A Capital Idea: Move Them Out To Move Us On


Last week, when Canberra was named by the Institute of Public Affairs as one of Australia’s 13 biggest mistakes, the chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory complained that this was another predictable exercise in Canberra-bashing. Presumably, because we also listed the introduction of cane toads into this country as a mistake, we can expect letters from Friends of Cane Toads. But it is legitimate to examine the mistakes Australia has made in the past to avoid making similar ones in the future.

Australians are a remarkably creative, diverse and entrepreneurial people. Politics is slow, backwards-looking and uniform.

Inspired by misguided ideologies and without full understanding of the unintended consequences, it is very easy for governments to make mistakes. Unfortunately, since Federation, this has happened too often.

Australia entered the 20th century with the highest living standards in the world. By the 1970s, we couldn’t even crack the top dozen.

The media provide a good example of government failure. We now live in a world of iPods, YouTube and MySpace. Never has there been so much information and entertainment readily available. But if a service such as YouTube required government-managed airwaves to operate, rather than the free-for-all internet, there is no chance it would have been given a license in Australia.

Since taking over control of the radio-waves with the 1905 Wireless Telegraphy Act, successive Australian governments have needlessly held back the development of wireless telegraphy, AM radio, television, FM radio, subscription and now digital television. Most governments have been open about the reason – to protect the financial viability of existing media companies. Never mind the consumers.

Patrick White’s 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature could not be considered anything but a success, and the government’s response was to inaugurate the Australia Council. But when expatriates such as Germaine Greer criticise Australian culture from afar, they fail to recognise that this too may be a result of government action. How much different would Charles Dickens’ novels have been if he had been living off a government grant?

The US, which has a famously low level of state support for the arts, has a strong, vibrant culture. American artists are forced to respond to the demands of their audience. The result has been a century of innovation and experimentation.

But our large arts bureaucracy, funded by government and beholden to committees rather than consumers, could easily be the cause of our “cultural cringe”. If the government left our creative artists to their own devices, without offering them protection from their fickle audience, perhaps we could finally relax our cringe.

Similarly, when parents decry their children’s reluctance to move out of home, it would be worth considering that they can’t afford to. The imposition of regressive urban planning restrictions by governments has artificially inflated the prices of homes, beginning with the Western Australian Town Planning and Development Act in 1928. These laws have shifted the decision-making powers about how to use land from the land’s owners into the new urban planning establishment. By restricting the supply of housing, prices naturally go up.

Conceivably, fewer of these mistakes would have been made if our politicians, bureaucrats and regulators had been closer to the people they were governing, rather than sequestered away in Canberra. The decision in 1908 to shift the engines of government to a rural area isolated decision-makers from the consequences of their decisions.

If we had left the capital in one of our major cities, some of the folly of Australian history could perhaps have been avoided.

Thankfully, steady reform since the 1970s has partly reversed some of the worst mistakes. But if Australia is currently under the grip of some sort of “neo-liberal orthodoxy”, as is so commonly argued, then the question is not how have advocates of the free market and small government suddenly gained power, but where were they during the first 90 years of our federal system?

If we’d had a strong, liberal free-trade party in Australia that embraced individualism and economic and social freedom, perhaps this would have not been the case. Instead we were stuck with two protectionist conservative parties unwilling to challenge the prevailing dogma.

The bi-partisan reform movement to reverse some of the mistakes of past governments is giving back Australians some measure of control over their own lives. Australians can be justly proud of our successes. Most of our failures have been the fault of governments.

Australia’s 13 biggest mistakes
1. The end of the Reid government (1905)
2. The Harvester Judgement (1907)
3. Wireless Telegraphy Act (1905)
4. The Montreal Olympics (1976)
5. The Uniform Tax cases (1942 and 1957)
6. WA Town Planning and Development Act (1928)
7. Immigration Restriction Act (1901)
8. The Labor Party split (1955)
9. Publication of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859)
10. The release of cane toads (1935)
11. Federal money for science blocks at non-government schools (1963)
12. Patrick White wins the Nobel Prize (1972)
13. Invention of Canberra (1908)
Source: Institute of Public Affairs