ACT State of the Environment 2007

Issue: Community wellbeing


On average, Canberrans are as healthy, wealthy and well educated as ever. Those 'average' Canberrans enjoy the Territory's lower than national average unemployment and higher than national average income. We also continue to maintain higher levels of education than the rest of Australia.

Along with this advantaged lifestyle come inequalities and challenges. We face challenges in our health system with increasing demand for health services and a shortage of skilled health professionals. As well, we are struggling to live and eat healthily; mental illness, and alcohol and drug abuse are significant problems; and, despite a drop in the crime rate between 2003 and 2007, we began feeling less safe.

During this reporting period, education was one of the biggest social issues; the Towards 2020: Renewing Our Schools initiative represented the single most significant change to education provision in the Territory since self-government. This long-term strategic program adopted a regional delivery model to replace the traditional neighbourhood schooling approach. Many in our community were affected by the initial phase of this reform, namely, closure of 23 schools, amalgamation of preschools with primary schools, conversion of four P-6 schools to a P-2 structure, and administrative amalgamation of other schools. While significant funds were committed for investment in education, it was the school closures that captured media and community attention.

Other key issues that emerged during the reporting period were housing affordability, skills shortage, noise nuisance and adequate protection of our heritage assets. The ACT will need to place an emphasis on these areas in the future to improve community wellbeing.

Community – healthy, wealthy, wise – but not for all

The wellbeing of the ACT community is supported by the well planned urban form and the high quality natural environment. We have high expectations of sustained environmental quality, of safety, and of our health, education and transport needs. With such advantages, there is little reason for most of us to question a culture that suits us so well.

Our average yearly earnings in the ACT ($75,000 in 2005-06) remain higher than the Australian average ($54,000 in 2005-06) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007b). The ACT continues to have the nation's second lowest proportion of government payments as the main income source (7.5%), and easily the highest proportion of wages and salaries as the main income source (78.7%; Cassells et al. 2007:12).

ACT median weekly earnings (at $722 in 2006) remained higher than the average for Australia ($466 in 2006). Gross per capita household disposable income in the ACT in 2006–07 was $49, 923, compared with $31, 061 nationally, the excess of 60.7% compared with the average of 50.7% in 2003–04 shows an accelerating rate of increase, exceeding the national rate of increase and reflecting the much higher employment participation rate in the ACT (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007d; ACT CSE 2003).

Many people in the ACT undertake voluntary work, attend events, and work to influence government decision making, but these opportunities are not equally distributed throughout the community. Exclusion and disengagement are also features of life in the Territory, and testing the effectiveness of inclusion policies and initiatives is essential to removing barriers to participation. Major disparities in sense of inclusion and levels of participation are related to low income, and to disadvantages individuals and groups, such as aged people and Indigenous families, experience.

The relative wealth and wellbeing of the Territory's population is still accompanied by distinct inequities. The ACT Government is addressing socioeconomic inequity by developing the Social Plan as part of the Canberra Plan. However in 2006, 16,000 ACT households (13% of the ACT total) were in the bottom Australian equivalised income quintile (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007e). While no Canberra suburbs were listed among Australia's most disadvantaged areas in the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics analysis, seven Canberra suburbs were included in the 20 most advantaged areas nationally. That one-third of Australia's most advantaged areas are in Canberra deepens the equity gap and sharpens the sense of exclusion. This strong advantage also demonstrates our capacity to close these wellbeing gaps.

ACT residents enjoyed the longest life expectancy and the lowest death rate of all Australians during the reporting period (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007). Territory residents participated in national preventative initiatives and in programs to improve the health of Indigenous people. In the ACT, immunisation rates for young children increased over the reporting period. Preventative measures in all health-related areas should be a high priority for the community, for health professionals and service managers, and for government.

During the reporting period the ACT maintained higher levels of education compared with the rest of Australia. Not only are our students staying at school longer than in the rest of the country, but also their results, as measured through national literacy and numeracy benchmarks as well as international studies, show they are performing best nationally and well above OECD averages.

The proportion of ACT residents with post-school qualifications has continued to increase, particularly in undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The proportion of our population with a postgraduate degree, diploma or certificate has doubled since 1991. Over the same period, the proportion of the ACT population without any post-school qualifications dropped from 64% in 1991 to under 50% (for the first time) in 2006 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, 2006b).

Costs of the good life

While a large proportion of our community enjoys a high quality of life, there are costs to our comfort. Despite our improved heath and education, like most cities in developed countries, we are not as healthy, wealthy, wise, or equal as we appear. Governments, businesses, schools, households and workplaces must share awareness, acceptance and action to redress, rather than simply address, the inequality and social disengagement that are major indicators of an unwell community.

While the majority of Australian (and ACT) residents consider they are in good health (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006a) data suggest serious health issues, for instance:

  • 13.8% of the Territory's citizens have a long-term mental health condition; mental illness ranks behind only cardiovascular disease and cancer as the greatest disease burden for the ACT and Australia.
  • Tobacco smoking remains the most obvious preventable cause of disease and premature death in the ACT and Australia, despite recent success in reducing the rate of daily smoking across all age groups, and particularly among women.
  • 4.3% of ACT adults engaged in risky or high risk drinking in 2004–05 (13.5% nationally) an increase from 11% in 2001 (these data exclude no risk and low risk behaviours), indicating greater recreational binge drinking in the ACT as distinct from moderate drinking.
  • As well as risks from alcohol and smoking, our young people continue to be at risk from illicit drug  use; National Drug Strategy Household Surveys suggest that the rate of illicit drug use among our 14 years and older citizens continued to be above the national average, decreasing marginally from 18.1% in 2001 to 17.6% in 2004 (nationally 16.9% in 2001 to 15.3% in 2004).
  • We are struggling with healthy eating and exercise; just under half the Territory's adults consume the recommended intake of fruit, and only 10.3% consume the recommended serves of vegetables. The ACT has a greater proportion of obese adults than the national average, though we also have a higher rate of people in a normal range (though this is less than half our population).
  • Access to health services is of concern, with an increased demand coupled with a shortage of skilled health professionals. The Territory's increasing aged sector will continue to put pressure on health care facilities, including primary care services.

Increasing technology and disposable income to buy new devices play a role in changing our city environment. Noise complaints increased significantly during the reporting period. Some of the increase was attributable to complaints about amplified music systems and external air conditioner fans. Entertainment venues in commercial and mixed-use residential areas where appropriate noise attenuation had not been achieved, also contributed to the increase in complaints. The Environment Protection Authority is hoping to address this latter issue by seeking amendments to regulations being introduced for new planning legislation.

Canberrans are steadily reducing their traffic collisions with a 9.92% drop in four years. However, accidents involving kangaroos have increased by 38.01% in 2006–07 (from 563 in 2005–06 to 777 in 2006–07; pers. comm., TAMS). The Give Kangaroos a Break education and awareness program has not been undertaken in the last year; however, signage remains on roads where there is a high incidence of collisions. We are unable to secure data on the effectiveness of the program. Given the high collision rate, an effective education and awareness program seems warranted.

We have also begun feeling less safe despite a drop in the crime rate. A sense of safety in both person and property is essential to community wellbeing and can be affected by perceived vulnerability, whether to natural disasters or to crime. Vulnerability to crime ranges from offences against the person, such as sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence, to offences under new international terrorism legislation. With the latter, state controls over personal freedoms as well as terrorist violence contribute to an erosion of our sense of safety. While overall crime rates dropped by 12.9% over the reporting period, the resolution rate declined slightly for both property offences (0.5%) and offences against the person (0.7%) and satisfaction with policing declined by 10.1%. In some instances we are feeling less vulnerable, for instance to car theft (9.1%), housebreaking (7.6%), and to disorderliness in the neighbourhood (9.1%). Data were not available on trends in perceptions of family violence (ACT Policing 2006).

Education – a key issue

The Towards 2020: Renewing Our Schools initiative represents the single most significant change to education provision in the Territory since the start of self-government. It is part of a move away from a decentralised model towards a regional model of services and infrastructure provision. The long-term package includes plans for expenditure of $350 million on infrastructure (including information technology, commissioning of new schools, and restructuring of provision of education). Altogether, the initial phase of the 2020 reforms involved closure of 23 schools, amalgamation of preschools with primary schools, conversion of four P-6 schools to a P-2 structure, and administrative amalgamations of other schools.

By the end of this reporting period, the government had not yet announced the future use for closed and soon-to-be closed schools. In reusing school buildings or demolishing them for other uses, care should be given to maximise opportunities for reusing, recycling and achieving maximum energy and water efficiencies.

The Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative (AuSSI) began in 2006 and is a co-funded partnership of all Australian governments helping public and non-government schools work towards a sustainable future. The initiative encourages a whole- school approach to managing facilities and resources thereby benefitting sustainability at the school and in other life activities. It was offered to all ACT schools in 2007 and by late 2007 over half had registered (the national average was 25%).


The ACT enjoyed strong economic growth particularly during the latter part of the reporting period, largely due to a boom in non-residential construction.

The ACT is largely dependent on Australian Government spending for economic vitality. The Territory's economy has a narrow base; its vitality is largely dependent on the strength of its property market and urban development. Such dependence has ecological, economic and social implications for long-term sustainability.

While there are opportunities to progress sustainability practices for water and energy in greenfield and inner area developments, such development places pressure on biodiversity conservation and increases our overall consumption of resources. The Territory's challenge is to maintain a strong economy, diversify our economic base and concurrently reduce our consumption of resources and impact on the natural environment.

Housing affordability was a major issue for the Territory, as well as other jurisdictions, during the reporting period. In response, the ACT Government established the ACT Housing Affordability Taskforce whose action plan, released in April 2007, supported the government's emphasis on a whole-of-government and community approach to housing. The Territory's 2007–08 Budget includes commitments of $9.25 million to implement the plan.

The Territory's major employment issue during the reporting period was demand exceeding supply of skilled workers. This is not, however, just a Territory problem, but one impacting nationally.

The Territory's heritage assets also face challenges. In the ACT a dual planning system creates practical complications for heritage protection. The National Capital Authority (a federal agency) is responsible for national land and the ACT Planning and Land Authority is responsible for Territory land. The Territory's constitutional status places the protection of some ACT heritage places at risk under the new national system; the ACT Government does not have the power to require the federal authority's compliance with heritage protection measures for places on the ACT Heritage Register  that are not on national heritage lists. Legislative correction of this serious problem must be made at the national level, with any necessary subsequent amendment to the ACT Heritage Act 2004.

Closure of the Register of the National Estate (RNE) in February 2007 and its proposed removal in February 2012 means many of the 13,000 places on the RNE not included on statutory heritage listings at state, territory and local government levels are no longer protected. At the end of the reporting period, 167 places and objects were registered on the ACT Heritage Register. The RNE includes 380 places in the ACT. The new national lists protect only 60 places, four on the National Heritage List and 56 on the Commonwealth Heritage List (five at Jervis Bay). Only New South Wales with 59 places on the Commonwealth Heritage List has more than the ACT, the smallest Australian jurisdiction. A review of places that will not be afforded appropriate heritage protection is urgent, so that processing of nominations to either of the two new national lists or the ACT Heritage Register can be completed within the three-year deadline for the end of the RNE.


The following recommendations are made to the ACT Government with a commitment from the Commissioner to assist in advancing their implementation:

1. The community is kept informed and engaged in progressing the implementation of key government community strategies including:

  2. Affordable Housing Action Plan
  4. A New Way – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and Family Wellbeing Plan 2006–11
  6. Towards 2020: Renewing Our Schools. Associated environmental and social equity implications need to be monitored in the long-term.

2. Community wellbeing and safety is strengthened by:

  2. Encouraging community health programs, particularly those aimed at exercise, healthy eating, mental wellbeing and minimising excessive alcohol consumption.
  3. Implementing an ongoing awareness program aimed at preventing vehicular collisions with kangaroos.

3. Noise management is improved by:

  2. Informing the community, at point of sale, of ways to mitigate the noise impacts from air conditioners with external fans. (Information on energy consumption should also be supplied at point of sale.)
  3. Ensuring entertainment venues provide appropriate noise attenuation. In so doing they will need to meet planning and environmental conditions. The effectiveness of conditions that the Planning and Environmental Protection agencies impose should be monitored.

4. The Territory's heritage be better protected by:

  2. Asking the Australian Government to take account of the need for adequate heritage protection in the ACT when making changes to National Capital Authority responsibilities, including requiring the Authority to observe and comply with ACT heritage legislation.
  3. Asking the Australian Government to ensure heritage places affected by changes to federal legislation (due to take effect in 2012) are given the appropriate level of protection (for example, the Yarralumla Woolshed).

Data sources and references

The indicators drawn on for this issues paper were:

Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Census of Population and Housing: Time Series Profile, 2001, cat. no. 2003.0, available at <>

Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006a, National Health Survey: Summary of Results, 2004–05, cat. no. 4364.0, available at <>

Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006b, Census of Population and Housing: Time Series Profile, 2006, cat. no. 2003.0, available at < Features22006?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=2003.0&issue=2006&num=&view=>

Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006c, Australian National Accounts: State Accounts, 2005–06 reissue, cat. no. 5220.0, available at <>

Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007, Causes of Death, Australia, 2005, cat no. 3303.0, available at <>

Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007b Household Income and Income Distribution, Australia - Detailed Tables, 2005-06, cat. no. 6523.0.55.001, available at <>

Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007c, Australian National Accounts: State Accounts, 2006–07, cat. no. 5220.0, available at <>

Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007d, Labour Force, Australia, October 2007, cat. no. 6202.0, available at <>

Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007e, 2006 Census of Population and Housing, cat. no. 2914, available at <>

OCE Office of the Commissioner for the Environment 2003, 2003 State of the Environment Report: Socioeconomic equity, ACT Government, available at <>

ACT Policing 2006, Annual Report 2005–06, ACT Policing, Canberra (AC Nielsen 14 July 2005, National Survey of Community Satisfaction with Policing 2003–07)

AIHW Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2005, 2004 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, Drug statistics series no. 13, AIHW, Canberra, available at <>

Cassells R, Vu QN & McNamara, J 2007, Characteristics of Low- Income Households in the ACT, National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (University of Canberra) for ACT Council of Social Services Inc., available at < >

Eckersley R 2006, 'Is modern culture a health hazard?', International Journal of Epidemiology, no. 35, pp. 252–58

HASG Housing Affordability Steering Group 2007, Report of the Affordable Housing Steering Group, ACT Government available at <>

Thomson S & De Bortoli LJ 2008, Exploring Scientific Literacy: How Australia Measures Up: the PISA 2006 Survey of Students' Scientific, Reading and Mathematical Literacy Skills, Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell, Victoria.

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