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Protecting the heart of our nation, Canberra


John Warhurst

Many people don’t like Canberra, including some who know the city and many who don’t. They don’t want to live here and ...

Many people don’t like Canberra, including some who know the city and many who don’t. They don’t want to live here and that is their business. Photo: Karleen Minney

Debates about Canberra’s identity and role are not new. In the past they involved the character of Canberra as a city, whether it had a soul, whether it was too reliant on the public service, whether it was too left-wing, whether it was too planned, and many others.

Many people don’t like Canberra, including some who know the city and many who don’t. They don’t want to live here and that is their business. The critics have been varied and have included Prince Philip, John Howard, author John Bryson, Diamond Jim McClelland, sportsmen and women who say our climate is too cold, ordinary citizens spread across the country who blame the nation’s ills on “Canberra”, and so on.

We’ve seen criticisms come and go. We either turn a blind eye or get angry. Most of us consider ourselves lucky to live here. Our political leaders and federal representatives can be relied upon to speak up in our defence. Then the issue goes away for a while. Cuts to the public service, which also come and go, are another thing. Canberra has also recently had to suffer prime ministers such as John Howard choosing to make their primary home elsewhere.

The latest range of arguments is somewhat new, however, and raises issues that deserve a national debate even if they are not yet being taken too seriously. However they do point to weaknesses in the place of Canberra in the national psyche. They involve the potential dismantling of Canberra. As such they raise the whole idea of what it means to be a national capital.

The main but not the only proponent has been Andrew Wilkie, the Independent member for Denison. He argues that the Commonwealth Public Service should be completely decentralised because “There is no logical reason why the ACT should be the centre of gravity for the federal public service.” He reckons that technology has reduced the need for a centralised workforce and is attracted to the economic benefits of decentralisation to the rest of the country, including especially his own state of Tasmania, which he says needs imported public service jobs most.

But Wilkie’s voice is not the only one. The Abbott government is flirting with decentralisation of public service jobs (though Senator Eric Abetz, the government’s public service minister, declares that the federal government will not threaten the status of Canberra as the home of the bureaucracy). Furthermore, other federal MPs have taken at least some of Wilkie’s lead, including Andrew Nikolic, Liberal federal member for Bass, who has a specific proposal about centralising credit-card processing functions in Tasmania, and Warren Entsch, the Liberal federal member for Leichhardt in northern Queensland. There will be more if the idea of eating away at Canberra catches on.

Canberra is a sitting duck for such proposals. Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson have rushed to Canberra’s defence in a display of spirited bipartisanship. Each makes good points about Canberra-bashing (Hanson) while warning against becoming too defensive (Gallagher).

The most persuasive arguments in Canberra’s defence will not be those that are seen as self-interested. The rest of Australia already see Canberra as well-off and will not buy arguments that Canberra citizens will be hurt by such proposals. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, by shifting public service employment to those parts of the country most in need, is illogical and very short-term thinking. But defending Canberra with such arguments will not win the day.

Canberra has only two seats in the House of Representatives and these are usually won by Labor. We have little political leverage of this or any other kind.

Decentralisation of government functions is not new. The bulk of the Commonwealth public service is located outside Canberra in the states and the Northern Territory, a fact that is not widely understood. Federal governments from time to time take the opportunity of further decentralisation, such as the building of the Joint Operations Command Defence facility on the King’s Highway near Bungendore in NSW.

The same pressures for decentralisation can apply at the state level. This led, for instance, to the relocation of the NSW Department of Agriculture from Sydney to Bathurst/Orange. Perhaps Wilkie should suggest to the Tasmanian government that it move the heart of the Tasmanian public service away from Hobart, in his electorate, to those other parts of Tasmania in greater need.

Ultimately the strongest arguments for Canberra should hinge on two things. First there are the matters of good government for the whole of Australia that Hanson made directly to Wilkie. These are arguments about efficiency and effectiveness that flow from having Commonwealth public service departments and agencies in physical proximity to one another and to the government. They can be made by ministers and politicians but are best made by public administrators. Senior Commonwealth public servants should enter this debate because surely it is within their bailiwick. If not current departmental secretaries then recently retired ones should speak up.

Secondly there is the equally important argument about what it means to have a national capital – which is not only the seat of government (including the public service) but also the home of national institutions, such as the High Court, the War Memorial and national cultural institutions. Such an argument should be conducted within the proposed state of the federation white paper, which should not be just about functional federal-state relations but about the national interest, including our national capital.

It is only within this twin framework that the genuine impact of technological development on government institutions, including even Parliament itself, should be considered.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.


  • Let us not forget that little mention of 'Seat of Government' in the Australian Constitution... "The seat of Government of the Commonwealth shall be determined by the Parliament, and shall be within territory which shall have been granted to or acquired by the Commonwealth, and shall be vested in and belong to the Commonwealth, and shall be in the State of New South Wales, and be distant not less than one hundred miles from Sydney."

    Without this gem, and the existence of Canberra, we would not have become a nation!

    Date and time
    July 17, 2014, 2:00PM
    • I am not a great fan of Canberra and have engaged in my share of Canberra bashing. However, let us not forget it was created as the national capital and many have invested their live here, raised there families and built a community from a sheep paddock. For these johnny come lately pollies to suggest that Canberra should be gutted and left to wither on the vine is sacrilege and just shows what narrow minded self serving little people they really are. We should be looking for every opportunity to grow and improve Canberra and promote it as the national capital. You cannot do that without a solid employment base and that is what the public service provides.

      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 2:06PM
      • "We have little political leverage of this or any other kind."

        Massive understatement.

        Because Canberra has two safe ALP seats at the federal level neither the LNP nor the ALPin government has any interests in supporting the ACT like both need to do for other electorates which are more volatile.

        And the succession of LNP senators has not done much for the ACT either. We are treated as a federal politicians' plaything. Even when we pass legislation for ourselves, such as on same sex unions or euthanasia, if the feds don't like it they overturn it. Gary Humphries as senator did lodge one token vote for the ACT against the wishes of the LNP, but only when the outcome didn't matter.

        ACT has only two senators and two HoR seats which is a gross under-representation when compared with Tasmania.

        And if anyone did care about the national interest then the so-called carbon tax would not have been repealed today.

        It's about politicians and their protection. And the current crop are the worst I can remember for partisanship, populism and shallowness.

        Canberra bashing is a blood sport. Always has been. Even my old mother, when she visited from country Victoria, would always complain that Canberra had decent roads. I used to ask if she expected the national capital to build bad roads. She'd get all lemon-lipped. It's about wanting someone else not to have more than you do. An application of "dog in the manger" syndrome.

        Date and time
        July 17, 2014, 2:12PM
        • If Canberra had marginal electorates, public service cuts would be off limits. However as it stands, the ALP treat Canberra as a whipping boy because they know they can't lose the seats and the LNP do it because they know they can't win them.

          For a supposed "educated" population, Canberra is not very smart or pragmatic.

          Date and time
          July 17, 2014, 2:33PM
        • Spot on Richo.

          Hit the nail right on the head, language and all.

          Canberra Sea Eagle
          Date and time
          July 17, 2014, 3:07PM
        • Richo
          Voting for the other mob is about as enticing as swallowing arsenic.
          How do you suggest they rig the ballot so as to end up marginal and still stay labour?
          BTW Queanbeyan which is basically a suburb of Canberra is a "bell weather seat" currently Liberal (marginal).
          I don't see the Libs throwing open the coffers to Queanbeyan.

          Yes but No but
          Date and time
          July 17, 2014, 3:58PM
      • Canberra is the only major Australian city that was built under Australian law rather than British. It is also in many ways the most representative city in Australia as it's citizens have come from all over the Nation. Phil Clarke's point to Andrew Wilkie was well made. Why should one regional centre be gutted to buttress another regional centre ? Why not take public servants from Sydney or Melbourne ?

        Betty Marx
        Date and time
        July 17, 2014, 2:48PM
        • I don't disagree with keeping other parts of Australia viable, so Wilkie's desire to prop up Tasmania has merit but his stupid idea of simply picking up people's lives from one location to another has absolutely NO merit. Moving the public servant also means displacing the partner and their career, as well as the kids from their schools, their friends and sporting groups. Not everyone is in a position to take the alternative option, which is a Voluntary Redundancy, especially if a large portion of the city's employment is being moved away. Take this entire debate and put it under the banner of a large private company. What would everyone's reaction be if the media announced a private company suddenly decided to move the entire operation from the mainland to Tasmania, regardless of the disruption to workers and their families? And those not wishing to leave become unemployed. Would we still be cheering?

          Date and time
          July 17, 2014, 3:29PM
          • Have I missed the suggestion that all the pollies forgo their junkets to the ACT and parliament convene via video conference instead?

            Good for the goose......

            The real world
            Date and time
            July 17, 2014, 4:25PM
            • It's a disgrace that Canberra is under represented in the Senate. We have two Senators for 360,000 people. Tasmania has twelve for 550,000. If we were fairly represented the composition of the a Senate would be very different and this inept,Canberra hating government wouldn't be able to get away with deliberately downgrading Canberra as the Nation's capital. Howard refused to live here, Abbott will do the same. Conservatives bash Canberra and the public service because they're easy targets. Now that the Carbon Tax has gone Abbott will be looking for scape goats other than refugees. Canberra will fit the bill nicely.

              King O'Malley
              Date and time
              July 17, 2014, 4:40PM
              Comments are now closed
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