Joy Burch resigns but the damage is done

Joy Burch's resignation from the ACT ministry is long overdue and her tenure will now haunt the Labor Party as it fights to keep office.

Dumped minister Joy Burch with Chief Minister Andrew Barr.
Dumped minister Joy Burch with Chief Minister Andrew Barr. Photo: Rohan Thomson

It will also tarnish the reputation of Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who should have risen to the task of expecting and enforcing higher standards from his ministers long before now.

While Burch "volunteered" to step down from her portfolio responsibilities on Tuesday, one can only hope for the general standards of political discourse across this city that she would not have survived the impending reshuffle.

It speaks volumes about the lack of experience among Labor MLAs that a minister as lacklustre and accident-prone as Burch was on the rise to become the second most senior Labor politician in the city following the announcement that Simon Corbell was leaving politics.

The excruciating situation the party found itself in last month when Burch lost the police ministry – after her chief of staff briefed the CFMEU on matters regarding ACT Policing which are still under investigation – robbed the government of clear air over Christmas to happily celebrate any of the successes of the year in office.


This resignation and the reshuffle destabilises things further at the beginning of the crucial 2016 election year.

Meanwhile Burch, and Barr by implication, have shown no regard for the concept of ministerial responsibility – the convention that the person in charge ultimately accepts the burden of actions taken across their portfolio. In Burch's case she ducked and weaved through many a headline-hitting mistake, many of them in 2015 under the Party leadership of Barr, who stepped forward each time to publicly back her and reject demands for her resignation.

Burch's error-prone ways surfaced during Katy Gallagher's term as chief minister. Among them, retweeting that Christopher Pyne was the c-word, unilaterally appointing a new director of the Multicultural Festival who ran a controversial Nazi strip tease act, They continued under Barr - quietly scrapping the $20 limit on pokies (which Barr forced her to reverse), failing to plan for massive traffic disruption during roadworks on Tharwa Drive, the fall-out from her son's involvement in Menslink school visits without a Working With Vulnerable People's card, heartbreaking abuse cases in disability houses and the autism cage scandal were all mistakes which called into question Burch's fundamental political judgment and the management of her directorates – not to mention the efficiency and professionalism of her office.

More often than not Burch and her closest staff lacked the introspection to learn from these mistakes, instead blaming the media for unwarranted scrutiny and "beating up" stories, and alienating key stakeholders when relationships became fraught.

It was telling that the Australian Education Union found Burch so impossible to work with that they cut all communication.

All along the way she provided untold opportunity for the opposition and privately exasperated a number of her colleagues.

None of which is to say Burch was not a decent person. She grew in her time as a minister, overcoming an initial lack of confidence to make engaging speeches, always connecting with students and young people with genuine warmth and humour, and developing the combative political skills required to push her agenda and manage the media cycle with increasing success.

Of this, the best example is the autism cage, where Burch delivered heartfelt reaction to the news a cage had been erected in a Canberra school to contain a 10-year-old boy with autism.

She worked behind-the-scenes with the family involved and ferociously defended their privacy.

Her error in judgment was not to enforce accountability from her Director-General within the Education directorate – instead allowing her bureaucracy to neatly scapegoat the principal for system failings.

The Shaddock Review unpicks the situation, finding that one principal's actions are certainly not at the heart of what is wrong with disability education in the ACT.

The cycle of avoidance of tough decisions, of failing to stop the buck, and of damage control have been a hallmark of Burch's ministerial career. It is something of a relief that it is now, finally, over. And the people of Tuggeranong can look forward to a more visible local member over the coming months.

Ultimately Barr will need to ask himself was she worth it?