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Insider's view to founding of self-rule


Ross Peake and Peter Jean

Cabinet Papers: 1984-1985

Capital idea ... The territory's first Labor senator, Susan Ryan.

Capital idea ... The territory's first Labor senator, Susan Ryan. Photo: Sydney Morning Herald


Cutting costs rather than granting democracy was the principal motive for establishing self-government in the ACT, according to the territory's first Labor senator, Susan Ryan.

The federal government directly funded and controlled services in the ACT before self-government, with cabinet having to make decisions on issues such as airconditioning in buses.

Ms Ryan was the first woman to serve in a Labor cabinet but had left politics by the time of the first elections in March 1989 after self-government was granted.

She said the ''very high standard'' of services provided to the ACT was resented by some ministers in the Hawke government.

"Others might have different recollections but it's very much my recollection that the driving force was to find a way where the citizens in the ACT would pay for more of their services,'' she told The Canberra Times.

''The real drive [for self-government] was that a whole lot of activities were directly funded by the Commonwealth - education, health, roads, all sorts of things.

''It was the view in those economic rationalist times, with our particular challenges to rein in expenditure, that basically the ACT was too generously funded by the Commonwealth and it should be provided with its own government and its own requirement to raise its own revenues to pay for things such as education and health and so forth.

"Some of these discussions would have been informal remarks, with someone saying, 'look, it's time Canberra people paid their own way', that wouldn't appear in the cabinet records,'' she said.

"We had the Canberra School of Music and the Canberra School of Art, both of which have now been integrated into the ANU, all of those facilities were fabulous and wonderful for the students who could take advantage of them but they did lead to hard heads in the cabinet saying that Canberra people should be paying more.''

Ms Ryan described then finance minister Peter Walsh as ''the leader of the hard-head faction''.

She helped establish the Labor Club in Belconnen in 1969 and was elected in 1974 to the ACT Advisory Council, the predecessor to the ACT Legislative Assembly. In 1975 she was elected as one of the first two senators for the ACT, on the slogan: ''A woman's place is in the Senate''.

When the Hawke Labor government was elected in March 1983, she was appointed minister for education and youth affairs and minister assisting the prime minister for the status of women.

She was minister for education in the second Hawke ministry and opposed the re-introduction of fees for tertiary education, despite strong support in cabinet for the user-pays principle. She lost the education portfolio in the third Hawke ministry and resigned from the Senate in December 1987.

Ms Ryan, now the federal Age Discrimination Commissioner, said she entered federal politics to advance the feminist agenda. "From day one in my parliamentary career, I got used to being in a totally male-dominated outfit. It was sink or swim and I learned to swim,'' she said.

"A large part of my motivation for getting into Parliament was to remove discrimination against women and protect the interests of women. It all went down to education and jobs. I saw the crucial thing as making sure women had the opportunity to fend for themselves economically…''

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