Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Australian Capital Territory: January to June 2007

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

Australian Capital Territory: January to June 2007

Article excerpt


Four key issues are examined in the chronicles for the first half of 2007: the no-confidence motion in the Chief Minister, the emerging war over water, the second attempt at introducing same-sex union laws, and the scandal over Territory investments. Outside these topics a range of issues attracted political attention. In April, Canberrans mourned the tragic suicide of the Chief of Police Audrey Fagan amidst debates about the role of the media in a small town. The Chief Minister and Treasurer delivered a "meek and mild" budget after the slash and burn of 2006 and people debated the decision by the Minister for Multicultural Affairs, John Hargreaves, to honour the infamous former Whitlam Minister Al Grassby with a statue. Whilst all worthy of further exploration, the four issues selected for further discussion are linked by the theme of principles versus political pragmatism.

Deconstructing Jon

Jon Stanhope has been described as "[lacking] any sense of pragmatism", "dogged to the point of being stubborn" and "thin-skinned". On the other hand, he has been hailed as "genuine", "honest" and someone "prepared to stand up for his principles regardless of the political skin he might lose" (Canberra Times, 2 June 2007). The Chief Minister of the Territory is, indeed, an interesting character. He commands the Territory's first majority government, he oversaw Australia's first Bill of Rights, he decriminalised abortion, passed legislation to recognise same-sex unions, and he has publicly spoken out about the treatment of terror suspects and refugees. In the first half of 2007, however, Stanhope came under incredible pressure and his integrity was very publicly debated.

When the Coroner's report into the Canberra bushfires was finally released in December 2006 it argued that, under Westminster conventions, Stanhope should be found to be responsible. Soon after, it was suggested that the Opposition would bring a no-confidence motion when the Assembly resumed sitting in February. On hearing this Stanhope stated: "I have to say I'm at peace with myself and I'm at peace with the prospect of a no-confidence motion"--not surprising given that he commands a majority in the Assembly. But he sparked considerable outrage by commenting: "I'm surprised that four years later we're still churning on questions of whether or not the Government's response to the fire was appropriate or sufficiently generous, I believe it was" (Canberra Times, 19 January 2007). A combination of these comments with the findings prompted calls for his resignation both from his political opponents and members of the public.

The no-confidence motion was debated in the Assembly on 28 February; the day after the government's response to the Coroner's report was released. Debate centred on two critical issues: Stanhope's refusal to accept responsibility for the damage caused by the fires, and his unwillingness to publicly discuss his whereabouts on the eve of the firestorm. In relation to the first point the leader of the opposition Bill Stefaniak argued:

   As the person ultimately responsible, the Chief Minister should
   resign ... [he] was negligent in his duty. He took advice and
   acquired knowledge that he should have passed on to the people of
   Canberra. He failed to do so. In not doing so, he failed the people
   of Canberra and he failed the test of leadership (Hansard, 28
   February 2007).

Throughout the debate Stefaniak, and others, repeatedly came back to comments made at the time of the fires by Stanhope which included the line, "If you want to blame someone, blame me". Stefaniak asked:

   What did you mean by that, Chief Minister? What were you thinking?
   Was it sincere? It seemed at the time a courageous and heartfelt
   sentiment, but did you really mean it? Was it merely empty
   rhetoric, a cynical one-liner, a media grab designed to buy you
   time to explain how things could have gone so badly on your watch? … 
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