Light rail still a gamble for Labor

The unpredictability of voters being a major occupational hazard, governments strive mightily not to leave matters to chance. So two recent surveys (one of them undertaken by The Canberra Times) indicating that Territorians are slowly "warming" to the idea of light rail will come as some relief to the Barr government. This newspaper's online survey of 7075 participants conducted earlier this month found that support for a proposal to build a 12 kilometre light rail track from Civic to Gungahlin stands at 49 per cent, with 47 per cent opposed and 4 per cent undecided. An almost identical survey conducted last year found 54 per cent of voters were opposed. In a similar survey conducted in 2014, 59 per cent of respondents indicated opposition. Coincidentally, a government-commissioned phone poll of about 1200 people has found support for light rail is now at 56 per cent (with 34 per cent opposed and 10 per cent undecided). That's a one percentage point increase from 2014, when the government held a similar tracking survey.

Since aspects of the government survey (conduced by Piazza Research) skate perilously close to leading-question territory, and since the trend indicating growing support is hardly overwhelming), Capital Metro Minister Simon Corbell has wisely said that "we [the government] need to continue to talk to Canberrans about the light rail project". Mr Corbell also remains of the view that next October's election will not be a referendum on light rail, which rather undercuts any expectation that the government can turn the waverers to its cause sufficient to retain power.

If The Canberra Times online survey can be characterised as having its own weaknesses or disadvantages, it is arguably still a reasonable reflection of voter sentiment – particularly among those with a keen interest in the subject. This being so, other findings should concern Mr Corbell, including that nearly 44 per cent of respondents say the government's support for light rail will make them less likely to vote for Labor. The finding that nearly 52 per cent of respondents believe the $783 million to be outlaid on light rail would be better spent on improving Canberra's bus network should also rattle Labor as this is, in part, precisely what the Canberra Liberals propose if they win government.

The government's refusal to delay light rail's rollout until circumstances or attitudes are more propitious indicates an otherwise commendable obligation to honouring election commitments. Alternatively, it might suggest a pig-headed belief that light rail is the one true public transport solution which voters, if they were only a bit smarter, would readily grasp. Mr Corbell's remark, apropos of the controversy swirling around light rail, that "what we also is that when [it is] in place, there is very strong support for it" seems to fit the latter scenario.

ACT Labor has been in office since 2001, time enough to accumulate an unsurpassed knowledge of how power is exercised and retained but also to risk becoming arrogant, dictatorial and out of touch. As much as the party might deny it, light rail remains its election Achilles heel, as these surveys indicate.