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ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Recent legislation in the ACT decriminalising cannabis seemed to come out of nowhere. Really? Canberra was the first to enact it? Not greenie Melbourne? Canberra has a reputation for being boring and backwards, stuffed with politicians making bland statements outside parliament.

But Canberra has been the first to push through dozens of pieces of landmark progressive legislation, from animal sentience to same-sex marriage. Crikey sat down with Chief Minister Andrew Barr to ask, is the ACT Australia’s most progressive jurisdiction? And if so, how did this happen? 

Canberra’s progressive policies

Canberra has started calling itself “Australia’s Capital of Equality”, leading the way in LGBTIQ rights (though, as with the rest of Australia, it still has a way to go.) The ACT was the second Australian state or territory to decriminalise homosexuality in 1976 and the first to recognise same-sex couples in 1994, with marriage equality pushed through in 2013. Barr holds the title of first openly gay head of government in Australia. 

The ACT was the first jurisdiction to completely remove abortion from criminal law in 2002, the first to introduce a human rights act in 2004, and the only place that allows pill testing. Just last month, the ACT changed the legal status of animals to recognise sentience, making it criminal to chain up a dog for more than 24 hours or deny an animal’s basic necessities. 

Billboards can’t be larger than two square metres; there’s a public holiday for reconciliation; stamp duty has been phased out, as have insurance taxes. Diesel buses are being replaced with electric ones, and the ACT is on track to be fully powered by renewable electricity by the end of this financial year. 

A recent report from The Australia Institute calls Canberra a “forward-thinking” and “progressive” city, while the OECD ranked Canberra as the most liveable city. How did this happen? 

What makes it so? 

“Many of the [ACT’s] progressive reforms are overshadowed by the presence of the Australian government and national parliament,” Barr said. “I do have to introduce myself as from the ‘other government’.”

Canberra is a safe federal ALP seat — since voting in the electorate began in 1974, the Liberals have only been voted in twice. But, Barr said, it’s the makeup of its territory parliament members that brought progressive policies. “It’s one of the most democratic parties in terms of rank-and-file member participation … there have been representatives from all flavours and strands of opinion,” he said. 

ACT had the first female head of government in 1989; the first female majority in 2016; and the first female Liberal leader, Kate Carnell, in 1993. “We’ve actually never had a conservative government in Canberra,” Barr says. “Liberal, but not conservative.” 

Policies are often pushed through faster in the ACT than in other regions because there’s just one level of politics. “One advantage of a city-state government is we can move quickly on a range of regulatory tax and social policy issues, which can be more challenging in jurisdictions with more levels of governance,” Barr said. Canberra was the first city to regulate Uber — even before it came into operation. 

ACT residents are better educated and less religious than the average Australian; they’re more likely to work full-time as professionals and have higher salaries too. A recent survey found they were most concerned about the treatment of Indigenous people and least concerned about the loss of traditional values. “We’re a civically engaged community,” Barr said. “We have a higher level of volunteerism and participation in cultural activities and sport.” 

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This isn’t to say the ACT doesn’t have problems. The territory has higher rates of homelessness than SA, WA, and Tasmania. And the risk of homelessness continues to increase as rental prices hit the highest rates in the country. 

Despite the ACT’s historic human rights act, the Bimberi detention centre for juveniles is alleged to have breached human rights as teens riot; one in five inmates in Canberra’s jails are Indigenous, despite Indigenous people making up less than 2% of the population. Members of the Indigenous population are also five times more likely to be affected by family violence than the non-Indigenous population.

Canberra has a reputation for being a boring, backwater city. But it’s streets ahead when it comes to implementing progressive policies. Perhaps it’s time the leftie-loon crown is taken away from Melbourne and bestowed upon Canberra — or, at minimum, we start separating the territory’s policies from federal parliament’s. 

Peter Fray

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