20 August 2016
The Molonglo River has long appeared to be a dividing line between the northern and southern parts of Canberra, since it became the national capital last century. This was even before a dam was built on the river to the west of the city centre, creating what became Lake Burley Griffin. For argument’s sake, if you were to get in a boat on the river near Canberra Airport on the city’s eastern fringe, and then sail west, you’d come upon the lake beyond a large hillside near the river’s northern shoreline.
On the northern side of this watery divide, Canberra has its central shopping district, as well as the Australian National University. On the southern side are lots of governmental buildings, among which is where Federal Parliament has sat since it moved there in the 1920s – before then it’d sat in Melbourne when established in 1901.
But a few decades ago, a certain change has produced parliaments on either side of Lake Burley Griffin. The change came in the late 1980s, when the Australian Capital Territory became self-governing. Lying somewhere near Canberra’s city centre is the ACT Parliament, made up of seventeen members in a single parliamentary chamber. This is different from the dual-chamber parliaments existing both at the national level and in most Australian states.
With parliaments on either side of the lake, something mildly amusing can be made in relation to two Canberra-based politicians, namely Katy Gallagher from the Labor Party and Zed Seselja from the Liberal Party. Both were leaders in ACT politics over the years, most significantly when they faced each other at the last ACT election, in October 2012, and now they’re in Federal Parliament. One could argue that they both crossed the lake, if I could put it as such, to carry on their battle.
Although their switches differed in many ways, I could imagine a droll little scenario in relation to Gallagher and Seselja. Only with Canberra’s geographic setting could it be possible for two prominent Canberra combatants to leave their local parliamentary chamber, walk along a major road heading south, cross the lake, head up to a hill where another chamber lies, and continue their battle there. Of course, this fanciful scenario didn’t quite happen that way, but having parliaments on either side of the lake could’ve made it possible!
That 2012 ACT election saw Gallagher narrowly defeat Seselja, albeit only with the support of a crossbencher. Back then, Gallagher had been Labor leader and Chief Minister of the ACT since 2011, following the departure of the long-serving Jon Stanhope, who’d taken Labor into office with crossbench support in the wake of an election in late 2001. Seselja led the Liberals to within striking distance of victory in 2012, ultimately falling short by a few seats. In fact the Labor and Liberal parties won eight seats apiece, out of a possible seventeen, with a Green holding the balance of power. Support from the Green enabled Labor to hold office.
After this narrow loss, Seselja set his sights on Federal Parliament. He challenged ACT Liberal Senator Gary Humphries for his seat in a preselection vote in 2013, and he won, duly entering the Senate later that year. Humphries had been there since 2003, replacing veteran Liberal Senator Margaret Reid.
Ironically, Humphries had entered the Senate after a stint as ACT Liberal leader and Chief Minister, losing office in the 2001 election to Labor under Stanhope. Labor has governed continuously in the ACT since that election.
In the meantime, Gallagher left the ACT Parliament a few years after the close election result in 2012, and entered the Senate after veteran Labor Senator Kate Lundy resigned.
Now both Gallagher and Seselja sit on opposite sides of a parliamentary chamber, like they sat before in another parliamentary chamber, albeit in positions not as senior as they were previously. I suppose that we’re always wishing for politicians to “go and jump in the lake”. Rarely would there be an example of politicians swapping parliaments on either side of a lake to go on with a battle.