Twenty years on, Rosemary Follett recalls the birth of the ACT public service

Twenty-five years ago, the Commonwealth cut loose the apron strings and let the ACT begin to fend for itself.

And in reply, Canberrans, most of whom had opposed the decision, vented their anger at the ballot box: four of the 17 people they elected to the inaugural Legislative Assembly had pledged to try to abolish self-government.

The city's first chief minister, Labor's Rosemary Follett, recalled on Sunday how difficult those early, fractious years had been.

Canberrans, she said, "owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those public servants who were present at the commencement of self-government" – given the "somewhat inglorious history" of that first assembly.

"In effect, the ACT [had] the widest range of responsibilities, covered by the smallest parliament and by far the smallest executive in the country," Ms Follett said.

"Without competent and dedicated public servants, I believe the place would then have been, and may still be, ungovernable."


From that inauspicious start, it took another five years for the fledgling ACT government to acquire its own public service; in the intervening years, all of its 20,000 or so staff were employees of the Commonwealth.

The National Archives of Australia and the Territory Records Office hosted Ms Follett on Sunday at an event to mark the ACT bureaucracy's 20th anniversary.

And while some federal public servants in Canberra pay it little heed, the former chief minister said the smaller, local bureaucracy warranted special praise given its vast scope: state and municipal-level services combined in one government. (One ACT executive referred to it as the "mile-wide, inch-deep" bureaucracy.)

"We simply have the widest range of responsibility shared amongst the smallest group of people," Ms Follett said.

"One of the difficulties, of course, is not just the breadth of the administration but also the breadth of ministers' portfolios.

"And I think for public servants, trying to attract their ministers' attention when they need to, that could be a challenge."

Partly for that reason, Ms Follett voiced her backing for the assembly's bipartisan decision earlier this month to increase the number of MLAs from 17 to 25 at the next election.

She recalled how her first government had only one backbencher, Bill Wood, who was forced to sit on every assembly committee. "He did a wonderful job but it wasn't enough."

Ms Follett cited huge changes in Canberra since self-government began, such as population growth of more than 40 per cent and the expansion of the city's private sector, as extra pressures on the assembly, saying more MLAs would represent Canberrans more effectively.