The road to self-government


In 1908, the Commonwealth Parliament chose the site for the capital of Australia, and in 1911, the ‘territory for the seat of government’ was established. It was called the Federal Capital Territory until 1938 when it officially became the Australian Capital Territory. The ACT was administered by the federal government until 1989.

Before self-government, the Federal Minister for Territories made all the decisions about the ACT. Advisory bodies were set up to inform the minister about matters that affected ACT residents. The first advisory body was the Federal Capital Advisory Committee, established in 1920. This first committee was made up of appointed officials, but later committees also included people who were elected to give advice to the minister. The first fully elected body—the Legislative Assembly consisting of 18 Members—was formed in 1974. It changed its name to the House of Assembly in 1979.

The federal government was not obliged to follow the advice of any of these advisory bodies, appointed or elected.

The people have their say

An advisory referendum, or plebiscite, was held on 25 November 1978 to ask residents if the ACT should be granted self-government. Electors were given a choice of three proposals:

The results of the plebiscite showed that 63.75% of electors were in favour of continuing the present arrangements.

Plebiscite results




Self government



Local government



Present arrangements



Self-government is introduced

In the late 1980s, and despite the results of the 1978 referendum, the Federal Government decided that the Australian Capital Territory, with a population of 270,000, needed its own system of self-government. The Federal Parliament passed the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988, along with other related legislation which established self-government in the ACT.


To operate effectively, a legal framework was needed for the ACT’s new government. The Commonwealth Parliament passed legislation to establish this framework:

The Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 functions as the ACT’s constitution as it sets out many of the arrangements that determine how its system of government operates.

The original bills were introduced into the House of Representatives on 19 October 1988. They went through the process of amendments in both Houses, before they were signed into law by the Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, on 6 December 1988.

Electing the first Legislative Assembly for the ACT

The first election for the Legislative Assembly for the ACT was held on 4 March 1989 using the modified d’Hondt electoral system, with the whole ACT being one electorate.

The first political party to form government was the Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch) with five seats. Other parties that formed part of the first Assembly were the Canberra Liberals (four seats), the Residents Rally (four seats), the No Self-Government Party (three seats), and the Abolish Self-Government Coalition (one seat).

The Legislative Assembly sat for the first time on 11 May 1989. At this time, Rosemary Follett was elected as the Legislative Assembly’s first Chief Minister, Trevor Kaine was elected Leader of the Opposition, and David Prowse was elected Speaker.

The final sitting day of the First Assembly was 17 December 1991.

Return to the resources page