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State of the states: Australian Capital Territory

The ACT is the least politically represented jurisdiction in Australia. Image from

STATE OF THE STATES: a snapshot of the key issues affecting each state and territory in the lead up to Saturday’s election.

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) is generally regarded as a Labor stronghold. It consists of two electorates, Fraser and Canberra. A third seat, Namadji, was created in the southern end of the territory in 1996 but was abolished in 1998.

The northern ACT seat of Fraser has always been held by Labor, while Canberra was briefly held by the Liberal Party after former sports minister Ros Kelly resigned over the “whiteboard affair” (where Kelly admitted sports funding was based on group discussions around a huge whiteboard). The Liberals’ Brendan Smyth won the seat in 1995 with a 16% swing against Labor.

Smyth then contested the new seat of Namadji in 1996, but was beaten by Labor’s Annette Ellis. Meanwhile Labor Party elder Bob McMullan moved from the Senate to the lower house, easily regaining the seat of Canberra from the Liberals.

After the electorate of Namadji was abolished before the 1998 election, McMullan took the seat of Fraser, beating Labor incumbent Steve Dargavel in preselection, and Annette Ellis moved from the defunct seat of Namadji to the vacated seat of Canberra.

Unlike the states, the Australian territories have only two senators, elected for three-year, rather than six-year terms, and take their seats immediately. The two senate seats for the ACT have always been held by Labor and Liberal, despite strong challenges in recent years from the Greens.

The demography of the ACT is unique in Australia and contributes in large part to its politics. The ACT has the highest per capita income of any Australian state or territory and the best-educated population. It also has the highest proportion of citizens who have the right to use the title “Dr” of any Australian – or possibly world – jurisdiction.

Key issues

Canberra revolves around two levels of government and three universities. The three largest employers in town are, in order, the federal government, the territory government and the Australian National University. This makes the territory highly vulnerable to political change, and cuts to the public service or higher education funding.

The ACT is highly vulnerable to political change. Flickr/diongillard

In 1996, the incoming Howard government slashed between 20,000 and 30,000 public service jobs. It was this purge that led to the decline in Canberra’s population and the loss of the third federal electorate.

There are very real fears that an incoming Abbott government would do the same, with a dire flow-on impact on local businesses and industry. This is the most pressing issue facing Canberrans in this election and may result in, against an expected national trend, an increase in the ALP vote in the ACT.

The two sitting members for the ACT, Andrew Leigh in Fraser and Gai Brodtmann in Canberra, have both been campaigning hard on the issue of public service jobs, as has Labor senator and minister in both the Gillard and Rudd governments, Kate Lundy.

Snapshot of the ACT

Senate battle

The ACT’s second senate seat has been held by former ACT chief minister Gary Humphries since 2003 when he was appointed following the retirement of long-time senator Margaret Reid. Humphries is regarded as a Liberal moderate and has been a strong advocate for the territory, often against his own party.

Humphries was defeated in a bitter and controversial preselection this year by former ACT Liberal leader Zed Seselja. Seselja, having led the ACT opposition in two election defeats, surprised some by announcing his decision to oust his Liberal colleague rather than seek preselection for the lower house seat of Canberra.

In the 2012 ACT Legislative Assembly election, Seselja personally polled over 29% of the vote (1.8 quotas) in the multi-member electorate of Brindabella. His personal standing in the southern ACT region is high and could have posed a threat to Brodtmann’s 9% margin in Canberra in the event of a landslide to the Coalition.

The fallout from the preselection contest has not reflected well on Seselja, however, and the Greens’ lead Senate candidate, former director of the online left-leaning lobby group Get-Up Simon Sheikh, has sought to capitalise on the internal divisions.

Public service job cuts are the most pressing issue for Canberrans. Image from

The Greens, however, are facing strong opposition from an unexpected quarter. In the last two federal elections the Greens have run strong senate campaigns, winning .65 of a quota in 2007 and .68 of a quota in 2010. They have always believed that they have the capacity to snatch the second senate seat in what is a politically progressive jurisdiction.

This year, however, they are under fire from a newcomer, the Animal Justice Party (AJP), which has preferenced Liberal ahead of the Greens on the basis of the ACT Greens’ support for the ACT government’s annual kangaroo cull.

The Greens have been forced into the unfamiliar territory of running a last-minute negative campaign against a party with which they should, on the face of it, be natural allies. While the AJP will certanly not poll higher than the Greens, their preferences should ensure that Seselja takes his seat in the Senate with no real challenge.

Contrary to the popular misconception of Canberra as being a city full of politicians, the ACT is the least politically represented jurisdiction in Australia. With only two levels of government (the 17-member Legislative Assembly serves as both local and territory-level government) two senators and two lower house members, Canberrans have far fewer elected representatives per capita than any other jurisdiction.

Due to the nature of being the national capital, however, the ACT population is politically aware and engaged, and any decisions taken at national level do, inevitably, have an effect on the local population. For this reason, it is expected that both Leigh and Brodtmann will hold their seats easily, Lundy will be returned to the Senate and Seselja elected to replace Humphries.

This is the sixth article in our State of the states series. Stay tuned for the final instalments over the next two days.

Part one: Tasmania

Part two: Northern Territory

Part three: Western Australia

Part four: Victoria

Part five: South Australia

Part seven: Queensland

Part eight: New South Wales

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