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ACT Up: Australia’s success story

The ACT is quite different to any other Australian state or territory. Apart from its city-state status, the ACT has a unique system of government. Lacking a local government, a governor or a vice-regal appointment, the ACT is the perfect place to enact and test new legislation.

ACT Up: Australia’s success story
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  • Maja Garaca Djurdjevic
  • October 18, 2019
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Demographically, the ACT is the wealthiest state or territory in Australia per capita, it has the highest level of education and an intricate social makeup, including a large number of diplomatic and military personnel.

Utopia? Not quite, but it is certainly a wealthy, sophisticated and highly cosmopolitan region in Australia. Overall, Canberra’s unique design has seen it become somewhat of an experimental ground for our politicians.

“It is actually quite easy, if the government has a mind to introduce things there’s no local interference,” explains Dr Michael Schaper, head of the Canberra Business Chamber.

There have been some unsuccessful moves to enact certain proposals, with MPs rejecting to turn Canberra into the cannabis capital. However, they were charmed by flying robots, sending drones to the sky across our capital.

Flying robots Wing, an offshoot of Google, recently officially launched a world-first commercial air delivery business in Canberra’s north, as a precursor for full scale commercial operation, which is expected in a couple of months.

Having pondered the idea for some time in Canberra’s industrial suburb of Mitchell, Wing gained approval for dozens of its drones to take flight across a wider region of the city earlier this year. 

"We've gone through all the thorough safety assessment we did for the Bonython operation; we’ve done that now for Mitchell and surrounding suburbs. We’ll issue the appropriate permissions for those to go ahead,” Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) spokesman Peter Gibson told ABC Radio Canberra in April.

Prior to CASA’s green light, Wing had been constrained to Canberra’s south, where in the suburb of Bonython it was delivering everything from coffee to golfing equipment.

The territory government was quite welcoming of Wing’s proposal, as was the CBC, and Dr Schaper was among the first to see the experiment take flight.

“I watched it take flight. You basically take out your app, you put an order in for a cup of coffee and once it has been made, the drone flies to the shop, lowers down a box where the coffee is placed and then using your phone it finds you, hovers above you and inches it down to you from about 30 feet in the air,” he says. 

Dr Schaper admits, however, that the trial period has had its slight hiccups, with the populace expressing concerns over the noise and potential wildlife dangers.

“There have been local complaints,” he says. Plenty of people were worried about what would happen if a drone accidentally hit a magpie. But Dr Schaper assures that these machines are essentially “glorified foam” with an inbuilt sensor system and a degree of artificial intelligence that can actually detect if something is flying its way. Mr Gibson tells us that CASA has drone surveillance equipment at major airports, as well as mobile equipment.

“The equipment can identify drones that may be breaking the drone safety rules,” he adds. Areas have also been identified where drone delivery could be particularly useful. And on the back of its success in Canberra, Wing recently announced it has applied for approval for home deliveries in Brisbane. “It can deliver medication to people who are sick at home. Even things like veterinary services doing things like small animal rescue,” says Dr Schaper. 

Perfect testing ground

But why was Canberra first? Dr Schaper admits that Canberra is a great place to trial a drone delivery service because of its compact size. The concept also resonates with Canberra’s emerging tech industry. “Here is a fact people probably don’t realise: 64 per cent of the workforce in Canberra is in the private sector and not in government as is usually assumed,” he says. A community needs to be encouraged to sprout, Dr Schaper says.

“In a place like this where historically it has been about working in government, it does require a bit of effort to convince people that there are other ways to make a living. Not only that, but that they are valued avenues,” he adds.

Another first in Canberra is the planned introduction of a wellbeing index. While New Zealand has handed down a “wellbeing budget”, our own capital city may soon be testing a similar concept. A “wellbeing budget” measures policies not just in economic terms but also against social, cultural and environmental indicators.

The ACT will be the first jurisdiction in Australia to create its own similar index and has enlisted experts and community groups to begin developing potential models. The government is promising to unveil the index on Canberra Day next year.

“Details are still a little vague,” admits Dr Schaper. “Although there are a couple of wellbeing indexes around, what is unusual is for the government to adopt [one] as a measure.”

The key question, Dr Schaper explains, surrounds the sort of measures the index will use. Ultimately, the chosen measures will have a subsequent effect on government decision making, for better or for worse. “We need to think carefully about this,” he cautions.

“What gets measured gets managed, but also it drives peoples’ behaviour for better or worse as well.” Dr Schaper admits that the CBC has yet to see anything more detailed from the government, but it does expect to do so ahead of next year’s budget.

“Progressive views”

So, how do the residents of Canberra feel about their city’s experimental nature? Dr Schaper believes they carry their “progressive views” proudly. Issues such as sustainability, carbonless economy and marriage equality are not things only people in public service think about, they are seriously pondered by the wider Canberra community.

“I don’t see a lot of debates or arguments or push back among the business community. It’s kind of like ‘of course we want to try and be leaders’,” Dr Schaper says.

Climate change is another area Canberra has excelled at, committing to a net zero emissions target by 2045. “That’s a kind of Canberra thing. I think it is a bit of a culture that has evolved over time,” Dr Schaper says. 

The challenges

But Canberra has its challenges. According to Dr Schaper, while 4,500 businesses pop up around the ACT each year, 3,500 go out. Statistics from the ABS confirm the ACT’s woes, revealing that while the territory had the highest business entry rate in Australia of 18 per cent in 2017-18, it also had the highest exit rate of 13.4 per cent.

“Canberra is one of the few places in the country that doesn’t have a general small business advisory service,” reveals Dr Schaper.

So, while most states fund small business advisory centres or the like, the ACT doesn’t. “That is a bit of a lack and we do need that,” he says. Boaz Fischer, the CEO of CommsNet Group, agrees. 

He believes that one of Canberra’s main downsides is the government’s lack of support for the local small business community.

However, the big challenge, says Dr Schaper, is the economy’s substantial dependence on services and its lack of manufacturing power.

Although the ACT has the fastest growing economy in the country, with its combined economic growth reaching 12 per cent in the past three years, it is thirsty for diversification.  Recognising its shortfalls, the ACT government said earlier this year it intends to continue driving diversification through investment attraction and facilitation of major projects, growing exports in products and strengthening its local innovation ecosystem.

“We are creating more jobs for Canberrans through attracting and supporting investment, helping local businesses become export market ready and further developing key industry sectors like the specialised scientific and research sector, and ICT and cyber security sector,” the government said in a statement.

Punching above its weight

But despite the specified downsides, Canberra’s lifestyle is admired far and wide.

“It’s small. It’s easy to get around. Lifestyle is great and much better as a family,” says Mr Fischer.

In fact, the ACT is the only state or territory not near the coast; it is one of the few planned cities in the world; it’s home to over 140 wineries and 54 museums; and has one of the lowest crime rates compared with other cities in Australia. Vicki Stylianou, executive general manager of advocacy and technical at the IPA, calls Canberra home, so we asked her what she likes best about Canberra. 

“I love the four seasons, crisp and clear winter days; meeting interesting and influential people; the proximity to Sydney, coast and snow; being surrounded by nature; and the rural-urban mix,” Ms Stylianou says.

So, while Canberra may not be perfect, we can’t deny that it still continues to punch above its weight on many fronts, creating more than we might expect given its small population. 

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