Senate debates

Thursday, 21 March 2013


Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading

11:51 am

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel) Share this | | Hansard source

It gives me great pleasure to rise today to support the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Amendment Bill 2013 because it represents a reform which is, frankly, long overdue. This bill has the effect of patriating to the Legislative Assembly for the Australian Capital Territory the power to determine its own size. At self-government in 1989 the Commonwealth parliament determined that the ACT Legislative Assembly, this new self-governing parliament for the territory, would consist of 17 members, making it then the smallest legislature in the Commonwealth, with the exception of Norfolk Island. The legislative assembly has presided over now almost a quarter of a century of self-government for the ACT, in which period the population of the ACT has grown by approximately 100,000 people.

Curiously, the provisions for the legislative assembly to determine its own size—or for even the people of the ACT through, say, a referendum to determine the size of their parliament—has never been clarified or made evident. The fact, though, is that this is not the approach which the Commonwealth has taken with other self-governing parliaments. In 1978 the Fraser government legislated for the Northern Territory to be granted self-government and from day one of self-government in that territory the parliament of the Northern Territory had the capacity to determine its size. Strangely, a decade later, when the then Hawke government decided to grant self-government to the ACT, the same prerogative to determine its size was not granted to it.

I acknowledge that there is a difference in the history of the two territories which would account for that different treatment in the enacting of their self-government legislation—effectively, their constitutions. Self-government was warmly welcomed by the citizens of the Northern Territory in 1978. It is true to say that self-government was less warmly welcomed by the citizens of the ACT in 1989. I was a candidate in the first election for the ACT Legislative Assembly in 1989 and saw firsthand the backlash by voters of the ACT when they were being foisted with this unwelcome concept of having to make their own decisions.

It is true to say that, in the intervening quarter of a century, people, while perhaps not growing to love self-government, have certainly become more comfortable with it and today participate vigorously in elections for the legislative assembly to determine the direction of their community. The levers that self-government presents for people to make important decisions about the direction of their community have been well and truly taken up by the citizens of this territory.

But, of course, they have not been able, either as voters or as legislators, to deal with an ongoing problem in the structure of self-government, which is the size itself of the legislative assembly. Having been a member of that parliament—indeed, having been a minister and Chief Minister of the ACT—I can say that in my opinion a parliament of 17 members is too small to be functionally effective. A parliament of 17 members, particularly one elected using principles of proportional representation, will generally consist of a government with between six and nine members, from which a ministry needs to be drawn, a Chief Minister, often a Speaker, and backbenchers to populate membership of parliamentary committees, which are supported in that context as they are in this parliament. With only as few as six members of a government, that presents very significant challenges.

I appreciate that larger parliaments come at a cost and taxpayers often resent those extra costs and wonder why they need to have larger parliaments. I note that some parliaments in recent decades have actually reduced in size in acknowledgement of that concern by taxpayers and voters. But whatever the best arrangement for the structure of government, that arrangement needs to be determined by the people of that political system—of that community. It is not appropriate in the present situation for the Commonwealth to assume some overlord arrangement which dictates what the size of the legislative assembly should be. This bill patriates to the legislative assembly the capacity to make that decision for itself, with an important proviso: that the legislative assembly should resolve any questions of enlargement or adjustment of its size by a mechanism that protects minorities or minor parties from abuse of that process with the requirement that any change to the size of the assembly be passed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the assembly.

Again, a little bit of history would be useful here. The chief obstacle to the granting of self-government to the ACT throughout the 1980s—a number of governments made attempts to secure self-government during that time—was the argument about how members of the legislative assembly should be elected. It was acknowledged very early on that there was a significant problem with having single-member electorates in the ACT because, as I am sure members and senators of this parliament will know, the ACT is a planned city and its population is very homogenous. So there are not starkly different areas of wealth and poverty. It is very likely that any parliament made up of single-member electorates would have quite small variations in the voting patterns of individual seats. And if one projects results from legislative assembly elections in the past on to a single-member electorate model, it is very likely that in some parliaments in the last 25 years, had that model been used, one party would have monopolised all of the seats in the legislative assembly.

To guard against that, it was felt that there needed to be a system of proportional representation and, to its credit, the Hawke government demanded that there be such a system for at least the first election for the legislative assembly in 1989 even though the ACT branch of the Labor Party was firmly opposed at that stage to a system of proportional representation. If it were possible to create a majority government or a very substantial majority government using an electoral system such as that based on single-member electorates, the opportunity for abuse of the process to allow for entrenchment of unfair practices by a government with that kind of power was feared. Hence I think that it is appropriate in this legislation for protection to be in place to make sure that a government with a simple majority in the parliament—which, I might say, is not a common phenomenon in the ACT Legislative Assembly—would not be able to change the size of the assembly based simply on the fact that it had a simple majority.

This reform arises in part out of the recommendations of Dr Allan Hawke AC, who conducted an important review of the situation of self-government in 2011. The review was entitled Canberra, a capital place and he flagged at that stage the need for some examination of the size of the legislative assembly. Indeed, he went on to say:

In light of the importance of robust and accountable democratic processes in the ACT—characterised by high standards of parliamentary debate, a legislative program covering a range of complex issues, and an active Assembly Committee process—and the significant under-representation of the citizens of the ACT, there is an overwhelming case for increasing the size of the Assembly.

I welcome that support for a process to allow that to occur and I note that with the introduction and passage of this legislation today that objective is being met.

Although this process is one which has produced some reform in this area, there is another important area where some further reform is required, which was also flagged in Dr Hawke's report, and that was in the way the planning system of the ACT works. We have a city of 350,000 people or so, a relatively compact city, a city in which there are two separate, freestanding planning systems. If one were to take a walk from this building around the Parliamentary Triangle and areas adjacent thereto, there is a very good chance that one would cross several times in such a perambulation the boundaries between the areas of responsibility of the ACT government and the federal government. It does not make a great deal of sense to have a system with so many areas of friction. I think that system does need to be simplified. It was one of Dr Hawke's recommendations that that occur. I know that the National Capital Authority and the relevant federal department have been focusing on this issue for some time but they are, as I understand it, very far from getting these issues resolved. I think it is important that that happen because the city is not being planned optimally while that bifurcation of planning responsibility remains.

To conclude, the ACT has a mature, responsive and stable self-government arrangement. In fact, it has one of the best democratic arrangements in the country. With a system of proportional representation there is a high likelihood that the votes of the citizens of the ACT in an election will be reflected in the make-up of the assembly and, hence, the government that they achieve. We should be proud of what it has been able to achieve in the last 25 years. I welcome the fact that this legislation will take away one final piece of inconsistency in the arrangements set up at self-government, which was that the ACT Legislative Assembly had no power to determine its optimal size.

I am not urging the ACT government or parliament to rush forward and undertake a process of enlarging itself. I think that it needs to take a process which appropriately understands and considers the views of the citizens of the territory before it gets to that point. But I am very confident they can do that and, if they decide as a result to have a larger assembly, I personally would welcome that as a step towards better government in the ACT.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.