra thought that the Whitlam glory days were back. There would be government programs with lots of money to administer them.
But the Hawke Government and its Treasurer Paul Keating did not want to repeat the errors of the Whitlam era and saw fiscal responsibility as essential to political survival. Rather than increase the Federal Public Service, Labor continued with the Fraser cuts and began a series of privatisations that saw many full-time public-sector jobs disappear to the private sector.
In this decade, another change had perhaps more effect on Canberra than any other city in Australia – information technology. It meant the virtual disappearance of the old fourth division of the Public Service which had employed so many of Canberra’s youth.
Typists, filing clerks, photocopyists and the like disappeared. The public sector became more efficient, but also less job hungry. It concentrated on policy advice. It meant that Canberra’s youth unemployment became chronic. Drug use, crime levels and homelessness went up among the young. Canberrans could no longer leave their houses and cars unlocked. Indeed, burglar alarms, deadlocks and bars became more common.
Also, in this decade Canberra saw more incidences of violent crime as the city grew from being a country town. In 1989 the murder of Assistant Federal Police Commission Colin Winchester outside his Deakin home shocked the city and the nation.
Outwardly, Canberra kept its affluent appearance, but the earlier policies of mixing public housing through the suburbs and the provision of public space and gardens meant there were no poor areas – poverty was disguised. Adjacent similar houses could have huge disparities of income.
The coming of the Hawke Government did not stop the rounds of Canberra-bashing. It became a national sport to criticise Canberra both as the home of the Federal Government and as an artificial city. Politicians from both sides spoke of Canberra not being in “”the real world’’.
Within Canberra it led to a feeling of a need to defend and showcase the city to outsiders – an ultimately to a pride in the city in the face of adversity. It also led to a desire to show that Canberra was like other places in Australia. And the most effective means of doing that was through sport.
In the 1970s Canberra had its local sporting competitions within the town: soccer, league, rugby, Australian rules, basketball and so on. But it had no big presence on the national sporting scene. At first Canberra City soccer team joined a national competition and the Canberra Raiders joined the national (really NSW) rugby league competition. And then the first national breakthrough for a Canberra team came in 1983 when the Canberra Cannons won the national basketball competition in 1983. The whole city was behind them. They won again in 1984.
The next boost for Canberra as a national sporting force came in 1987 when the Raiders made the rugby league grand final and the icing on the cake came in 1989 and 1990 when they won the final.
Although ACT Rugby teams were a force in the 1970s and 80s, it was not until the late 1990s, after league lost its lustre in Rupert Murdoch’s Super League upheaval, that the Brumbies really caught national attention.
Each time these teams hit the top rungs of their competition ladder it helped change Canberra’s image from being synonymous with Federal Government to being a city with diverse interests and aspirations.
Despite sporting success contributing to a sense of city self-awareness, it did not translate into any desire for local democracy. On November 27, 1977, a referendum on self-government in the ACT voted 63.5 against; 31.1 for; 5.4 for local government and 1.6 informal. That was the end of the matter as far as the Fraser Government was concerned. But the Hawke Government saw democracy as a duty as well as a right. It was determined to give the ACT self-government whether it liked it or not. It also heeded the lesson of 1975 and 1977 – that it would be better for ACT residents to vent anger on a territory Assembly than on the ACT’s (usually Labor) federal MPs. Further, it wanted to force the ACT into line with the states on funding levels without copping too much flak.
And so without a vote in the ACT itself, the Australian Capital Territory Self-Government Act was passed by the Federal Parliament and the first election for an ACT Legislative Assembly with state- and local-government powers was held in March 1989. It was a fiasco. More than 100 candidates stood for the 17 seats. The modified d’Hondt system of voting was forced upon the ACT by expedience and compromise among the political parties in the Senate eager not to give any party any advantage. It took weeks to count, and the result was the election of a hotch potch of political opportunists who stood under various anti-self-government and residents’ action banner. The voters, denied a referendum on self-government converted the first election into one – not realising that they would have to live with the consequences. The Liberals polled less than 15 per cent and Labor less than 24 per cent of the vote. Labor’s Rosemary Follett with just five of the 17 seats was elected Chief Minister and bravely headed a minority government until it was defeated in a no-confidence motion later that year when some of the Residents Rally and anti-self government MLAs were offered ministries and the speakership in an Alliance Government headed by the Liberals’ Trevor Kaine.
The second election in 1991 set the pattern for ACT governance: a cross bench of minor party and independent MLAs holding the balance of power and the major party with the most seats governing in minority.
The system has been ridiculed and impossibly nostalgic cries have gone out for a return to the good old days when the Federal Government ruled with a generous hand. However, by comparison with other Australia state-level governments it is no less competent, democratic or responsive to community needs.
The other event of great significance in this decade was the opening of New Parliament House. The design and construction of Parliament House was a major achievement for Canberra, indeed Australia. More than a million visitors a year come to see it and the flagpole has become a symbol for the city.
Canberra’s role as the city in which major national symbolic events should take place was enhanced by the Vietnam Veterans remembrance day in October 1992 when 20,000 people came to Canberra. The day marked recognition of a change in national attitude to the people who fought in the war – that though ultimately a majority of Australians opposed the war, they supported and did not blame the veterans who fought in it. That symbolism was seen again in November 1993 with the entombment of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial – 75 years after the end of World War I.
By the end of its eighth decade Canberra’s economy had diversified more and its residents knew that while public administration was its most significant function, it could not be the be-all and end-all of the city. Governments of both complexion had made it clear that too-much reliance on the public sector was no answer to the continued prosperity of the city and Canberrans were heeding the message.

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