Decade 9: Fire and brimstone
By CRISPIN HULL
One event more than any in Canberra this decade symbolised the political imperatives of the time – the implosion of the Canberra Hospital on July 13, 1997. It went tragically wrong killing 12-year-old Katie Bender.
The emptying of the hospital came in the name of rationalization by a government obsessed with the bottom line – as governments of both complexion national and at state level have been for the past decade or two.
The implosion itself bore the legacy of years of down-sizing, out-sourcing, corner-cutting, privatisation, deregulation and self-regulation capped with a bread and circuses mentality that brought people to the lakeside to watch.
The caution, attention to detail, checking, due process, paramountcy of public safety and the public good – prevalent of an earlier generation of public administration – were completely absent.
And events following also marked the malaise of the time: armies of lawyers, blame-shifting, costs and delay, obfuscation and mountains of papers with no result more than half a decade later.
The event is marked on the consciousness and conscience of Canberra more than any in its history because so many Canberrans witnessed it.
The past decade in Canberra has seen a city adapt changing political and economic forces so that now a majority of the workforce is in the private sector and the public sector workforce is split between the ACT and Federal sectors.
A new breed of employment has emerged of consultants or firms of consultants with employs who do work for all three of those sectors. Rather than the cut and run effect of the Fraser years, the reduction in public-sector employment’s proportion in the Hawke-Keating and Howard years has taken a new form – cut and stay.
It did not matter that these governments were of different political persuasion; they both pursued policies of privatisation and out-sourcing. The response by the people of Canberra was to adapt rather than flee. Many public service employees who lost their jobs through out-sourcing and privatisation were highly educated and experienced people. They soon found themselves work in the private sector contracting back to the public sector – often doing the very tasks they were formerly doing as public-sector employees.
The adaptability was a legacy of the high education standards of the city.
At the same time substantial defence, information-technology and education industries grew in the city – building on the public-sector, particularly the major scientific institutions: the CSIRO, the ANU, Honeysuckle Creek, Geoscience Australia, to name a few. The fact that Canberra had produced (or been strongly associated with) three Nobel prizes (Howard Florey 1946, John Eccles 1963, and Peter Doherty 1996) gave Canberra strong research credentials.
The days of the Federal government hand-out were over.
Locally, the Kaine and Follett Governments ran up big deficits after being handed a territory free from debt. In 1995 Liberal Kate Carnell turned the political truism that Canberra was basically a Labor town on its head. She won more vote and more seats than Labor and was elected Chief Minister. It seemed that Canberra’s tendency to vote Labor federally was as much to do with a belief that Labor was better for Canberra’s economy (with the rest of Australia paying) than any ideological belief. And that did not translate to the territory level where those voting had to pay for the outcome.
Carnell was energetic in her advocacy of Canberra. Some say too energetic in a town that is a stickler for process. Carnell cut corners to get things done and ultimately that was her undoing. Two years after winning the 1998 election she was threatened with a no-confidence motion over the Auditor-General’s criticism of her funding of the Bruce Stadium redevelopment. She resigned rather than bring down the Government.
Her chief ministership was marked by a fiscal responsibility that restored government finances after heavy Labor deficits; a major boost to the private sector – particularly IT and education — and effective promotion of Canberra as a tourist destination and a place to do business in.
After her resignation, her deputy Gary Humphries became Chief Minister until losing to Labor’s Jon Stanhope in the 2001 election.
The decade was dogged by planning disputes and endless three-cornered wrangling between government, management and unions in the health and education sectors, mainly over budgets and pay. But if things were to be judged by the jargon of the decade – “outcomes focused” – Canberra has done well in education and health with the highest retention rate for Year 11 and 12 in the country and the best or second best outcomes for infant mortality and life expectancy.
The Carnell Government permitted more housing in-fill, causing outrage in the suburbs and dual occupancies and medium-density developments encroached upon the garden city. The Stanhope Government has made in-fill more difficult and attempted to spread its impact.
Federally, the Howard Government has been frugal in Canberra. It did live up to its promise to build the National Museum of Australia, but compromised on the site, the vision and the scale of the project – moving it to Acton peninsula where it is crammed and cutting the construction budget so severely that the design competition was condemned by the Royal Institute of Architects. And upon completion the political battles continued inside with the conservatives arguing the displays do not take enough pride in Australian achievements.
The controversy over the museum, though, highlighted Canberra’s growing role as the centre of the national discourse.
Also this decade events like the High Court’s Mabo decision recognising native title and the Constitutional conventions in Old Parliament House that led to the republic referendum have confirmed Canberra’s position as the national capital and the place where the national destiny is mapped.
Canberra’s ninth decade came to a close with the horrific bushfires on January 18. The complete story of that event will only be told in Canberra’s 10th decade.
Decade 9: Fire and brimstone