Originally published in The Canberra Times on July 23, 2022

Canberra is back and it feels good. Next up: using the city’s new power to take the national capital to its rightful next level.

Key national political figures in the new parliament are from Canberra. Our local politicians are leading national debates. The territories ban on assisted dying laws is set to be lifted. The public service is being revitalised.

After years of “Canberra bubble” insults, public servants lectured to stay in their lane, and a prime minister who made Sydney his home, Canberra is back at the centre of decision making.

Canberrans hold key positions in the new ministry. Senator Katy Gallagher is the Minister for Finance, Women and the Public Service. Dr Andrew Leigh is Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury. Both parliamentarians are keenly aware of the importance of the capital and the public service in implementing the Albanese government’s agenda.

The new political attention on Canberra has reignited the debate over how many senators the territory receives. Compared to the smaller states, we are grossly underrepresented. A modest ask is for the ACT is to increase its senators from two to four, elected each three years. This would likely ensure that the territory is always represented in the Liberal party room and on the crossbench.

David Pocock’s candidacy and now key balance of power position ensures Canberra will enjoy more attention from all sides of politics than it has in years. Pocock’s bold proposal for a national convention centre and stadium complex in Civic will pressure the major parties to compete with infrastructure promises.

It’s significant that the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will make The Lodge his home, as it has been for most of our PMs since it was built. Even Scott Morrison stopped referring to the “Canberra bubble” during the pandemic. Perhaps it was harder to sneer at bureaucrats when their work to shield us from disease and economic downturn was so visible, notwithstanding his recent disparaging remarks at church that “we don’t trust in governments”

The Labor government knows it must rebuild the public service’s capacity and role. Too much has been hollowed out with the overuse of private consultants. Cutting back on outsourcing and bringing expertise in-house will improve the public service’s capacity, but boldness and honesty ultimately also depend on culture, not just resourcing. Ministers must be expected to speak with respect about public service, not hector it or imply it is not on middle Australia’s “side”, as Morrison did.

It is also clear that outsourcing of government services like aged care has led to reductions in quality. As the Nobel prize winning professor Joseph Stiglitz said in Canberra this week, it’s absurd to think that some “consumers” can use their “market power” to stand up for their rights. Just as prisoners in the US have no “choice” about their prison, many aged care residents have little choice in the provider of the services we rely on.

Multiple royal commissions have backed up Professor Stiglitz’s point. It’s time we invested in the capacity of the public sector to not just design policy again, but to implement it. In the controversy over lockdowns, border closures and the constitution in the big states, it is often lost that the ACT very successfully navigated between the Scylla of police checks, curfews and vaccine mandates and the Charybdis of unchecked spread of COVID and absent leadership. Chief Minister Andrew Barr’s national leading vaccine rollout made Canberra the most vaccinated city in the world.

The Australia Institute has long recognised the role the ACT plays as an innovator. In 2019, we identified 11 progressive policies that the ACT had implemented that the other states should consider, including 100 per cent renewable energy, justice reinvestment and “salt and peppering” public housing in all suburbs.

The ACT has recently led on harm minimisation too, with the first standing pill testing facility in Australia opening in Civic. This week another of our local politicians who is a national debate leader, Greens minister Shane Rattenbury, announced a world-leading plan to phase out fossil fuel-powered vehicles, supported by subsidies for electric vehicles.

The Legislative Assembly is an active, representative and forward-thinking parliament, which makes the arbitrary ban on the territories legislating for voluntary assisted dying all the more galling. People in Queanbeyan have been afforded a democratic right those down the road in Narrabundah are not. Fortunately, the ban is likely to end, with a private member’s bill from territory MPs set to be introduced within weeks.

There is more to be done to make self-government in Canberra a reality. The National Capital Authority retains significant control over how the city operates, well beyond the parliamentary triangle. Greens candidate Tim Hollo made reform of the NCA a key plank of his run for the seat of Canberra, and it is not the last we will hear of an institution that greenlit the unpopular expansion of the Australian War Memorial. Australia Institute polling found almost half of Australians supported abolishing the NCA, compared to 13 per cent opposed.

Canberra deserves to be recognised as a growing, vibrant city with an international profile. We should be hosting events that draw world leaders to discuss the key issues our world faces, including the economy, the pandemic, climate change and national security.

So let us start the planning to host the big international climate conference Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen is bidding for. Hosting a COP Climate Conference would put Canberra at the centre of the global debate of our time. What better place than the first jurisdiction outside Europe to go 100 per cent renewable?

This is a great moment for our city. The Canberra bubble has burst, and it feels like the city is undergoing a revival. We should enjoy the moment but seize it as well. We lead the country, but we should aspire to lead the world as well.

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