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Government Records about the Australian Capital Territory

Expanding borders

By the late 1960s, the Territory's rapidly expanding population was causing concern. In October 1968, an interdepartmental committee was established to examine implications for Canberra's possible expansion into New South Wales prior to making formal contact with the NSW Government.

The committee reported in October 1970, advising that by the year 2000 the Territory's population might be somewhere between 600,000 and 840,000, assuming current growth trends continued. Only 157 square miles (407 square kilometres) of land that was capable of residential development remained within the Territory; the rest was unsuitable or required for water catchment or other purposes. Once that land was developed, the Territory's population would be limited to 550,000. It was not possible to develop any other Territory land; the best option was to develop NSW land. Given the length of time it took to develop new residential districts, the committee recommended that negotiations begin with New South Wales for the acquisition of 400–500 square miles (1036–1295 square kilometres) of land.117

The Commonwealth was initially reluctant to raise the issue with New South Wales, although informal discussions did take place. In April 1973, Cabinet approved the establishment of a planning study with New South Wales, and Prime Minister Whitlam later wrote to Premier Robert Askin.118 Askin agreed to the study and negotiations continued over the next year. The issue was also discussed at a ministerial conference held on 12 December 1974.119

Askin was succeeded as Premier by Tom Lewis in January 1975. Lewis was not as receptive to the proposal and, in April 1975, announced the establishment of a committee of inquiry into the Territory's proposed expansion into his state. Whitlam wrote to Lewis suggesting that the committee be a joint Commonwealth–state entity. Lewis refused, but suggested that the Commonwealth might like to make submissions to the committee. The Commonwealth declined, and matters abruptly ceased. In March 1976, Minister for the Capital Territory Tony Staley announced an agreement with New South Wales to leave the borders unchanged.120

Despite the high population levels government officials thought Canberra might reach, in 2012 the Territory's population remained at 367,000.

Border issues strategy NC–73/00391
Over the border expansion, the go it alone option 74/2112
ACT growth, community participation exercise, border NC–75/00531 part 2
Inquiries and discussions on border extensions NC–75/00587
ACT border issue press relations NC–75/00594 part 1
Land Policy Branch – ACT border extension issues, public involvement 75/1865
Land Policy Branch – public response to proposed extension of ACT border 77/1716
Constitutional and Law Reform Branch – cross border issues (ACT agreement with NSW) 90/8195
National Archives
Growth of Canberra and NSW territory, 1971 A5908, 108
Sub-regional planning study, Canberra region, 1971 A5908, 415
Sub-regional planning study impact of development in NSW on Canberra planning, 1972 A5908, 645
Growth of Canberra and NSW territory, 1973 A5915, 179
Growth of Canberra and NSW territory, 1973 A5915, 707
National Library
ACT border issue, 1974–76 (Tom Uren) MS 5816, series 7, box 53


Chapter notes | All notes

117 NAA: A5908, 108, May 1971. This submission contains a copy of the interdepartmental committee's 1970 report.

118 NAA: A5915, 179, February 1973.

119 National Library of Australia: Ministerial Conference, 1974 (Cameron Hazlehurst) MS 7998, series 4, folder 13, box 65.

120 The Canberra Times, 26 March 1976, p. 1.


Chapter 6
Changes in the wind, 1972–89