by Daniel Gerard
This year housing activists in Canberra proved again the power of community organising and running positive agendas. Friend of the Fabian Society, Eben Leifer has been a part of growing the campaign for housing reform as part of Greater Canberra, a community group on a mission to make our city more affordable, liveable, and sustainable. This year, after collaborating with unions, ALP branches, members of the ACT Legislative Assembly, and factions, they achieved major reform to Labor’s platform. The momentum they have built in this campaign is now likely to carry through into government before the next ACT election, and make Canberra a more welcoming, diverse, and affordable city.
Many people who have not lived in Canberra are probably not aware of how expensive housing is in this city, especially for renters. Whilst the average rent for a house in capital cities across Australia in June 2023 was $580/wk, in Canberra it was $675/wk. Whilst Sydney prices are now higher, for many years, Canberra was the most expensive city to buy or rent in Australia.
Some have argued that the high price of housing in Canberra is affordable because of the higher relative incomes of public service executives who live here, but that is not the reality for most people. Canberra does have many public service executives, but like any city, it is home to people who work all kinds of jobs — cleaners, shop assistants, builders’ labourers, and personal care attendants. For many of those people, and those who do not work, Canberra is often a nightmare of unaffordable housing. Many drive ridiculous distances from regional New South Wales, forced out by Canberra’s housing costs.
Greater Canberra argues that a component of the housing shortage is not just the growing pains of the national capital, but a significant flaw in our planning system. Most of Canberra is covered by very restrictive zoning regulations that prevent anything denser than single-family homes, often on quarter-acre blocks, from being built. This restriction covers inner city areas with great services like schools, public transport, and shops within walking distance. Those laws mean that new housing can often only be built on the city fringe, at great expense in money and environmental damage, and without the services that people need.
Not only do the planning regulations make it difficult to build in Canberra, but there is an appeals mechanism that means anti-development groups are able to drag out processes and make it too expensive to build the homes Canberra needs, even where the zoning allows for it. In recent years public and social housing has often been blocked by neighbourhood ‘community councils’ on any pretext they can find to stop poorer or working-class people moving into their suburbs. In one case a small group of residents sought to block the construction of a domestic violence shelter. Even when they don’t have a case and eventually lose in court, years of delay and tens of thousands of dollars make it just too hard to build the houses Canberra needs.
Recognising this problem, the grassroots community group Greater Canberra formed, and have been arguing the case for building more homes. Greater Canberra is a non-partisan organisation comprised of people from across the political spectrum, all focused on the goal of ensuring more housing is built in Canberra. Whilst working with that group, Labor-aligned members also started work within the party, making the case for reform.
ACT Labor has been in Government since 2001, and next year will be facing re-election, hoping to secure their seventh consecutive term in Government. With strong local NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) groups well established in the community, they do not seem like they would be in the most likely position to take a strong stance in favour of housing density. The campaign reached out and found common ground with the CFMEU campaign to improve building quality by increasing licensing of trades and creating a system of developer licensing. It also consistently and credibly made the case that all people should be considered when planning our city, including the Canberrans who are not yet there because their homes have not been built, not just the loud NIMBYs minority who are against them.
This campaign is a great example of how constructive engagement with the Labor Party can deliver real policy results. At no stage in the campaign did a spokesperson attempt to shame or embarrass incumbents into changing positions. Instead, the campaign positively engaged, made its case, and found comrades willing to act. On conference day, standing orders had to be bent so that representatives of different factions and persuasion could speak, one after the other, all ‘in favour’. A series of motions, adopting a pro-housing policy and limiting third party nuisance appeals were adopted without any votes against.
About the author
Daniel Gerrard is the convenor of the ACT Fabians.