Madam Speaker, at the commencement of the parliamentary year, I would like to outline the ACT Government’s priorities for 2023.
We begin this year as the fastest-growing state or territory in the nation over the past decade.
The French philosopher Auguste Comte is often quoted as having said, “Demography is destiny”. This is certainly true for Canberra.
Over the past decade, our population has grown by around 370,000 to 460,000 and, by 2027, is set to reach half a million people.
Much of that population growth has been people aged 25 to 39.
This is the result of strong demand in our labour market, the strength of our higher education sector and Canberra’s desirability as a place to live.
We know that this strong population growth will continue to be driven by three factors:
- Natural increase, with more births than deaths each year;
- International migration; and
- Internal migration.
The Government is investing now and planning for the future to ensure that, as our population increases, Canberra continues to be one of the world’s most liveable cities.
That’s why we are investing in the infrastructure and services our growing city needs.
This includes healthcare, with our network of nurse-led walk-in centres and community health centres and the expansion of the Canberra Hospital, alongside the Federal Labor Government’s commitment to deliver an urgent care clinic in Canberra, working closely with the ACT Government.
We’re also investing in:
- Education and training, including a new CIT campus in Woden;
- Transport, by extending our light rail network, increasing our electric bus fleet, rolling out EV charging infrastructure across the city, and developing new bikeways and footpaths;
- Climate action, to accelerate our path to a net-zero emissions future; and
- Housing affordability, because delivering more diverse and affordable housing to more people is an important social good.
The ACT Government will soon release the first of a series of updates to the Territory’s 2019 Infrastructure Plan, focusing on arts, entertainment and sporting infrastructure.
Madam Speaker, Canberra is a welcoming and inclusive city that continues to demonstrate national and international leadership.
The ACT was the first Australian jurisdiction to be powered by 100 per cent renewable electricity, delivering cheaper and sustainable energy to Canberra businesses and households.
We are reforming our tax system to reduce reliance on transaction taxes, such as stamp duty, and to ensure the tax base is broadened to support future investment in government services and infrastructure.
Madam Speaker, a focus for this year will be delivering a number of significant social policy reforms.
We will become the first Australian jurisdiction to decriminalise the possession of small quantities of a range of illicit drugs; and the first to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14.
We are further strengthening our anti-discrimination laws, to ensure as much as possible that every Canberran has access to social connections and economic opportunities
Now that the Federal Parliament has voted to restore Territory rights, the ACT Government has today commenced community consultation to inform how voluntary assisted dying could be established in the ACT.
Many Canberrans have looked forward to this day, so they can have their say on this fundamental right: to die with dignity and support.
Madam Speaker, we will also support the process of enshrining an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament in the Australian Constitution.
Tomorrow, I will bring forward an Executive Motion seeking to affirm the Assembly’s support for the ‘Voice’ referendum as outlined by the Prime Minister, following Dr Paterson’s important motion on the Uluru Statement in November; and seeking Assembly endorsement for a community engagement campaign about the referendum.
Canberrans have a long history of voting ‘yes’ for positive and inclusive change. My ambition is for the ACT to have the highest ‘yes’ vote in the country, just like we did with the marriage equality vote in 2017 and the Republic referendum in 1999.
Drugs of Dependence
Madam Speaker, returning to drugs of dependence, the ACT Government understands that drug use is a health issue, not a criminal one.
Over the past two years we have taken nation-leading action to make this significant legal and cultural reform, working with Michael Pettersson to effect real change.
Decriminalising the possession of small quantities of the most common illicit drugs will provide those battling addiction with the help they need, without shame or the risk of criminal prosecution.
A central responsibility of government is ensuring the most vulnerable members of our community have access to the care and support they need to live a better life.
This legislation – which will come into effect in late October – will focus on diversion, access to treatment, and reducing the stigma of drug use, providing an avenue away from the criminal justice system.
While nation leading, this isn’t radical. It is evidence based, responsible, progressive and based on expert advice.
We will continue to engage with a range of important stakeholders over the next nine months as we prepare for the scheme’s commencement.
This includes implementing oversight arrangements; training frontline workers; and developing clear communication material in conjunction with police, the alcohol and drug sector, policy experts and people with a lived experience of drug use.
Of course, community engagement will be crucial.
Madam Speaker, the ACT Government invests more than $26 million each year in alcohol and drug treatment and harm reduction services in the ACT, delivered by both Canberra Health Services and non-government treatment providers.
This legislation will enhance our progressive and informed approach.
I want to take this opportunity to thank Mr Pettersson for bringing forward his Drugs of Dependence (Personal Possession) Amendment Bill; and Minister Stephen-Smith for her work not only refining the legislation, but in preparing for the commencement of this nation-leading reform.
Minimum age of criminal responsibility
Madam Speaker, harm minimisation is just one way the ACT Government is delivering significant reform to support some of the most vulnerable and at-risk members of our community.
We are also raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility.
In November, we released a position paper detailing how this will be implemented in a two-stage approach.
This year, we will introduce legislation to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 12, and then – two years later – to 14.
This approach will ensure we have the appropriate services in place to support children and young people who might otherwise enter the criminal justice system, while making our community safer.
We’ll be getting to these kids early, before they start engaging in more serious harm.
But in circumstances of the most serious and harmful actions, the community can be assured the criminal law will still apply to offenders 12 years and over.
Like our approach to harm minimisation, the process of raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility is a significant social reform that we will deliver in a responsible, evidence-based way, in partnership with the non-government sector.
Again, I want to thank Minister Stephen-Smith, as well as Minister Rattenbury and Minister Davidson, for leading this complex but important work.
Madam Speaker, Canberra takes pride in being an inclusive and diverse community.
We want our city to be one where everyone feels welcome, safe and respected. That’s why it’s so important our anti-discrimination laws are fit for purpose.
The ACT Government made a commitment at the beginning of the parliamentary term to review our discrimination legislation, to ensure it protects every Canberran’s right to equality.
Last year Minister Cheyne introduced a Bill to amend the ACT’s Discrimination Act. This year, we look forward to debating and passing this important legislation.
These changes will better align our legislation with the Human Rights Act, promoting greater social inclusion and respect for diversity.
Importantly, they will protect people in more situations, including some of the most vulnerable members of our community.
These changes also include a significant shift away from a reactive approach to addressing discrimination, to taking reasonable and proportionate steps to embed equality in all aspects of public life.
Of course, this process has involved extensive consultation and feedback.
Again, this government is committed to not only identifying significant and progressive social reform but delivering it in a thoughtful and informed way, to ensure the best outcomes for our community.
I thank Minister Cheyne for her hard work in this space.
Voluntary assisted dying
Madam Speaker, unfortunately, there has been one area of reform that, until very recently, the ACT has been prevented from even debating – voluntary assisted dying.
Thankfully, last year, the Federal Labor Government facilitated a private members’ bill restoring Territory rights, repealing a 1997 Commonwealth Act that unfairly and undemocratically prevented the ACT and Northern Territory from legislating to introduce voluntary assisted dying.
Every Australian state has since passed legislation to enable voluntary assisted dying in specific circumstances.
Now, the Territories can pursue this significant reform. We know from years of public opinion research that most Canberrans support voluntary assisted dying.
That’s why the ACT Government is proposing to legalise and regulate access to voluntary assisted dying, so Canberrans are supported to make informed end-of-life choices with dignity.
Today, the ACT Government has commenced a public consultation process, including the release of a detailed discussion paper, to enable Canberrans to have their say on an issue we know so many deeply care about.
We will then prepare and release a listening report on the feedback received, which will inform the development of voluntary assisted dying legislation in the ACT – legislation we aim to introduce later this year.
I again want to take this opportunity to thank Minister Cheyne, who has been a strong and passionate advocate on this important issue for many years as both a Minister and a local member.
Voice to Parliament
Madam Speaker, crucial to the restoration of Territory rights last year was the election of a Federal Labor Government in the House of Representatives and a more progressive Senate.
It has been refreshing to work with federal colleagues that respect the ACT as a growing, self-governing jurisdiction, as well as the home of the Australian Parliament.
I am pleased the Federal Labor Government is also committed to enshrining a First Nations ‘voice’ in the Australian Constitution, as one of the key actions sought in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Constitutional recognition through a Voice to Parliament is a significant step in ensuring First Nations people have a voice on the policies that directly impact their lives.
The ACT Government has always supported the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
In November, this was affirmed as the Assembly passed Dr Paterson’s motion calling on members to endorse the Uluru Statement, including the referendum campaign for an indigenous Voice to Parliament.
In December, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced that a referendum would be held before the end of 2023.
The ACT Government looks forward to contributing to what will be a historic vote, and I look forward to outlining the ACT’s role in the referendum in more detail during the executive motion tomorrow.
Madam Speaker, the ACT Government is committed to working with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to close the gap.
For almost 15 years, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body has been responsible for representing the needs of First Nations people living in the ACT.
It is the only democratically elected body of its kind in the country.
Established in 2008, the Elected Body supports the ACT Government to develop policies and services that meet the needs of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
The ACT Government has invested substantially in the Aboriginal community-controlled sector, including new, purpose-built premises for Winnunga Nimmityjah and Gugan Gulwan, and the establishment of a 10-year $20 million Healing and Reconciliation fund.
A national Voice to Parliament is a welcome next step forward so all Australians can “walk together to build a better future”.
I know Minister Stephen-Smith, as Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, looks forward to working with the Federal Government – and other state and territory governments – on the journey to enshrining a Voice to Parliament in the Australian Constitution.
Other policy areas
Planning and housing affordability
Madam Speaker, this year the ACT Government will continue delivering a range of other important reforms and projects to ensure Canberra remains one of the world’s most progressive and liveable cities.
This includes planning for Canberra’s future in a sustainable way.
Planning reform is crucial to not only building more homes, but ensuring Canberrans have access to more diverse and affordable housing options.
Canberra is growing. The reform of our planning system needs to deliver more housing, and more housing choices, for current and future Canberrans.
Last year, we opened consultation on a new Planning Bill, a new draft Territory Plan and District Strategies.
This year, we will consider the feedback to the proposed planning reforms and commence the process of enacting them in the Assembly.
Madam Speaker, there isn’t an endless supply of land in the Territory. The things that make the ACT a great place to live can’t exist if we endlessly sprawl.
That’s why we are aiming to achieve a “gentle urbanism”: building more affordable homes to own and rent in locations where people want to live, while retaining Canberra’s distinct character.
Of course, housing affordability continues to be a national issue requiring broad reform.
In the ACT, we are continuing to take steps to deliver more diverse and affordable housing options, including an increase of 30,000 dwellings in the ACT over the next five years, from around 180,000 dwellings to 210,000.
We are also investing in the Growing and Renewing Public Housing Program and supporting more build-to-rent projects.
Just last week we announced the establishment of a new Office of the Coordinator General for Housing to ensure a whole-of-government approach to delivering our housing objectives.
The new Coordinator General – who will report to the Minister for Housing and Suburban Development – will oversee a range of priorities, including working with the Federal Government to deliver actions under the National Housing Accord and the re-establishment of the Rent Relief Fund.
Throughout this year we will also consider a range of new initiatives to further address housing affordability in the ACT.
I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge Minister Berry, Minister Gentleman and Minister Vassarotti for their work across the housing, planning and homelessness portfolios.
Light rail and electric buses
Of course, it makes sense to increase housing choices close to our major employment centres – particularly near public transport.
The ACT Government is committed to ensuring our transport infrastructure continues to keep up with our growing population. That’s why we are investing in electric buses and light rail.
Madam Speaker, we promised light rail from Gungahlin to the city – and we delivered it.
Now, we’re getting on with the job of extending the network. And we’re creating thousands of jobs in the process.
Extending the light rail network is about our city’s long-term future.
It is important for a city of 500,000 people. It will be even more important in the coming decades as we grow towards three-quarters-of-a-million people.
We must plan for the future now and ensure that, over the years ahead, Canberra remains a liveable city where it is easy to move around.
I thank Minister Steel for his continued work as Minister for Transport.
Madam Speaker, this year the ACT Government will also ensure Canberrans have access to safe and accessible abortion services.
Last year, we announced the introduction of free medical and surgical abortions, up to 16 weeks.
This year, we will deliver this important investment. Because access to abortion is healthcare – and all women should be able to make decisions about their bodies.
Madam Speaker, we’re also focused on a more sustainable Canberra.
The ACT continues to lead the nation on climate action as we work towards a net-zero emissions future.
In doing so, we are creating jobs, attracting investment and lowering the cost of living for Canberra households.
Of course, we will continue supporting the community through this transition.
The Sustainable Household Scheme has delivered more than $125 million towards sustainable upgrades since it was established in 2021.
We’re delivering the Big Canberra Battery, so the renewable energy we generate can be stored in the ACT.
We’re also continuing to incentivise the take-up of electric vehicles, while rolling out more electric vehicle charging stations across our city.
In fact, electric vehicle registrations in the ACT have doubled over the 12 months to December 2022, from about 1500 to more than 3000 registrations.
We look forward to continuing this important and necessary transition.
Madam Speaker, over the next year – and the rest of the Assembly term – the Government will be focused on ensuring Canberra continues to be a great place to live, work, invest, study and visit.
A place where everyone in the community feels safe and accepted – and can thrive.
We know that Canberrans take pride in belonging to an inclusive and caring city. That’s why we are committed to delivering significant social reform that will strengthen our community.
Exploring and delivering complex policies and legislation isn’t easy; however, we are getting on with the job.
We understand that in our democracy there will always be some members of the community who will not agree with every decision we make.
But they do know what we stand for, and why.
Madam Speaker, we will continue to outline our priorities and engage with the community on the issues we know people care about.
It’s what we promised – and it’s what we’re delivering.