These nine popular policies launched in Canberra, so where are they now?

by Vivien Clarke and Bill Browne
(AAP Image/Lukas Coch)


In 2019 the Australia Institute identified ambitious, progressive policies from the Australian Capital Territory, most of which are overwhelmingly popular among all Australians. Five years on, we have an update on how these policies have progressed in Canberra and around Australia.

The ACT goes to an election later this year. During the campaign, what bold policies will candidates and parties propose?

100% renewable energy by 2020 target

In 2019, the ACT became the first Australian state or territory to transition from fossil fuel to 100% renewable electricity, and just the eighth jurisdiction in the world to do so – and the first outside of Europe.

The ACT’s transition to 100% renewable has reduced emissions by 40%, secured $500 million in local investment and economic benefits and kept energy prices low as prices in the rest of the country soared. The ACT is now looking to build the Big Canberra Battery, to provide energy storage and help meet the ACT’s net zero emissions by 2045 target.

Earlier this month, the Australia Institute polled a nationally representative sample of Australians – and found 71% support a 100% renewable energy policy.

After the ACT used reverse auctions to commission renewable energy at low prices, the same process has been used by Victoria, Queensland, NSW and the Sydney Metro Rail Project. Last year, the federal government adopted ACT-style reverse auctions to help get to 82% renewable energy by 2030.

Spending on programs to reduce youth crime and incarceration

The ACT runs an initiative called ‘Building Communities, Not Prisons’ comprised of five programs designed to reduce youth crime, incarceration, and recidivism.

  1. Providing neighbourhood chats, art programs, communal walks, training and community gardens to residents living in public housing, reducing violent crime by 50% and property crime by 60% in those neighbourhoods.
  2. The drug and alcohol court diverts people from prison to treatment for their addictions and saved the territory $14 million in jail costs in its first four years.
  3. Yarrabi Bamirr provides Aboriginal-led intensive case management for offenders and their families.
  4. Ngurrambai provides trial and bail assistance program to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on bail.
  5. The Reducing Recidivism Research Collaboration aims to reduce recidivism by 25% by 2025 by consulting expert criminologists and informing policy to target the root causes of recidivism.

According to our polling, 84% of Australians support spending on programs to reduce youth crime and incarceration.

Elsewhere in Australia, most youth crime reduction programs focus on diversion (for example drug and alcohol courts) and reducing recidivism, rather than early intervention. That said, Tasmania has a 10-year youth justice reform plan that includes prevention and early intervention and programs like Koori Court and Parkville College operate in Victoria.

Pill testing

Pill testing is a harm-reduction strategy that lets people test small portions of illicit drugs intended for personal use to find out what is in them. Following the success of the first Australian trial of festival pill testing at Groovin’ the Moo music festival in 2018, the ACT government opened the first fixed-site drug-testing service, “CanTEST”, in 2022.

Two in three Australians (64%) support pill testing at music festivals. When the federal government decided to block pill testing at the 2018 Spilt Milk festival held in Canberra, but on Commonwealth land, hundreds of ACT residents protested against the decision.

CanTest has already found meth in a counterfeit diet pill, that more than half of drugs tested are not what the user expected – including three new psychoactive substances – and that many drugs are adulterated. Many discard drugs after testing.

Queensland has followed the ACT’s lead, announcing in 2023 that it would adopt pill testing. The Bowen Hills testing location opened in March. Separate investigations into drug-related deaths at festivals in NSW and Victoria recommended pill-testing trials. However, neither government has introduced it. Pill testing facilities are common in Europe, the Americas and New Zealand.

A Compact FTIR Spectrometer pill testing machine used in Canberra (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Decriminalising cannabis for personal use

In 2020, the ACT decriminalised the possession, use, and growing of a small amount of cannabis for personal use. It is still illegal to sell or distribute cannabis and all other offences, including driving under the influence and large-scale cultivation of cannabis, remain intact.

The policy allows access for medicinal use and eases pressure on policing and the courts.

In 2023, the ACT went further and decriminalised possession of small amounts of other illicit drugs. Those caught are cautioned, fined or referred to a drug counselling program instead of facing criminal charges.

The Australia Institute’s polling research finds most Australians (52%) support decriminalising cannabis for personal use, compared to 36% who are opposed.

While medicinal cannabis was legalised under federal law in 2016, cannabis for personal use is still illegal, with penalties ranging from fines to jail time. WA repealed its 2004 decision to decriminalise cannabis in 2011. Late last year, the Legalise Cannabis party tabled bills in Victoria, Western Australia and NSW to legalise recreational cannabis use, but no changes to laws have yet been made.

Spreading public housing throughout all suburbs

In the ACT, public housing is spread out evenly through existing suburbs and new developments, rather than being built in high-density in concentrated areas, aiming to avoid isolating public housing developments.

Three in four Australians (75%) support building public housing spread throughout all suburbs including new developments, one of the most popular among the ACT policies the Australia Institute polled.

Other states and territories are yet to implement explicit policy to spread out public housing.

A public holiday for “Reconciliation Day”

The ACT has an annual public holiday for Reconciliation Day at the start of National Reconciliation Week to commemorate the 1967 Referendum. The holiday usually involves a Canberra community event celebrating and sharing First Nations cultures and history, and hosting discussions about reconciliation in Australia.

Most Australians (54%) support a public holiday for Reconciliation Day.

Other states and territories celebrate Reconciliation Week, but none hold a public holiday for Reconciliation Day.

Stamp duty to land tax swap

The ACT is 12 years into its 20-year “swap” that reduces stamp duty on sales of property and increases annual land tax on the value of land. When the swap is complete, Canberrans who own property will pay a small amount each year instead of a large amount at the point of purchase.

Stamp duty makes moving house more expensive, which discourages upsizing and downsizing as family needs change and penalises those who move often for work. It is an unpredictable revenue source for governments, because property prices and number of sales per year can change dramatically.

Prosper, an independent tax think tank, conducted a 2020 study of the land tax transition in the ACT and concluded that the transition has been successful so far, and that the long transition timeline appears to be key to its success. Owner-occupiers bought 78% of properties in 2020, up from 60% in 2012, suggesting housing has become more accessible for first-home buyers and owners wanting to move house. Prosper’s next four-yearly update is due this year.

Canberrans pay small yearly land taxes rather than one-off stamp duties when they buy a property (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Nationwide, Victoria will swap stamp duty for land tax on commercial properties from July 1 this year and expand exemptions for some first-home buyers. NSW recently scrapped its opt-in land tax scheme, which allowed buyers to choose between paying land tax or stamp duty. As noted by Michael Janda, NSW’s “U-turn down an economic cul-de-sac” contrasts with the ACT’s successful, albeit “long and winding”, stamp duty for land tax swap.

Three in five Australians (60%) support a stamp duty phase-out in favour of land tax.

Ban on billboard advertising.

The ACT banned large outdoor billboards and roadside advertising in 1937 to avoid distractions for drivers and maintain aesthetics in Canberra.

The Australia Institute’s polling research finds only 37% of Australians support a ban on billboard advertising, compared to 49% who are opposed. This makes a ban on billboard advertising the only policy where more oppose than support the ACT’s policy.

No other Australian jurisdictions have adopted a billboard ban but, globally, similar bans exist in some US states, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and some Brazilian and Indian cities.

The ACT banned billboards in 1937 (AAP Image/Darren England)

Exclusion zones around polling booths on election day

When the Canberrans go to their polling centres to vote in ACT elections, no one is allowed to hand them electoral material or attempt to influence their vote within a 100-metre radius of the polling place. The ban, which has existed since 1992, includes handing out leaflets or displaying electoral signs.

Two in three Australians (71%) support an exclusion zone around polling booths on election day.

Other states have smaller radius bans or bans on certain content near polling places but so far only Tasmania and the ACT have the 100-metre ban.


The ACT has already taken the risk of implementing novel policies and paid the costs of developing and testing them, so other jurisdictions should find them easier to implement. Australia Institute polling research finds most Australians support most of these policies.

In the intervening years since the Australia Institute first reported on the wealth of ACT policies available, some of these policies have been enthusiastically taken up by other states and territories. Other times, governments have ignored the example of the ACT to their own cost. Federalism gives Australia nine parliaments and nine governments: they should learn from each other’s policy failures and copy their policy successes.

Figure 1: National polling on support for ACT policies

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