A few months before this year's ACT election, excavators will start tearing up parts of Northbourne Avenue. No one knows whether this will help or hinder the Labor Party's re-election hopes. The beginning of Canberra's light-rail network – and the traffic delays that will accompany the construction – will annoy, even infuriate, some voters. But it may inspire others, who regard the project as a necessary step for a growing, congested city.
Either way, the very visible construction will set the scene for voters in October: after decades of debate, equivocation and vague commitments to consider developing a rapid mass-transit system, it's finally happening. Trams are coming to Canberra.
One wonders, however, about the timing of some elements of this project. Labor now says it pledged before the 2012 election to build light rail, and that the contract it announced on Monday to build and operate the network is just another step in a project voters have already endorsed.
That's mostly, but not entirely, true. The electorate had a relatively clear choice in 2012: the Greens said light rail was essential; Labor said, rather late in its campaign, it would ask the private sector to build a tram network; and the Liberals refused to offer any plan. But Labor also gave itself some wriggle room. The then Gallagher government's "Capital Metro" policy committed it to "plan, finance and develop the first stage of a light-rail network for Canberra". It pledged just $30 million for "concept and design work" and provided no detailed time frame for getting the network up and running. It was only after the election that Labor, in its parliamentary deal with the Greens, committed to "the laying of tracks for the first route ... in 2016".
Today, with just over half a year until the next election, Canberrans finally know the cost of constructing the network: about $700 million. However, they still don't know the likely annual operating costs over the 20 years of the contract, nor whether the government favours extending the Gungahlin-to-Civic network to the Russell defence precinct. If the electorate is to be told at all, it seems likely that voters will find out very close to the election (or worse, afterwards). Did politics influence the timing of these milestones? Or, as the government insists, is the timing affected solely by the requirements of managing the project? It's a hard line to swallow; after all, 3½ years have passed since the last election.
Nonetheless, the Liberal opposition's stance seems, to date at least, to have been determined entirely by politics, and uninfluenced by any significant contemplation of this city's long-term transport needs. This week, the party's transport spokesman, Alistair Coe, committed a Liberal government to tearing up the light-rail construction contract no matter what the cost. That is, potentially spending hundreds of millions of dollars of public money to avoid an investment. His federal Liberal colleagues have already described that approach as "simple economic lunacy that will damage not just the jurisdiction involved but the broader economy".
The Liberals may be right in saying the ACT would be better able to invest in public transport at another time, when it didn't face, for example, the concurrent costs of the Mr Fluffy buy-back. But it's difficult to take the opposition's view seriously when it has refused, for so long, to outline an alternative transport strategy that addresses growing population, housing density and congestion. The Liberals have had enough time to produce some details, but voters are still waiting.