The transition to self-government in the ACT was, as students of political history know, a protracted affair. The only foregone conclusion, in 1983 at least, was the determination of the newly elected Hawke government that Canberrans should take charge of their own affairs, however reluctant they might be to embrace self-government. It convened a taskforce to examine how self-government might be implemented and commissioned a number of reports into the financial arrangements that might be eventually adopted by a self-governing territory. Nonetheless, there were doubts about whether Tom Uren, the minister for territories and local government, was seriously committed to the task, or indeed all that interested.
Things changed with the appointment of Gordon Scholes as minister for territories after the re-election of Bob Hawke on December 1, 1984. "I had a simple view that the Federal Parliament had no role whatsoever in the local government of the ACT, that the federal cabinet was not an appropriate body to manage, and nor was it likely to devote its attentions to the day-to-day need of the ACT,'' he later said. Mr Scholes believed that a municipal government, similar to that of his home town of Geelong, was an appropriate form of "self-government''. He envisioned "a small government which would be given municipal and some state-type responsibilities, including housing, welfare, community services and gambling and liquor controls … but later to take control of all government functions which could be extracted from the Commonwealth''.
This week's release of previously secret federal cabinet documents from that time paints a more detailed picture of Mr Scholes' bid to further this agenda, including the intriguing possibility of creating a ceremonial office of lord mayor of Canberra. In December 1985, he duly announced a plan to create an ACT council consisting of 13 members, each to be elected by optional preferential voting from a separate electorate for a four-year term. This council was to have general municipal powers, but would not control health, education or land.
This measure of self-government was welcomed in some quarters, though with no great enthusiasm. Moreover - and this will come as no surprise to those aforementioned scholars - Liberal senator Margaret Reid believed the electoral arrangements were "a mixed bag'' which could have the effect of entrenching one party in power. Legislation to establish the ACT council was introduced into the House of Representatives in March 1986. The bills were heavily amended while in the lower house to accommodate various concerns about the electoral system, but were never put to the Senate as the opposition parties (the Liberal-National Coalition and the Australian Democrats) had made plain their determination not to pass them. All, of course, claimed their opposition had nothing to do with trying to stop self-government.
The self-interest, even hypocrisy, of the parties ensured that the model of self-government eventually enacted included a Legislative Assembly limited to 17 members - and it is still evident in the inability of the ALP, the Greens and the Canberra Liberals to agree on how, and to what extent, the Assembly should be enlarged. Some Canberrans remain convinced that the best and most appropriate model of governance for the territory would have been a municipal-style council, with the election of a lord mayor. The Council of Capital City Lord Mayors declared its strong support for that model when Mr Scholes floated the idea, though it is debatable whether its interest lay solely in securing the best good governance model for Canberrans.
Implementing such a model in a city/state would, however, have required considerable experimentation and innovation, something with which few Australians generally feel comfortable. These, for example, would have included devolving state-government functions to NSW. In any event, the Hawke government's decision to make the territory a party to existing Commonwealth-state financial arrangements effectively ruled out the local government option, and as Mr Scholes said in an interview with this newspaper in March 1985, he believed the municipal government's responsibilities would eventually include health, education and domestic planning.
Whatever Mr Scholes outlined in 1985, the Commonwealth never really seriously promoted the idea of a lord mayor for Canberra, and the city remains unique among Australian capitals in lacking such an office.