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by Caroline Ambrus

The ACT Government is a scaled down example of governments everywhere, with the same corruption, coverups and cruelty. The three couples featured in this book complained about the Government's maladministration and challenged it when lies, denial, delays and obfuscation was the response. This book relates how the ACT courts, the ombudsman and other complaints agencies fail to deliver accountability. It examines the laws that enabled the government and accountability agencies to evade their responsibilities in delivering justice to people who have been wronged by the bureaucracy. The ACT Government, like governments everywhere, aims to look good whilst it is behaving badly.

irrePRESSible Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-9578795-1-5



Caught in the ACT contains the stories of several Canberra residents who entered the world described by Franz Kafka — a bureaucratic nightmare. They seem to have antagonised government officials because they resisted arbitrary demands. Even worse, they sought to expose rule violations by the officials who were making demands of them. They entered a long tunnel of letters, complaints, demands, appeals, expense and stress.
       The book also contains an analysis of the ACT government and its problematical features, such as having only one chamber and administering a small population where personal connections and conflicts of interest abound.
       Most Canberra residents, if they are lucky, will go through their lives and never be aware of the petty bureaucratic struggles occurring in their seemingly placid suburbs. Yet in households here and there throughout the city, there is continual angst and anger at officials and politicians who toss their weight around and are seemingly unaccountable.
       I do not know the author, Caroline Ambrus. Nor have I independently studied the cases she describes in exquisite detail. However, the cases ring true based on my long involvement with whistleblowers. So let me explain the connection between whistleblowers and the Canberra residents whose stories are told here.
       A typical whistleblower is a conscientious employee who believes the system works. When encountering some apparent problem, this dutiful employee reports it to the boss. Sometimes the right thing is done: the matter is investigated and, if necessary, problems are fixed. But in some cases, the employee has inadvertently stumbled onto something bigger. For example, the boss might be involved in a scam or tolerating corrupt operations by others. The loyal employee, by becoming aware of the issue, become a threat to the dodgy operators. And so reprisals begin: petty harassment, ostracism, referral to psychiatrists, reprimands, even dismissal.
       This is just the beginning. The conscientious employee who believes in the system realises that the reprisals are unfair and seeks justice, by appealing to the boss's boss, to the board of management, to the Ombudsman, an anti-corruption agency, the courts or any number of other appeal bodies. Having talked to hundreds of whistleblowers, what happens next is predictable to me: the various appeal processes and agency do not fix the problem. Sometimes they make it worse.
       The reality is that taking on a more powerful opponent is nearly always a no-win proposition. Usually the only things that can give the employee a chance are publicity and collective action. Media coverage can make a big difference, and so can efforts by trade unions and action groups.
       The saddest aspect of the typical whistleblowing story is the unwelcome realisation that the system does not provide justice. The world can be very unfair, and the rules don't seem to matter to those administering them.
       The individuals whose stories are told in Caught in the ACT do not fit conventional definitions of whistleblowers. They are not employees, but rather citizens trapped in fruitless struggles over seemingly petty matters. But there are important similarities between their stories and those of whistleblowers. In both cases, something is wrong and, rather than acquiescing, individuals decide to resist, pointing out that the rules haven't been followed. Reading the stories, the actions by ACT officials look to me very much like reprisals — reprisals for refusing to give in and for pointing out that officials have violated their own rules.
       In writing Caught in the ACT, Caroline Ambrus has taken the most important step in challenging abuses, which is to document the problem and explain it to others. Some of the stories are quite complicated; the careful explanations of their complexities are one aspect of the book that impresses me. In studying cases of dissent, abuse and bureaucratic bungling, the stories are invariably complex, and it is incredibly hard for anyone to explain what happened in a clear and logical fashion.
       You do not have to accept Caroline Ambrus' perspective and interpretations, but there is sufficient material here to show that things could be done better, and should be done better. For this reason, this book deserves to be read.

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. Web: http://www.bmartin.cc/





by Caroline Ambrus

Self Government in the ACT is unfinished business. It was imposed in a hurry on a reluctant population thirty four years ago. In spite of being Westminister based, a senate was not included. This meant that the legislature could not restrain the ambitions of a majority government, should one ever be elected. Democracy, territorial style would not be feasible unless the minority parties co-operate in governance.

Then the unthinkable happened. In 2004 the Labor Party was elected with a majority. Since then the ACT Government has removed checks and balances to suit its priorities: introducing inappropriate legislation; reducing consultation with community groups; conducting frivolous lawsuits; and by targetting individuals allegedly guilty of minor infractions of the government's dictates. Meanwhile, the demoralised Liberal Party opposition has failed to challenge or modify the Government's tyannical tendencies. Subsequently, capital democracy is on the line.

In addition, the ACT is not politically autonoous. As the seat of Federal Parliament, the Commonwealth has retained control over planning matters of national significance, ignoring the wishes or needs of the ACT population. As a result, political tensions and unresolved issues have developed between the federal and territorial governments. The lines of responsibility between the principal planning authorities, the National Capital Planning Authority and the ACT Planning and land Authority hae not been clearly drawn. The fall out is bad planning and wasted resources. Consequently, many unsuitable developments dot the Canberra landscape which have affected the ambience of the Territory.


An authoritative voice from the past has the last word.

The Community Alliance Party had its official launch at the Albert Hall, Yarralumla, on Thursday 12 June 2008. Tony Powell AO, former Commissioner for the National Capital Development Commission was one of the keynote speakers. His inspiring, insightful speech is transcribed as verbatim as possible from the video of the event by Jonathon Reynolds posted on www.vimeo.com/1196035.

The first reality: The National Capital is not sustainable in its present form. It is not sustainable because it is not possible for the ratepayers of the ACT to fund the ongoing development of the National Capital. The ratepayers' income will never be large enough to do that. Land sales which are such an important part of the ACT Government's income are a depleting resource and it's only going to require some sort of economic downturn or a reduction in population growth before it becomes even more apparent that funding from the sale of land will not be adequate to meet the overall budget requirements.
       In that context it is only a question of time before the Commonwealth Government will have to take back financial responsibility for the key land use elements of the National Capital as distinct from the land use elements of Canberra as a metropolis. In other words, it is only a question of time before the Commonwealth has to resume fiscal management to the National area, the metropolitan parkland network, the National Capital open space system and National Capital institutions in terms of their sites and settings, like the Botanical Gardens.
       The second reality that flows from the first is that the ACT Government is to renegotiate basically the 1988 agreement which was foisted on this Territory without any consultation or prior agreement because it is loaded against the interests of the people who live in this Territory, is loaded against the interests of the idea of the National capital and it is loaded in favour of the desire of the Commonwealth in 1988 to acquit itself of responsibility for funding the development of the National Capital.
       The third point I want to make about realities is that it follows from what I said. There is a critical need to reinvigorate the National Capital idea. Canberra as a National Capital, both physically, functionally and in terms of image as a national Capital has deteriorated. This is not the quality of National Capital it was in 1988. And it doesn't have the status in the minds of the Prime Ministers, of the Parliament and of the agencies of the Commonwealth Government that exists in the Territory. There are too many instances of where — I don't need to talk about Mr Howard's rejection of Canberra — but it is true to say that the Commonwealth does not try to carry out many of its important public functions, particularly its national functions in Canberra. And there's no push on the part of the Commonwealth Public Service to have Can-berra get facilities needed for large conferences, research type institutions.
       The fourth point I want to make about realities is that the idea of the neighbourhood, what town planners in the NCDC called the neighbourhood unit, that idea is under threat. When the Stanhope Cabinet sat down and decided to get rid of thirty-six primary schools, as far as one can see that was done in a budget context. They did not recognise that the basic building block of the neighbourhood unit is founded centrally on the idea of there being either a primary or a secondary school being the core of that neighbourhood. So when they dispensed with twenty-six or thirty-six primary or secondary schools, there goes the neighbourhood because what happens then is that the open space has no meaning. The central road network has no meaning because the activities that are supposed to take place in and around the school are gone. And so now they come up with is that they're going to knock down the schools and build community halls. Now that's somebody sitting around the table and saying 'well what will we have to replace them'. Not an idea of a community hall that's come from some sensible understanding of how the community operates and needs to operate.
       Those four realities, and there are more, but those four realities — you do not hear the Stanhope Government or the previous Government, Carnell, Humphries, ever talk about the sort of things I've just alluded to. But it must be obvious after twenty years that the 1988 agreement between the Territory and the Commonwealth are not sustainable. And unless those sorts of big picture realities are recognised by all of you who are going to stand for public office and if you manage to get into the Assembly, you are not entitled the to sit there comfortably with your $120,000 and say 'now I'm here and I'll just ride along with what everyone else is doing.' There are fundamental issues that affect the viability of Canberra as the National Capital and Canberra as a metropolis cannot flourish without the National Capital function being alive and well and growing.
       The National Capital Authority is currently the subject of a Senate enquiry. The aim of the enquiry, if I read Senator Lundy, the Chairman of the Committee, correctly, she is trying to sort of close it down as much as possible and hand over to this inept Territory Government that I've just been talking about, responsibility for more of Canberra planning and development. The need is following on my contention that the whole National Capital idea needs to be reinforced and re-invigorated, that you need an NCA with the resources and the capacity to do more, not less, to look after those National Capital elements I've just alluded to earlier.
       So there is a need to review the National Capital Plan because it is twenty years old and to also review it because in the recent case of the Territory Plan, the ACT Government has taken out all of the objectives, policies and principles that underlie strategic planning. And it has transformed the Territory Plan into simply a zoning and development control plan. It doesn't say anything about the character of the city, of the valued aspects of environment that need to be protected by proper planning principles. Not only that, they've changed the Territory Plan so as to remove most of the rights of consultation and objection and appeal that existed prior to — . And they've it by saying that's what's happening all over Australia. That is developer driven ideology that State Governments are taking on board and the Stanhope Government has taken on board, not for the interests of the community but for the interests of themselves.
       [The first thing is] on the question of governance, the restoration of the National Capital idea is the most important issue for any Territory Government. And I can't stress that too much because the future of Canberra depends fundamentally on its success as the National Capital. And what that means is that for any Chief Minister — that relationship between his Government, or her Government, and the institutions of the National Capital, particularly the Prime Minister and particularly the Commonwealth Parliament should be high on their list — and we have Chief Minister Stanhope who seemed to go out of his way to antagonise the previous Prime Minister and appears to be similarly inclined in relation to Mr Rudd. And I'm at a complete loss, I mean that it is just an issue of common sense that you would know that for this Territory unless it has the active patronage of the Prime Minister it will not flourish. It will not get major institutions, it will not get adequate funding, it will decline as a place where the Prime Minister of the day wants to be.
       The second thing is that under the present Government, the public administration is highly fragmented so that nothing gets done because there is no single agency in charge of programmes, performance, letting of contracts, performance of contracts. The case of planning and land management spread over five different elements of the Government and so there is no one group of professionals collecting together to deal with things like land use in relation to transport, land use in relation to subdivision, land use in relation to development by the private sector, etc. So the whole thing performs badly so that's why this Territory has the
longest waits to get planning approvals. Hardly a week goes by that there isn't some adverse complaint about the performance of the planning and development system
       And the third thing I want to refer to under governance is the role of the Assembly. There is something obviously wrong about a system where five Assembly members are working flat out all the time and the remaining fourteen or however many they are only have to turn up for sixty odd days a year to attend legislation and committee hearings. I don't know how you engage more of the Assembly in the day to day workings of government and administration. But you've got to be able to do better than that. The other thing about the system of Assembly elections is that its been set up ostensibly so that each electorate has multiple members. What that means in practice is that if you've got a problem in your local area, you can't find a local member who'll be sufficiently interested or feel accountable to you to respond to that. And so it may suit the parties or it may suit the idea of having parties elected more as a greater likelihood than having independents. But nevertheless as an instrument of democracy it is a joke. So something needs to be done to make the elected members more representative. But more importantly, something has to be done to engage more of the Assembly in the business of day to day government.
       The final point in my view is that there is a need to empower and enhance the ACT Public Service. The balance of skills in ACT management are all wrong. The Commonwealth Public Service operates basically as a policy formulating and implementing public service. It is different in the States. They are much more responsible for the delivery of tangible services. In the ACT, the bulk of public servants in all of the key Territory departments have basically a policy type function and more we need — we need to get rid of a whole lot of those people and we need to get more people who are trained in things like municipal administration. And more people working in areas of education, social welfare, urban development who are trained to deliver tangible facilities, tangible services in a efficient way, on time, to meet actual needs. Now I'm not saying it's the Public Service's fault. All I am saying is that the time has come now for that to be recognised and for the Government to put a lot more money into training and assigning people much more sensibly than they do at the moment.