Does the ACT have a coastline? It's complicated!
You might get the correct answer, but almost certainly not for the reasons you think.
This is an edited/updated version of a G+ post originally by Paul Cowan (and with me helping on the research), where we tried to sort out once and for all whether the ACT has a coastline. Spoiler: you might get the answer right, but almost certainly for the wrong reasons. It's really complicated! For instance our initial decision was wrong.
Here’s a fun project for you: trying to work out, once and for all, if the ACT has a coastline.
For any non-Australians reading this: the ACT is the Australian Capital Territory. The place where Canberra is. Think DC in the USA; there are many similarities, including the fact that states donated land to carve out a neutral HQ for the national capital. As a side note: you may also see references to the FCT, or Federal Capital Territory, in some of the stuff linked below. It's mostly the same place; it was renamed along the way, although that's complicated as the FCT at some points included both of what are now known as the ACT and Jervis Bay Territory)
You might think that "does a federal subdivision have a coastline?" would be an easy question to answer. You'd be so, so, so wrong. This is a pub trivia kind of question - but the kind where even the quizmaster gets it wrong. Even when people get it right, it’s usually for the wrong reasons: if it does have a coastline, it’s probably not the one you think it does. But even then, it's more complicated than that. At least three Wikipedia pages cover the topic, and each of them gives different answers.
Regardless, this is a fascinating geopolitical quirk. But what’s the answer?
Obvious answer: no, it's inland. This is the answer you get when you look up “Australian Capital Territory” in your favourite online map site, or (heaven forfend) a paper atlas. The ACT is landlocked, as any map could tell you
Obviously it doesn't have a coastline, it’s two hours drive from the sea!
The first pub trivia answer from your annoying map nerd friends is: yes, on Jervis Bay. This one requires some background explanation.
When the various states federated into the Commonwealth of Australia (1901), Australia didn't have a capital. Melbourne acted as the seat of government, with the promise that they'd sort a real one out later. In 1908, the Seat of Government Act was passed, which basically said "we're going to build something roughly where Canberra is today, the New South Wales government will give us some land once we've worked out somewhere mutually agreeable". The interesting part is the quote "The territory to be granted to or acquired by the Commonwealth for the Seat of Government shall contain an area not less than nine hundred square miles, and have access to the sea." (emphasis added).
As you may recall from the obvious answer, the "district of Yass-Canberra" is nowhere near the sea. But no problem, New South Wales can carve out another bit, on the sea, and pony that over too. The land they chose was at Jervis Bay, a bay more-or-less east of Canberra. So, the pub trivia sort of people say, this land they carved out is part of the ACT - and so the ACT does have a coast! These people are wrong.
Advanced double-bluff pub trivia answer: no, the ACT doesn’t have a coast, because the coast at Jervis Bay isn't in the ACT.
In reality, the thing at Jervis Bay is not part of the ACT; it's part of the Jervis Bay Territory (JBT), a completely separate part of Australia. This is fairly startling to many Australians; we are all taught that Australia has six states (NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania) and two mainland territories (Northern Territory and the ACT). But this isn't true; there are three mainland territories. Jervis Bay Territory is, legally, exactly like the other two: an independent top-level division of Australia. Finding out there's a third territory is startling for many Australians: it would be like if the US actually had 51 states, but no-one ever bothered to mention, say, a South Rhode Island. Anyway, it's true. Legally, in Australia, JBT is just like the ACT. The difference is: it's smaller, almost no-one lives there, and lots of people have never heard of it. But that's irrelevant.
Really quite advanced pub trivia answer: the ACT does have a coast, because the Jervis Bay Territory is part of the ACT.
This is wrong, as stated above. But people believe it, because of one key fact: the JBT doesn't have a government. Because almost no-one lives there, giving it its own parliament and public service would be kind of wasteful, so the ACT administers it (Update: this is not quite right, a future post will clarify this) The laws of the ACT apply: commit a crime there, you're tried in the ACT courts. Live there, you vote in the Federal division of Fenner (which also includes part of the ACT), but you don't get to vote for the ACT government. But the law is clear; even if it looks like it's part of the ACT, it isn’t.
Exhausted and confused person answer: so the ACT doesn’t have a coastline then?
You’ll be shocked, shocked at this point to discover that it's more complicated than that.
Person who gets barred from pub trivia for being an annoying nerd answer: The ACT has a coastline, but it isn’t the one you're thinking of.
Ahh. Here's where we get really tricky. It turns out there's a completely separate parcel of land, also on Jervis Bay, which could be part of the ACT.
The Jervis Bay Territory (as we’ve established, is not the ACT) surrounds Jervis Bay. For a while, Bing Maps actually flagged the problematic bit of land we’ll be talking about soon. See the land at the north headland of Jervis Bay? That's the Beecroft Peninsula. There is in fact the bit of land there that might be part of the ACT, because someone goofed way back in the first decade or two of Federation.
Surveying nerd answer: a-ha! That's not part of Commonwealth land; the Beecroft peninsula was ceded to the Commonwealth by New South Wales! So no!
Oh-ho, surveying nerd, hold up. I'm not talking about all of the Beecroft peninsula. In the majority, you're right. But there's one part of it where you might not want to be so certain.
We are not saying areas A or B are part of the ACT. The interesting bit is C: the land given to the ACT under the Seat of Government Acts of 1908 and 1922.
But isn’t that land part of the Jervis Bay Territory now? Well, no, it's not. This one is actually quite clear. The Jervis Bay Territory Acceptance Act 1915 (JBTA) sets out what is part of the JBT. See "The Schedule". Following the descriptions is complicated, but this describes the parcel of land on the south headland, which most people recognise as the JBT. It mentions nothing about the north one on the Beecroft peninsula. So if your argument is based around the JBTA: nope, it's not in there. If your argument is that a subsequent piece of legislation post-JBTA has changed it: maybe, but we couldn’t find anything, and we looked hard.
In case you weren’t bored of 20th-century laws, we have a few more to cover here. First up, there's the Seat of Government Acceptance Act 1909. This was actually two acts: this one, and a corresponding one from the NSW Government, the Seat Of Government Surrender Act 1909: NSW passed an act surrendering the land; the Commonwealth passed one accepting it.
This does cover the north headland; for example, "Eastern Division, Land District of Nowra, County of St. Vincent, Parish of Beecroft, area five hundred and thirty‑one acres. The Crown lands within the following boundaries: Commencing on the High Water Mark of Jervis Bay at Longnose Point, and bounded thence on the east by that High Water Mark and the right bank of Duck Creek generally northerly to the road leading to Point Perpendicular Light House, thence by that road, generally westerly and north‑westerly to the High Water Mark of Jervis Bay at a wharf, and thence generally on the west and south by that High Water Mark southerly and easterly to the point of commencement. Plan Misc. 1393 Sy.". I chose this example deliberately: the lighthouse is recognisably on the north headland, so you know that's where they're talking about.
And yes, many of these older laws describe borders in this “turn widdershins 3 times, sacrifice a rabbit and walk an hour towards the setting sun” style. It ceases to be even remotely amusing after about a paragraph or two of it.
A fun rabbit hole is that both the NSW and Commonwealth legislation of 1909 specify that the Canberra land was "surrendered" while the Jervis Bay land was "granted". It's unclear why the different terminology, or what it might mean in practice, if anything. (Update it turns out that language is interesting and I'll post an update about that in a future post) The JBTA of 1915 has NSW surrendering the southern part of JBT, but is silent on the topic of the Beecroft Peninsula. It almost certainly doesn’t mean anything, but I’m sure folks who are fans of red ensign flags can read something into it.
Next, there's the Seat of Government Acceptance Act 1922 and again, there's a corresponding NSW act. This exists only because "certain errors and misdescriptions exist in the descriptions of lands set forth in [SoGA 1909]". That is, it's covering the same stuff, but more precisely. Nothing (really) to see here. Another red herring is in the Jervis Bay Territory Acceptance Act 1915; the one cited above. This is complicated slightly because the corresponding NSW state act was called the Seat of Government Surrender Act 1915. You can ignore that, it's nothing to do with the Seat of Government. It's totally separate.
Finally, there's the Australian Capital Territory (Self‑Government) Act 1988: this is the act that gave the ACT the right to make its own laws. This should be useful, but… it's not. Its entire definition of the actual boundaries of the ACT is "Territory: (a) when used in a geographical sense, means the Australian Capital Territory". That's really helpful, you bastards.
As far as we could find, that's all the legislation that's relevant.
So, the next stage of the answer: the land in area C of the Beecroft peninsula is part of the ACT, it was ceded in 1909 as part of the Federal Capital Territory (and clarified in 1922).
But, you'll be shocked to know, that still isn't the correct answer. NSW ceded the land to the Federal Government, and the Federal Government accepted it as part of the Federal Capital Territory. But parcel C was not included in either the Jervis Bay Territory or the Australian Capital Territory after the FCT was split up. So what is it’s status?
We consulted a few legal friends for this one. Their conclusion was that it's unincorporated federal land. What does that mean? Basically, that it's not part of the ACT, and it's also not part of JBT. It's neither geese nor fowl. NSW ceded the land to the Federal Government, and parcel C kind of fell down the back of the legislative couch.
So the final answer is "No. The ACT does not have a coastline, but probably not for the reasons you think". Our initial conclusion was that Beecroft parcel C is part of the ACT, and it does have a coastline. So even after we spent quite a bit of time on this, we first got it wrong.
A quick Q&A:
"So crimes are legal there, right?" No. It’s inside a Navy base, and (just to make things even more entertaining) the Defence Force Discipline Act makes all actions by Australian military personnel and “defence civilians” subject to the laws of the Jervis Bay Territory, wherever the crime actually takes place. And no, the Navy will not prosecute you under Admiralty Law, for any fans of the red ensign flag who have made it this far.
Maps are fun! You can spend time (and money) digging deep into the mistakes, and be the absolute worst pub trivia patron ever.
Must add a note that both the National Archives and the ACT Chief Surveyor contacted us about this while we were researching it, and were also unsure after we explained it, and keen to hear the answer. We paid the Archives money to pull some records. They scanned them in, we got a nicely printed version and they're now all available for everyone. The National Archives rock.
Next time, the fun story of the Victoria/Tasmania land border.
Editing work on this is by John Band. Thanks also to Peter Evans for a correction, originally we had JBT as part of the division of Fraser, which no longer exists. Maps change even as you are writing about maps.
While this article makes many claims to being an exhaustive coverage of the topic, it fails utterly to mention anything about Aboriginal land ownership and territories.
Canberra is Ngunnawal Country, and for this quite entertaining and thorough article to be not a total white-wash, he should talk to Ngunnawal people and find out from them what their kin and therefore territory relationships are with the coastal Yuin people.
From the maps, it appears that the Point Perpendicular lighthouse at the southern tip of the Beecroft Peninsula remains an exclave of New South Wales surrounded by the unincorporated federal land. Yes?