The 2016 ACT Election was a genuine contest of ideas and values. In an era of Australian politics dominated by personal ambition, instability and infighting - it was quite a contrast.
The development of light rail, a fairer tax system, increased investment in public health and education, the shift to powering our city with 100 per cent renewable electricity, any number of inclusive social policies, attracting new businesses and good jobs in key industry sectors by opening our city to the world – were all contested during the campaign.
Canberrans chose progress. They chose a positive agenda. They chose a program of active government engagement in the economy and leadership on social policy.
We have taken that challenge to heart.
That’s why we have been working to deliver a more inclusive, progressive and connected Canberra.
An inclusive Canberra sees the benefits of our prosperity shared.
A progressive community drives change where it’s needed, and faces our shared challenges with optimism.
A connected city makes the most of the opportunities in our region and the world.
In the past few years these values have been under attack – both in Australia and around the world.
From Donald Trump’s wall and the Brexit mess to the Federal Government’s dog whistling on African or Muslim immigrants in Melbourne, blaming congestion in Australian cities on migrants rather than a lack of infrastructure investment, there are plenty of politicians peddling fear, insularity, a populist nostalgia for simpler times.
But we continue to stand for our vision to make Canberra a more open, engaged and inclusive international city.
That’s why, over the past two years, we have been working to deliver on our election commitments and seize new opportunities.
At the midpoint of this Parliamentary term, I want to draw together the main strands of our work.
It’s also the right time to highlight the challenges we’ll be tackling to continue working for an inclusive, progressive and connected Canberra.
An inclusive Canberra is one where the essentials of a good life are readily available: a safe, affordable and suitable place to live; a decent, secure job; access to quality healthcare where and when it’s needed, a good education and other reliable local services.
In a city where most are doing well, we have been upfront about focusing our efforts on those who aren’t.
Because there is a real risk of Canberra becoming less inclusive and more unequal if we don’t.
This focus has driven our investment in local services, making sure Canberrans can access what they need – quickly, close to home and generally for free.
It’s why we’re adding places for more than 1,000 students at local public schools over the next four years, along with delivering new schools in the Molonglo Valley and North Gungahlin.
It’s why we’re continuing to invest in better healthcare by hiring more doctors and nurses to help cut Emergency Department and elective surgery wait times, delivering new Walk in Centres in Gungahlin, Weston Creek and the Inner North and supporting more local GPs to bulk-bill – particularly in Canberra’s South.
It’s why we’ve put so much effort into designing a new public transport system that will make public transport a real option for more Canberrans.
And it’s why we keep rolling out new programs that can help households with their cost of living, like green bins and battery storage to cut energy bills.
Since 2016 we have completed the ACT’s full transition into the National Disability Insurance Scheme – giving over 6,400 Canberrans with disability and their families more choice and control in accessing what they need to support a full and active life.
I’d like to acknowledge that today is actually the International Day of Disability, where we recognise the achievements, successes, and challenges overcome by people in Canberra and around the world who have some form of disability.
Whether in a wheelchair, with an intellectual or mental impairment, blind, deaf, or another disability today is an opportunity to recognise people with disabilities as an important and included part of our society.
We have also taken big strides in recognising and responding to the needs of families dealing with violence at home and people struggling with their mental health.
Deputy Chief Minister Yvette Berry is leading our efforts to end the violence that has gone on behind closed doors for too long, using our investment through the Safer Families package to drive real community change and support families.
Shane Rattenbury has led the establishment of a dedicated Office for Mental Health along with more investment in new mental health beds and supported accommodation, and targeted support services for those who need them including young people, new parents and older Canberrans.
Another area of focus has been the renewal of our city and town centres.
Together with Mick Gentleman, Chris Steel and my colleagues across government, we’ve been thinking hard about how Canberra grows and how to deliver a more diverse housing mix that gives people options to suit their needs and preferences.
Later this week we will be releasing the ACT Planning Strategy Refresh, which steps through the choices we face as a community about our city’s growth.
If we simply keep growing outwards the way we have in the past, urban sprawl will significantly eat into the unique bush and grasslands environments surrounding our city over the next twenty years.
If we want to protect what is unique about Canberra and maintain the great natural setting that most of us value, then we need to focus instead on the CBD, town centres and dedicated major transport corridors to accommodate more of Canberra’s future growth.
For this to work, buildings need to be of a high quality both in their construction and design, and equitable access to public and green spaces is essential.
That’s why we have created the new portfolio of Building Quality Improvement, and established the City Renewal Authority to coordinate work on both place-making and design – among other steps that will be outlined in the Planning Strategy.
Good building design – design that is sustainable, inclusive, liveable and stylish – has to be a focus for government and industry alike as we continue to grow.
The focus on the city and town centres is already making more homes available that are within reach for first home buyers and single-income families.
In the longer term, it will help to reduce pressure on rents so that Canberra’s child care workers, hospitality staff, uni students and apprentices aren’t placed in so much housing stress.
And it will mean lower income households don’t have to spend so much of their tight budgets on petrol and other transport costs just to get to work, study or the shops.
Making good, secure and affordable housing available for more Canberrans is central to our city’s inclusiveness.
We understand that we have a leading role to play in this, which is why we have recently announced a further $100 million investment to keep growing and renewing Canberra’s public housing stock over the next five years.
This is part our wider ACT Housing Strategy that will tackle our big housing challenges across the spectrum – from homelessness to renters’ rights – and make sure more Canberrans find the right place to call home.
For Canberra to keep becoming more inclusive, this needs to be top of mind for everything we do.
That’s one of the reasons I took on the new role of Minister for Social Inclusion and Equality earlier this year.
It’s also why we are exploring the inclusion of key social indicators in the ACT Government’s annual reporting.
The New Zealand Government and a handful of others around the world regularly report on key social and wellbeing indicators as well as core economic and fiscal ones, recognising that there’s much more to a society than how its economy is going.
We’ll be looking at this over the next 12 months with the aim of getting some metrics in place by 2020 to provide a benchmark for tracking progress in the future.
Canberra has always been a proudly progressive community.
We were the only jurisdiction that voted yes for a republic, we have long led the nation on sustainability and the transition to a low carbon economy, and last year we recorded the nation’s highest yes vote on marriage equality.
When others turn inwards or seek to turn back the clock, a progressive community faces the future with optimism and a sense of possibility.
In the past few years this progressive approach has guided our work on expanding access to early childhood education, strengthening the rights and recognition of LGBTIQ Canberrans and finding new ways to keep young people safe by trialling pill testing.
It has been the driving force behind the important work Rachel Stephen-Smith has been doing in partnership with Canberra’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to elevate their voices and views in decision-making, policy and service design, and the reforms Gordon Ramsay has led to reduce the harm caused by gambling and protect animal welfare in racing.
It also drives the action we’re taking to deal with harmful climate change.
In 2020 – less than two years from now – the ACT will be 100 per cent powered by renewable electricity.
This will be possible because since 2016 we have brought online nine new wind and solar facilities providing 620 megagwatts of renewable power.
Over that time we have also supported 279 vulnerable low income households to install their own rooftop solar, supported more than 1,000 smart battery systems in Canberra households, and helped more than 27,000 households and businesses use energy more efficiently through programs like the Home Energy Advice Service and the Energy Efficiency Improvement Scheme.
This is good for our environment, but it’s also been good for our economy. This is clear from the fact that the ACT has the second-highest rate of renewables jobs per capita in Australia.
We will be the first jurisdiction in Australia – and one of the first cities of our size around the world – to achieve this milestone in the transition away from harmful and polluting fossil fuels.
We have set this goal and stuck to it despite the very strong pushback against renewables from the federal government.
And we’re not stopping there.
The next challenge we’re tackling is to achieve net zero emissions by 2045.
Within the next six months we will release two major strategies that will map out the way to get there, with the release of our next Climate Action Plan and the new Transport Strategy.
With our current investments in wind and solar power having dealt with emissions from the electricity sector, it is important we continue to push ahead to tackle new and harder mitigation challenges.
The transport sector will be a particular focus because this will make up the largest share of the ACT’s emissions after 2020, so we need to act now to keep Canberra moving in cleaner ways.
We are taking strong action in every area we can because we know the only way to protect our shared future is to act against harmful climate change now.
Sometimes taking a progressive approach means taking on hard issues, and facing up to challenges other people would rather not talk about.
End of life choices is an important example of this.
Nobody wants to think too hard about their own death, or the death of a loved one.
We hope that when the moment comes for each of us, we will be fortunate enough to experience a dignified death free from suffering and pain.
But we don’t think about what might help guarantee that, or the steps we can take as a community to make dying with dignity a possibility for those who would otherwise suffer greatly.
With Victoria having recently legalised voluntary assisted dying and other jurisdictions including WA also actively considering this, I believe Canberrans should have the same rights to debate and discuss this important issue, and decide on the way forward together.
Right now, the ACT community can’t do that.
The so-called ‘Andrews Bill’ passed by federal parliament in 1996 took away the right of Australia’s two territories to make our own laws on voluntary assisted dying – part of an inglorious history of conservative federal governments stamping on the progressive policies pursued by our jurisdictions.
In the coming months, I will be working with colleagues from all parties in the Federal Parliament and the Northern Territory Chief Minister to see the Andrews Bill repealed.
This question has recently come before the Australian Senate and was narrowly defeated – but the fight isn’t over. Our community should have the right to make its own laws, including on end of life choices, if that’s where an open and respectful conversation about this important issue leads us.
Canberrans are outward looking by our nature.
We are Australia’s best educated community, we travel more than most, and we are more likely to have ties to other parts of Australia or the world.
But the bonds each of us have to places outside Canberra haven’t traditionally been matched with practical connections. That matters, because if Canberra is hard to reach, then it’s hard for us to make the most of the opportunities in our region and the world.
We’ve seen the enormous boost that better transport links can deliver for our economy in the past two years.
Since we successfully attracted Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways to commence direct international flights, Canberra’s tourist numbers have skyrocketed to their highest ever levels.
Around 250,000 international visitors stayed overnight in Canberra last year, contributing a record amount to our local economy and putting us firmly on track to meet our target of $2.5 billion in overnight visitor expenditure by 2020.
Our growth in tourism numbers has been twice that of the national average, because Canberra has something new and different to offer for travellers.
These new air links are also creating opportunities for local businesses beyond the tourism industry – to give just two examples, Singaporeans are now enjoying Pialligo Estate bacon over breakfast and eating mushrooms picked in Murrumbateman for dinner.
The federal government has recently put international migration on the agenda in the context of population, with an emphasis on its challenges.
Like other smaller jurisdictions around the country, the ACT’s recent experience has shown both temporary and permanent migration present great opportunities – from more diverse and vibrant communities to economic growth and improved productivity.
At the COAG meeting next week, I’ll be making the case for Australia, and the ACT, to remain open and welcoming to people from around the world who have so much to contribute here.
As well as growing Canberra’s connections with the world, we have been working hard to make the most of our position as an economic, social and service hub for our region – looking at the opportunities immediately beyond the Territory’s borders.
In particular, we have joined the Canberra Region Joint Organisation to work in closer partnership with surrounding local governments.
As a city of 420,000 people, Canberra can’t necessarily achieve the economies of scale for the high level of services and amenities we’d like.
But as the hub for a broader region approaching one million people, much more becomes possible.
Strengthening Canberra’s connections with our region and the world benefits our whole community. It generates more business for our local companies, producers and creators, giving them more opportunities to expand into new markets and grow.
That means more good jobs. Importantly too, it means a greater variety of good jobs – in tourism, hospitality, education, R&D; jobs in agri-tech, trades, creative industries, transport and logistics.
So we are going to keep on working to link Canberra with places and communities that can grow and diversify our economy.
Over the next few years, we will continue to better connect Canberra by attracting more direct flights – particularly focussing on connections to China, New Zealand and the United Sates – and improving the rail connectivity between Canberra and Sydney.
High speed rail may be some decades away yet, but faster rail that replicates the kind of service available between major US cities like New York and Washington is well within the realm of possibility and would deliver very significant benefits for businesses and communities in our region.
While we’re on the subject of rail, I know there’s a lot of anticipation about the commencement of Light Rail Stage 1 from Gungahlin to the City next year. Canberrans have been enormously patient with roadworks and other disruptions as we’ve undertaken this city’s biggest ever infrastructure project, but we’re nearly there.
When the first passengers ride from Gungahlin to the City early next year it will be a huge leap forward for public transport in Canberra and the connectivity between the CBD and our fastest growing region.
This brings me to Stage 2 of light rail: extending light rail south to Woden.
Meegan Fitzharris is leading the work to make it happen and we’re keeping up the momentum because Stage 2 is integral to our vision for a city-wide integrated public transport network.
We are working to secure approval for the route as soon as possible, so that we can get on with building it.
In light of the federal parliamentary committee’s recent report outlining the range of criteria the project will need to meet to achieve this, we are looking at the best route alignment to achieve timely approval from the Commonwealth.
We won’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good when it comes to getting on with the next stage of this important infrastructure project to bring light rail to Woden.
In conclusion, Canberrans have much proud of and every reason to be positive about our future.
Over the next few years we will be hard at work to make sure the city we love keeps getting better.
By building more new public homes and working across the board to make housing more affordable and accessible for Canberrans who need it.
By tackling the next stage of adaptation to a low carbon economy to safeguard our environment and quality of life.
By standing up for this community’s right to make our own decisions in line with our shared values.
And by continuing to strengthen Canberra’s connections with our region and the world to grow more good jobs today and for the coming generations.
A community that is inclusive. A city that is progressive. A place that is connected. That’s our Government’s agenda for Canberra and that’s what we’re working to deliver.