Katy Gallagher battles federal budget cuts with charm offensive

Grace under pressure and a not inconsiderable degree of personal charm have been hallmarks of Katy Gallagher's performance since she became the ACT's chief minister three years ago last Friday.

It is hardly surprising therefore that these were the two big guns she pulled out of her personal armoury to rustle up some allies in her fight against Treasurer Joe Hockey's anniversary gift from hell.

Ms Gallagher was in Queanbeyan on Friday for the regular South East Regional Organisation of Councils, where two items dominated her agenda.

The first was to give the newly minted member for Eden Monaro, Peter Hendy, a not too delicate uppercut for the mauling that has been meted out to the ACT in Mr Hockey's budget.

The second was to make her fight for a better deal for the ACT a bigger thing than just Canberra whingeing it was being hard done by.

The Chief Minister was successful on both counts, telling the media afterwards she had "let Dr Hendy know what I thought of the budget" and obtained the support of the other members of the regional organisation for the Territory government to take the lead in drafting a position paper spelling out why south-eastern NSW and the ACT warrant special assistance to compensate for the economic losses stemming from the budget cuts announced last Tuesday.


Ms Gallagher argues, and rightly so, that Canberra has been affected on a level comparable to the effects of the Holden, Toyota and Ford closures on Melbourne and Adelaide, by the slashing up to 8200 public service jobs by July 1, 2015, and a further 7000 by July 1, 2017.

She also queries the logic of "decentralising" major federal departments out of Canberra, a practice that usually results in a massive capital spend in marginal electorates held by the government of the day. 

History itself argues against this practice. You don't have to be a keen student of Canberra's past to know that 80 and 90 years ago senior bureaucrats were fighting an uphill battle to persuade people happily ensconced in public sector jobs in Melbourne and, to a lesser extent, Sydney, to up stumps and relocate to a lakeless "good sheep paddock ruined". Incentive payments, relocation assistance, subsidised housing and rentals and an extremely high level of social engineering were all used to lure workers to Canberra and then keep them here. This latest outbreak of decentralisation fever appears to be no more than another politically motivated attempt to turn back the tide of more than a century of development and investment. It is also likely to be reversed when the electoral cycle turns in a few years hence and a Labor government sets the lever to "recentralise".

Enlisting broader support for special assistance for Canberra is important for Ms Gallagher. It might be easy for Liberals like Dr Hendy, Senator Zed Seselja and MP Angus Taylor to shrug off the complaints of one of Australia’s few remaining Labor governments but when the leaders of councils such as Queanbeyan, Yass Valley, Cooma-Monaro, Bombala, Harden, Palerang, Goulburn-Mulwaree are also worried, there's extra incentive to pay attention. Already 60 per cent of Queanbeyan’s working population have jobs in Canberra and Yass is going down the same road.

Eden-Monaro, Dr Hendy’s seat, is one of the most marginal in the country and the Coalition’s grip on other electorates just outside the ACT will be at risk if Mr Hockey's budget measures bite too hard. This means our local members of the Abbott government are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Do they demonstrate the moral courage shown by Shepparton’s Sharman Stone last year by putting their constituents ahead of their party bosses or do they quietly toe the line?

With the Prime Minister unwilling to stump up even a mere $8 million to seed a potentially transformative convention centre project for the national capital, the ACT government's chances of negotiating significant compensation appear slim. Ms Gallagher, who joined state premiers in Sydney on Sunday to discuss the budget's $80 billion cut to health and education, has requested an urgent meeting with Mr Abbott over Canberra's predicament. Voters from the ACT and the surrounding region will be watching to see whether or not their Liberal representatives on the hill speak up for them too.