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Lacklustre choice for ACT voters in Legislative Assembly elections

If Andrew Barr is among the ACT politicians in the room, there's a very good chance that he is the cleverest person there and, probably, the most competent minister, actual or potential.

He is experienced, able, articulate, and (if sometimes through obviously gritted teeth) patient and polite. He has a national profile and has made no serious mistakes. The polls suggest that voters will put him, and his team, comfortably ahead of the Liberal Party at the ACT election this year.

Expressions of interest: ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr.
Expressions of interest: ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

The chances are that they will not do it with any great enthusiasm. But grudgingly, and with no great conviction that they will be better off as a consequence. No one reports any excitement about the potential of either party or particular candidates.

The next election will probably see a majority of assembly members, and 50 per cent of ministers retire or be retired, chiefly the latter. Most of the new members are not yet well-known to voters. If experience is any guide, even imaginative use of social media and the public square will make little difference.

There's nothing to indicate that there's anything exciting on offer, other than more of the same fairly pedestrian and uninspired management. Management by a chief minister of junior ministers plainly not up to the task of governing the ACT. Management of a lacklustre, complacent and largely unaccountable professional administration that has scarcely had a fresh idea, or an efficient one, in 20 years. (It's a state of affairs disguised by generous use of meaningless management speak, and the way in which all members of the national public administration club give each other scads of prizes for innovation, agility and efficiency, even when there is no independent evidence of its existence.)

Management of a treasury involved in wholesale running down of the territory's assets, particularly its land base. Management based on giving cronies and pressure groups, particularly in the provider industries, most of what they want.

Management of a new suburbia in which children will grow up without backyards, if their parents can get into the housing market at all. In which high land prices are deliberately maintained by controlling supply.

ACT government as usual in short, if likely to be judged, according to the opinion polls as marginally preferable to the alternative. Government with no great aspiration to set any national or international standards, but content to muddle along. Muddling along pretending that much of the nation's capital asset – perhaps the world's greatest proportionate concentration of well-educated, prosperous, middle-class professionals and members of the middle class, enjoying the highest standard of living on earth – is a result of its stewardship.

A government more or less at war with a good many of its citizens, and somewhat inclined to be testy with those who are precious about their amenities, or who stand in the way of a package of mundane, unimaginative, second rate – sometimes trendy – ideas, few of which seem to fit into any coherent strategy for the future.

Plans for a tram, perhaps a good idea were it fitted into a comprehensive strategy for private and public transport. Or were its proponents willing to have an honest and not merely hopeful debate about the economics.

A government which announces things with fanfare and which, often, retreats once it becomes clear that it has not thought the idea through, or given elementary thought to the number of people likely to be opposed or offended. A government for public subsidies to professional football, but with little interest in the arts, and culture, or to the territory's cultural heritage. A government that has scarcely taken account of the importance of the education industry in sustaining the local economy.

A government, sometimes, with strange priorities and idiosyncrasies, and, sometimes, little ideological flourishes. A departing minister announcing every other day some new scheme for transferring money from the working class to the middle class by public subsidies of energy for those with cash in hand.

A government continually repackaging real estate developments at East Basin, sold as a promise to bring the City to the Lake, when its every other action seems intent to turning the existing Civic Centre into a economic and social wasteland. The desertification of Civic, caused by years of pandering to the Canberra Centre and Civic commercial interests, has now reached Garema Place.

At just the same time as the government is pulling all the levers to realise Barr's grand vision of pop-up plazas by the lake, a flat refusal to plan, to enforce plans, or to judge from a planning (as opposed to a revenue) perspective when there are never-to-be-repeated opportunities to shape the city for future generations.

Canberra people are not a very fussy, or demanding lot, at the polling booths at least. Perhaps they have become cynical or have had enough of visions.

But nothing is certain in 2016, (or, if a federal election is going on, early 2017). The ACT Assembly is being expanded from 17 to 25, from three electorates producing five, five and seven representatives, to five producing five each.

Even if Labor gets more votes, it is by no means automatic that it can form a government. The race is not necessarily to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.

So far, it seems to be an election for Barr (himself virtually Labor's only hope) to lose.

His Liberal opponents have focused particularly on opposition to the Gungahlin tram, to the immediate impact of rising rates as a result of a changing tax mix, on rising debt, unaffordable housing and some sense of economic malaise. But if the Liberal leader Jeremy Hanson and his team have some building blocks for a campaign, they do not appear to have persuaded voters, as yet, that they offer a credible alternative. In political impact terms, they might be better being focused on signs of Labor tiredness, aimlessness and a lack of ideas and energy.

Most likely this will be the first election without a woman running for the Chief Ministership. At past elections, a number of politicians, generally including the major leaders, have been popular with voters, winning quotas in their own right. This time about, leaders and incumbents may be better known than most of their rivals, but may find it difficult to get a quota able to drag others in by their coat-tails. The ACT system encourages competition between candidates within a party ticket as much as against members of other groupings, but one's chances are much reduced if one has little early hope of overflow votes from successful colleagues.

Two of Barr's present ministers, Simon Corbell and Joy Burch are political liabilities, the former dumped even by his own faction, the latter a walking disaster at almost every task she has been given, even when, supposedly, under tight supervision.

His two other Labor ministers, Mick Gentleman and Yvette Berry, have little profile or experience and, given the tasks that Barr has assigned them in recent times, are not much trusted by him. Like the other parties, Labor has made some effort to renew its ranks at the next election, but it is difficult to see how anything but dire necessity could justify putting any of those freshly elected into cabinet, or how Barr could speak convincingly of leading a "team", let alone a united one. (I have remarked in the past that one of the distinguishing marks of ACT governments, particularly Labor ones, is that ministers usually dislike each other intensely, or rarely socialise or chat with each other. The Barr government is no exception, and Barr's own tendencies to play factional politics, to plot, to bag his colleagues privately and sometimes publicly, and to act unilaterally, hardly promises better for the future.)

In that sense, Barr may be better marketed as a leader, the personality of government to whom voters will relate, the person whose will and drive will make things happen, if sometimes through colleagues. It is by no means necessary that such a person be particularly popular, or populist, so long as his or her power is manifest and effective, and inspires the right balances of confidence and fear in the assembly, the administration and in the electorate.

But even if Labor secures more votes than the Liberals in each electorate, the outcome of the election will depend on the winner of the fifth seat in each electorate. There's a good chance no party will achieve that 50 per cent plus one vote in each electorate which would entitle it to a fifth seat. A party must achieve in at least three seats to be able to form a government without the help of others.

At recent elections, with Labor leaders other than Barr, Labor has once achieved a majority, and has otherwise depended on support from the Greens. But a longer look back at ACT history suggests that successful independent candidates have been as likely to support pragmatic Liberal leaders, often having been elected in the first place as a measure of discontent with the style, the policies or the priorities of a Labor government.

Barr can neither be sure that Greens will take the last seat, or that an independent who otherwise does will be more likely to support a left of centre, rather than a right of centre government.

He cannot even be absolutely certain that successful Greens candidates will support a Labor government. Canberra resembles inner-city areas of Sydney or Melbourne, in which Greens are in direct competition with Labor for left-of-centre support, and are capable of beating Labor. The horror scenario, from Barr's point of view is that Labor and the Greens take one seat each, the Liberals or Liberal-oriented candidates two, and that it is Labor, not the Greens candidate, scrabbling to gather the fifth seat against a populist independent from a ragbag of independent preferences.

Even assuming that there is no centre party, of the Australian Democrats type standing, experience suggests that Labor, Liberal and the Greens will struggle to get a net 70 per cent of the vote in any seat. The more at an election where voters are struggling to have enthusiasm for or against any particular potential government.

Independents have found it very difficult to get elected, even when they have some name and reputation. The ACT has not had "preference whisperers" able to stitch together successful round-robin deals by which preferences are withheld from the major parties, including the Greens.

Typically, preferences for independents are all over the shop, making the outcome of the final seat difficult to predict. On some occasions, moreover, an incumbent candidate "meant" (by his party) to win, has struggled to succeed against a relatively unknown colleague.

Corbell, technically (at that stage) the charismatic leader of the ACT Labor Left, faced this indignity at the last election, and only narrowly survived. That even a high proportion of Labor voters gave their first preferences to other candidates reflected a popular judgment on both his record and his potential. This time about, his party (or his own faction of the party) has acknowledged the passing of his use-by date by public abandonment. There's a reasonable prospect that the same verdict might be delivered on Burch who, at ALP preselections last year, encountered considerable buyer resistance even from within her own faction.

Malcolm Turnbull caused great ironic laughter at a NSW Liberal Party conference recently when he commented that the Liberals, unlike Labor, were not divided into factions. ACT Liberals are, in fact, about as bitterly factionalised as in NSW, around personalities, moral conservatism and economic theory. The present orientation owes more to the Abbott view of politics than to Turnbull, an extra handicap for the Liberals in a socially very liberal polity.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were a real contest? A real battle of ideas, not programmed by party apparatchiks. In an ideal modern election, one Canberra in particular is well-equipped to provide, a single website, or Facebook page, could contain the entire contest. Parties and individual candidates could set out their positions, and cope with open feedback, positive and negative. Even the blowhards and the exhibitionists could have their go, even if, as ever, some do themselves more damage by whatever they say than by failing to be heard. Alas, it seems unlikely that the city of politics and government is likely to set any standards for agility or innovation in elections. Bring on Donald Trump!

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