Rosemary Follett remembers well that chaotic election day which led to the creation of the first ACT Legislative Assembly and, eventually, ushered in self-government for the territory.
Monday marks the 30th anniversary of the first Assembly election on March 4, 1989.
It was an historic day, often fraught with hostility, when 117 candidates and 22 political parties battled to join a parliament most of the Canberra population did not want. The ballot paper was more than one-metre long.
Ms Follett, a public servant and candidate for Labor, would go on to become the first ACT chief minister and the first female head of government in Australia.
"It was an extraordinary experience," she said of polling day.
"Unless you've had to walk towards a bank of TV cameras running backwards and they're between you and where you want to go, like the polling station, you just can't really guess what it's like. It is really discombobulating."
"The whole experience was like that," said Gary Humphries, who was elected for the Liberals and would become chief minister in 2000.
"A few members had experience in the old advisory assembly, including Rosemary. [Labor's] Bill Wood was the only person who had actually served in another parliament, so we were all new, we were all plunging into this experiment."
Before self-government, the federal territories minister made the decisions about the ACT – and a referendum in 1978 found nearly 64 per cent of residents wanted the status quo to remain.
The federal government nevertheless charged on with giving the ACT self-government, and the resulting 1989 Assembly election has been described as the nation's "most farcical". It was certainly circus-like, but that description perhaps plays down the considerable challenges faced by that first Assembly.
Well-known Canberra lawyer Bernard Collaery, later attorney-general, was elected to the first Assembly for the Residents Rally party, "a mob of urban greenies" campaigning against a casino for Canberra.
"Unfairly, in many respects, we'd often been made a laughing stock by journalists," Collaery said.
"Pilloried," Follett agreed.
"That was unfair. We were wrestling in those days, I think, with a budget of $2 billion. It didn't matter if you were in government or out of government, you had to make rational decisions and you needed support and day after day, the media served us up.
"All our amateurism, our oddities, particularly [with] people like me who'd never been in politics, were amplified."
Yet the election was a doozy. Provocateur Emile Brunoro registered six parties to contest the poll, including the Sun Ripened Warm Tomato Party, which promised to ban gas-ripened "fake" tomatoes from the ACT. His other parties included Party! Party! Party! and Surprise Party.
The Canberra Times' editorial on polling day urged residents to vote against the no-self government parties, saying it would be a wasted vote and "we can no longer rely on the federal government to do everything for us".
But that did not stop four of the 17 members elected in the first Assembly being from those very same no-self-government parties: the Abolish Self-Government Coalition (Dennis Stevenson) and the No Self-Government Party (Craig Duby, Carmel Maher and David Prowse).
Gary Humphries, later a senator and now deputy president of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, says the other candidates in favour of self-government were well aware of the prevailing mood.
"The hostility was palpable. People didn't want this," he said.
"They knew it was the end of the Commonwealth-government largess. We weren't any longer going to get fabulous services that no one else in Australia could even dream of."
Adding to the strangeness of the election was the fact it was held under a set of electoral rules known as the "modified d'Hondt" system, so complicated it took more than two months to count.
Now retired ACT electoral commissioner Phil Green was seven years into a job with the Australian Electoral Commission at the time of the 1989 election. He remembers the tortuous process of counting the votes in the convoluted system.
"It was just so complicated and so perverse in the fact that there wasn't really any logic behind it, it just took forever to count," Mr Green said, his good humour still intact.
"I was doing, I think, six simultaneous Senate[-style] elections and I was doing them all manually on a sheet of paper with a calculator. There were no computers in those days.
"Later that year they sent me to Namibia for that election, because I'd stood out as being good at counting things."
Mr Green also had the job of registering the parties and remembers, at the time, there was no legal reason to reject the more obscure.
"We were a bit concerned because we didn't want to election to be a laughing stock," he said. "While you could understand the undergraduate humour of it all, we actually wanted the election to be taken seriously. So it wasn't something we were wanting to encourage or give any air-time to, but given what it was, there wasn't a lot we could avoid about it. It became known as the Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato election."
The Legislative Assembly sat for the first time on May 11, 1989.
Collaery was the ultimate kingmaker, supporting a minority Labor government to lead the first Assembly and Follett to become chief minister, only to dispose of her seven months later and usher in a Liberal-Residents Rally alliance.
It's perhaps a mark of the relative civility of ACT politics - and the fact everyone will still see everyone in a small city – that Follett and Collaery can 30 years later sit across from each other, sharing a coffee, with no hint of enmity.
Follett, Humphries and Collaery all believe self-government was an experiment that worked. It delivered a mix of local and state functions that was government at the grassroots.
"You were 100 per cent visible 100 per cent of the time," Follett said.
It has been a system of government constantly under scrutiny, Collaery believed.
"There's been no Eddie Obeids," he said.
A ceremonial sitting marking the 30th anniversary of the sitting of the first Assembly will be held on Friday, May 10.
Elected candidates from the 1989 election:
- Abolish Self-Government Coalition: Dennis Stevenson
- Residents Rally: Bernard Collaery, Norm Jensen, Michael Moore, Hector Kinloch
- Australian Labor Party: Rosemary Follett, Paul Whalan, Wayne Berry, Ellnor Grassby, Bill Wood
- No Self-Government Party: Craig Duby, Carmel Maher, David Prowse
- Liberal Party: Gary Humphries, Trevor Kaine, Robyn Nolan, Bill Stefaniak.