ACT planning laws out of date

The Commonwealth control over planning in Canberra needs to be reviewed. By Zed Seselja.

In the course of a recent discussion I had in relation to the potential development of West Tuggeranong with Jamie Briggs, the Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, the Minister made a telling observation. He remarked that it was quite unique that the arrangements between the ACT and Commonwealth governments require his involvement in the issue of developing a town centre some distance from the Parliamentary Triangle.

That observation raises an important question. Why is it that a Commonwealth minister needs to be involved in planning decisions that, in other parts of Australia, are ordinarily the domain of State and Local governments?

After two and a half decades of self-government and with the Assembly due to expand to 25 at the next election, it is time to debate the nature and extent of direct Commonwealth control over planning in Canberra.

In the 1988 Act that introduced ACT self-government, the Commonwealth chose to continue to exercise control over the broad planning direction of Canberra through the National Capital Plan. The new Territory Legislative Assembly was then given the task of preparing and administering its own detailed plan for the design and development of Canberra subject to the overarching Commonwealth plan.

The National Capital Plan sets out broad parameters for development across the entirety of the ACT – not just the Parliamentary Triangle but in the town centres and outer suburbs as well.  This means the Commonwealth has the authority to influence the alignment of major arterial roads such as Gungahlin Drive, as well as determining the permissibility of residential development in greenfield areas.


While this arrangement may have served a purpose when  the Territory was still finding its feet in the early years of self-government, 25 years on it is worth considering whether this is still appropriate.

I believe that planning arrangements between the ACT and Commonwealth governments should be assessed by asking one simple question – is Commonwealth control necessary to protect the unique national character of Australia's capital city?

When it comes to development in the Parliamentary Triangle, and in and around our national institutions, I believe the answer is clearly yes: it's important these areas are protected and improved for all Australians to experience and enjoy. However, when it comes to potential residential developments in the outer suburbs, many kilometres away from Parliament House, I would argue the answer is clearly no.

On other issues, such as the hills, ridges and buffers policy, the answer is less clear. It is important, though, that we begin to have these conversations.

The duplication of processes – new developments must go through ACT and federal planning processes – means that new neighbourhoods are delayed.  There are new families moving to Canberra every week.  With growing demand for housing, a delay in getting houses on the market means that it becomes harder for families to afford their own home. 

In the Molonglo Valley, homes were delayed because the plans had to be approved by the NCA, the ACT government and under the Environment Protection Act.  Whilst ensuring that new developments are in the best interests of the community is important – this is an over-complication of the process.

In the 1988 Act that introduced ACT self-government, the Commonwealth chose to continue to exercise control over the broad planning direction of Canberra through the National Capital Plan.

Zed Seselja

Removing the duplication in red tape from the planning process should not be about diminishing the role of the National Capital Authority.  The NCA is an important part of protecting what is unique about Canberra.  Giving more authority to the ACT on planning decisions will allow the NCA to focus on their core function of protecting and promoting the national capital, while the ACT government can focus on the broader needs and well-being of Canberrans.

I have been advocating for a change to these planning arrangements in relation to West Tuggeranong and the possibility of development on the other side of the Murrumbidgee River. This is a process of addressing a restriction placed on development prior to self-government.  This restriction has held back Tuggeranong and limited opportunities for affordable housing and jobs in the region. A change to this restriction would not mandate development; it would simply remove a Commonwealth prohibition on expansion in that area and allow the current or a future ACT Government to make its own decision as to the future of West Tuggeranong, just as it is doing with the expansion of Belconnen and Gungahlin. 

Ultimately, it is the people who live in this city who know how best to develop it. I encourage Canberrans to contact their local representatives with thoughts and ideas on how the planning arrangements can better reflect the reality of living in Canberra. I have written to the ACT government to seek its views on a potential re-alignment of planning responsibilities and to encourage it to engage with the Commonwealth on such a process. 

While Canberra is a city for the whole nation, it is also a place where people raise their families, work hard on their careers, and build their communities – or, to put it another way, it's home. I believe 25 years on from self-government, it's time we ensured our planning laws reflect that reality.

Zed Seselja is  a Liberal senator for the ACT.