Australian Economy

Focus on Politics: Australian Capital Territory

How much do you know about politics in the ACT? Some of its history might surprise you, plus five important lessons from the ACT no matter where you live. 

While “Canberra” is often shorthand for federal parliament, the ACT legislative assembly and Canberra politics presents a unique insight into a different form of voting for our capital territory and has some very interesting insights, policy initiatives and outcomes for a small jurisdiction. 

Prior to 1988 the ACT was administrated by a federal government minister for the capital territories, meaning no elected local, state or territory government.  In fact, when the residents of the ACT were asked if they wanted self-government in 1978, over 63.75 per cent of the population wanted to retain existing arrangements, and less than 31 per cent wanted self-government.  

Notwithstanding this rejection of self-government, about a decade later it was thrust upon the people of the ACT in a series of self-government Acts in 1988. This curious jurisdiction went on to elect 3 members of the legislative assembly from the No Self Government Party to the first legislature after self-government was introduced. The people of Canberra definitely know how to lodge a protest vote!

In continuing this trend for quirky parties, rejecting self-government and generally making politicians sweat for their pay cheque, the ACT also has one of the most complex voting systems in Australia.  

In 1992 the Hare-Clark multi-member electorate proportional representation system, with Robson rotation, was introduced to replace the previous D’Hondt method. The Robson rotation means ballots are different. The order on mine will be different to the order of yours, for instance. This unique system creates a few quirks with political stakeholders in what is the statistically most well-educated State or Territory in Australia (and also the highest average income). Psephologists – political scientists – eat your hearts out!

Wherever you are in Australia there are five really important lessons from the ACT:

  1. The political parties have less control on who is elected than every other state or territory in Australia
  2. Minority governments have largely been the norm since 1988 with only a couple of short exceptions
  3. Labor has been in government in the ACT since 2001 and if or when re-election occurs in 2024 will have had 23 years of continuous government, across three chief ministers. 
  4. The ACT is a jurisdiction which provides innovative economic, social and other policies “tested” on the population and scaled often across Australia
  5. It is Australia’s only “republic” having no crown representative. 

Let’s look at why political parties in the ACT have less control than in other states and territories. In the ACT, given each of the five electorates is a multi-member electorate which elects five people, each political party puts up five candidates, hoping they will get three to form a majority. Given the party has no say on the order of the ballots (due to the Robson rotation) they can’t place their preferred person at the top – everyone’s ballot is different, so the “donkey vote” of voting 1 to 5 down the ballot distributes across multiple people. People look for the candidate of the name they know, or want down the party column. This really annoys factional leaders, as often it isn’t their choice of candidate who is elected. Sometimes government will remain the same, but some of the government members will lose their seats and be replaced by others of the same party. This lack of factional clout, compared to other states causes weird quirks, both the leader of government (Andrew Barr) and the leader of the opposition (Elizabeth Lee) are not part of the majority faction in the Labor and Liberal party respectively. 

Minority governments are the norm, apart from a few brief years, with both major parties typically form government as minority governments. The conservatives have in the (distant) past relied upon single-issue, sometimes anti-abortion members, to hold government. Labor has often relied on a mix of those from The Greens Party, or independents to hold government.  

This is unique in Australia where historically majority governments occur more often than minority.  The quirk of the ACT voting system means often the major parties will each get two each of the five seats, or three each of the seven when the electorates were larger, the final being a swing, or minor party seat. 

Labor has held government since November 2001, but in this time has had three chief ministers; Jon Stanhope (9 years 6 months), Katy Gallagher (now federal minister for finance was chief minister for 3 years and 7 months) and Andrew Barr (elected December 2014, and will surpass Jon Stanhope as longest ever chief minister in mid-2024, before facing an election later that year).  

This process of renewal, compromise and working as a minority government seems to continue to be a success for the Labor Party in the ACT, and this is largely due to the ACT Liberal Party being one of the most conservative in Australia, despite the ACT being one of the most progressive jurisdictions. 

Historically speaking, the Liberal Party has only held government in Canberra when it has outflanked Labor on being progressive on social issues, however the moderate faction of the Liberal Party has been in retreat for almost two decades. 

The ACT is also a hotbed of reform on big economic and social issues, whether it was the first jurisdiction to legalise Uber, through to being the first to phase in an abolition of Stamp Duty (currently underway and replacing Stamp Duty with a broad-based land tax and rates).  

These unique policy aspirations continue into other areas – the ACT has no free hold land, all land is on 99 year leases, which means governments can successfully “value capture” when land is rezoned, both through rates (as there is no local government just one ACT wide government) as well as through “lease variation charges” which are used to capture uplifts in value. 

The latter has been used along the light rail corridor as a way to assist the government in funding the light rail. The ACT punches above its weight with these types of reforms, and many aspirational reforms we need for Australia are already underway in the ACT. 

The final focus on ACT is a weird quirk of history. While the ACT was the only jurisdiction in Australia to vote in favour of the republic in 1997, it is also the only jurisdiction in Australia which is technically a “republic” in that it does not have a territory head of state, nor a representative of the crown. 

Federally we have the governor general, the states each have governors, and even the Northern Territory, Indian Ocean Territories and Norfolk Island all have “administrators” as representatives of the crown. The ACT however has no such head of state, meaning bills become law when they are gazetted and published, as opposed to when they have any form of royal assent. 

Happenings on the Hill is a fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Focusing on both Federal and State & Territory politics, stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.


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