Decade 7: 1973-1983 Life by a thousand cuts
The election of the Whitlam Labor Government at the end of 1972 marked big changes for Canberra.
Part of Gough Whitlam’s political platform was that the Commonwealth should involve itself with things which were hitherto local or state matters – the quality of Australian cities, health and education. Town planning was important to Whitlam. He set up the Department of Urban and Regional Development.
The fall-out for Canberra was significant. Canberra – with its experience of the National Capital Development Commission – was the repository of most federal knowledge of these matters. Canberra would house the bureaucracy to run these programs. That could give Canberra’s growth yet another spurt. And it was in the Australian Capital Territory where the Whitlam Government could implement its policies as experiments before taking them nationwide because the Federal Government had full power here as it was a federal territory. There were no recalcitrant state governments – particularly conservative ones which resisted Whitlam’s reformist zeal.
At the beginning of the Whitlam period, Canberra had 155,000 residents. It reached just under 200,000 when he left office at the end of 1975. Whitlam set up programs and commissions and plans. They required bureaucrats to run them and a construction industry to house them and a plethora of other private enterprises to service them. Business did well. It was the only city in Australia where private enterprise was pro-Labor. Indeed Michael Yabsley unsuccessful Labor candidate for the new seat ACT of Fraser was perplexed by the number of Volvo driving socialists in what he hoped would be his electorate.
As a result of the Whitlam Experiment, Canberra got suburban health centres. The idea was that salaried doctors would dispense health care at a local level. Some suggest that Whitlam’s commitment to Medicare, bulk billing and salaried doctors was one of the reasons his Government proposed a new hospital at Woden. In education, the ACT was given the college system that separated Year 11 and 12 so young adults could prepare for tertiary education. It gave the ACT the highest retention rates in the country. Yet it could be argued that the retention rate had little to do with the college system and more to do with the fact that the public service transfers meant that Canberra’s workforce was more educated on average and were determined to pass that on to their children.
Labor introduced 24-hour liquor trading – quite radical at the time. It set up the Australian Law Reform Commission which invariably pushed its ideas through the publication of an ACT draft ordinance.
Whitlam personally was interested in architecture and the grandeur of world cities so he was interested in Canberra. He encouraged the competitions for the High Court and National Gallery.
The Federal Government’s use of the ACT as a social laboratory meant that Labor was not interested in pushing any form of territorial government. Labor had enough trouble with the other states. Instead, it pushed its democratic credentials by making the Member for Canberra, Kep Enderby, the Minister for Capital Territory in the Federal Government. He would be responsive and accountable to the people of Canberra. It was an unworkable experiment. Enderby was blamed for anything that went wrong and he found that ACT matters did not rate highly in the forums of the national government. Ultimately, Enderby was accountable to the people of Canberra. He lost his seat in the 1975 landslide to Liberal John Haslem.
With swearing in of the Coalition Government of Malcolm Fraser in late 1975, the Canberra party was over. Under Treasurer Phil Lynch Fraser established a committee to review federal expenditure – popularly called the Razor Gang. The first place it directed its attention to was Canberra.
It put on hold at least $100 million worth of government construction projects. It ordered an immediate cut in public-service spending of 3.3 per cent to be achieved by June (1976) and in June announced a further cut of 1.6 per cent to be achieved by Budget time in August at which time it announced a further cut of 2 per cent to be achieved by the following June.
With a freeze on public-service jobs, youth unemployment rose to the highest in the nation.
As symbolic gestures rather than real savings, the new Government ordered that the Captain Cook Jet be turned off for most of the time. It ordered that lights in public-services offices be turned off at night. The High Court’s construction continued, however, perhaps because Chief Justice Garfield Barwick had given the Governor-General the green light to sack the Whitlam Government, thus helping Fraser. But construction of the National Gallery ground to a virtual standstill and was delayed several years.
Canberra became the symbol for the wasteful, high-taxing, inflation-causing Whitlam Government.
By 1979 population growth had slowed to just 1.9 per cent. More people left the city than came in for the first time since the Depression. Employment growth stopped. The city’s population grew only because its young population was still breeding.
Public housing construction fell from 1117 in 1976 to none in 1980. Land servicing ceased. House prices plummeted.
Private enterprise suffered grievously. Local companies went broke and national companies pulled out of the city. Canberrans realised just how much they had depended on the Federal Public Service for their livelihoods and how imperative it had become to diversify. Business groups founded the Canberra Association for Regional Development. From 1976, an underlying theme of residents, employees, businesspeople, community groups and local political representatives on the (advisory) Assembly was to promote a more vibrant and diverse private sector in Canberra. The push continues today.
Two things helped save Canberra – politics and sport.
It was apparent at the end of the 1970s that Parliament House was becoming unworkable. Politicians from all sides liked the idea of a new building. An international competition was held for the design, attracting 329 entries. On 19 June 1980 it was announced that the New York firm of Mitchell, Giurgola and Thorp had won the competition from four other finalists. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said later that if it had not been for that entry he would not have gone ahead with a new Parliament building. Like the competition for the design of the city itself, the competition for its most significant building had one entry head and shoulders above the rest.
The design drew almost immediate public praise. The building embodies some quintessentially Australia characteristics; pragmatic, part of the land, democratic, understated, not grandiose or triumphalist. It is dug into the top of a hill at the apex of the triangle. Daily, visitors to Canberra — the people of Australia who have come to see how their democracy works — can walk on the lawn over the top of Parliament House, over where their representatives work. Moreover, the design respected the essence of Griffin’s plan — the overlaying of built form on nature and nature on built form and having a significant building at the apex of the triangle.
The construction which took eight years was a major boost to Canberra’s flagging economy.
As for sport, in the 1978 Olympics Australian was humiliated by getting fewer gold medals than New Zealand. Fraser was determined to do something about it. A full range of sporting facilities to house the Australian Institute of Sport was begun at Bruce. It helped the city economically and in the following decade helped Canberra become a sporting force to be reckoned with on the national scene.
Decade 7: 1973-1983 Life by a thousand cuts