ACT News


Green is classier on the inside

Having vouchsafed his support for Labor last week, thereby enabling it to govern for a further four years, Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury duly received his reward yesterday: guardianship of the ministries of Territory and Municipal Services, Corrections, Housing, Ageing, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

He should be delighted with Chief Minister Katy Gallagher's benevolence and good will towards him. TAMS's jurisdiction encompasses many of the issues the ACT Greens hold dear, including public transport, waste and recycling, and environment and recreation facilities. TAMS's raison d'etre is service delivery, not policy development or implementation, but there are electoral benefits for the Greens in having ''ownership'' of the things for which they are best known publicly. Rattenbury has an additional reason to thank Gallagher: none of his other ministries is particularly high profile or administratively taxing, and he will probably be able to devote most of his time to overseeing the TAMS portfolio.

Rattenbury's elevation to the ministry as a result of a parliamentary agreement between Labor and the Greens had created the potential for a cabinet reshuffle, but in the event Gallagher and the caucus opted largely for continuity. The ministerial duties of Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr and long-serving MLA Simon Corbell are virtually unchanged, though the latter has picked up Industrial Relations from the list of portfolios held by Chris Bourke, who was demoted from cabinet to make way for Rattenbury. The only other notable transfers of responsibility are TAMS (bequeathed to Rattenbury by Gallagher) and Education and Training, another of Bourke's responsibilities now given over to Joy Burch. Gallagher has also added Higher Education and Regional Development to her responsibilities.

Despite the Chief Minister's candid admission during a July public accounts committee hearing into the emergency department data-tampering scandal at Canberra Hospital that ''health ministers have a very short life expectancy and I've hung around perhaps too long in this instance'', Gallagher opted not to hand over responsibility for health. This was always unlikely given that it would have been interpreted by the opposition (and probably by a big percentage of the electorate) as an admission of failure. The Chief Minister's link to the data-tampering case was not of her making, but her failure to move quickly and make plain the full extent of her relationship to the hospital executive at the centre of the affair caused her considerable political discomfort - indicated by the rueful committee aside.

The senior official who admitted to doctoring the emergency room data claims she acted entirely alone, and the ACT Auditor-General's investigation accepted this. However, questions remain about the extent to which the government contributed to the pressure that hospital managers may have felt they were under to improve emergency room waiting times, and which appears to have been at least partly responsible for the data-tampering episode. Tackling this and other pressing health issues while remaining on top of her other ministerial duties will ensure that Gallagher endures a heavy workload over the next four years.

It is generally acknowledged that the duties and responsibilities of all ministers in the ACT (and indeed of all MLAs) are substantially greater than those borne by their counterparts in the other states and territories - and becoming more so as Canberra's population increases. But with Prime Minister Julia Gillard's pledge of support for an expansion in the size of the Assembly, relief may be in the offing. The Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act of 1988 fixes the size of the Assembly at 17 members, and requires Commonwealth action to make any change. It is an arrangement unique to the ACT, and with Canberra's population at 360,000, and growing, urgently in need of reform. However, moves to resolve Canberra's governance problems have always stumbled on the issue of whether an expanded Assembly should comprise 21, 25 or perhaps 29 members, and how the electorates should be reconfigured to accommodate this. Any expansion would, of course, necessitate an increase the Assembly's budget, a move unlikely to be popular with voters. However, given that Ms Gillard's offer is probably good for only another six to eight months, the parties should put aside fear and self-interest and settle on a number that provides proper representation, effective governance and a committee system able to carry out an oversight function.