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Remarkable politics of ACT light rail project

A single issue, the politics of the light rail project, is threatening to dominate the 2016 ACT election. 

The politics of the light rail project, a single issue, threatens to dominate the 2016 ACT election. It is flooding the media and there has already been one comprehensive public opinion poll this far out from the election.

This domination will make it an unusual election perhaps more akin to the 1993 or 2013 federal elections than a normal ACT election. In the former John Hewson, running on a detailed program called Fightback!, lost the so-called unloseable election because Paul Keating turned it into a referendum on the GST. In the latter Tony Abbott made opposition to Julia Gillard's carbon tax the central plank of his platform. Will the light rail project become Katy Gallagher's carbon tax and cause her defeat? Or will at the very least the election become a referendum on light rail to the virtual exclusion of other issues?

An artist's impression of the proposed Canberra light rail.
An artist's impression of the proposed Canberra light rail. 

The parallels are not primarily about the merits but the politics of the light rail project. Australia now has a GST and the question of carbon pricing will not go away. A good idea can still cause political defeat.

There are other parallels, especially in the case of the carbon tax; but first there are the major differences. The negative politics of the carbon tax were inextricably linked to the public perception that Gillard had broken an election promise when she introduced the tax, which was bound up with the post-election deals struck to form minority government. The ACT government is not accused of breaking an election promise.

The carbon tax also affected all Australians (though some were paid compensation); whereas, while the project's public sector costs are taken from general revenue, the immediate benefits of the light rail project are geographically restricted to Gungahlin and surrounds. In this way the light rail project is a more focused matter than the carbon tax or even the GST. Light rail is not a response to "the greatest moral challenge of our time". Of course, the ACT itself is a tiny jurisdiction when compared to Australia. So it is a question of perspective.

In terms of process a clear parallel is that both policies emerged from a minority Labor government working with the Greens. The two parties had separate policy agendas in these fields, but the particular policies that emerged were joint ones. Both governing parties will have to defend the light rail project and share the electoral costs and benefits if any. They will be competitors at the next election even though they are ministerial colleagues now. Gallagher and Shane Rattenbury must manage this transition.

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Both carbon pricing and light rail are policies to address a future problem, global warming and traffic congestion/city planning respectively. It is widely accepted in the community that these are real problems, though there is sharp disagreement about how big the problems are and how they should be managed.

Both policies have a long-term orientation but operate in a short-term political environment. To the extent that elections are about demonstrating immediate benefits then these are risky policies. They are also a bit like the national broadband network policy for the same reason.

The costs and benefits of carbon pricing and light rail are also difficult to explain clearly to the average voter, or indeed to any voter. In each case numerous complex arguments are made. There has been no shortage of claims and counter-claims and plenty of expert analyses by scientists and economists/accountants respectively. No voter can claim that there is nothing to read on the subject. But voters generally won't do such lengthy reading. There has also been what seems like dozens of shorter positive and negative newspaper articles written by both sides of the argument. We may even have got to the stage of diminishing returns as far as new argumentation is concerned.

As well as direct costs there are also opportunity costs involved. The money could be spent on alternative priorities and the budget situation is tight. This leads to the question of best timing. Government advocates have to defend themselves against criticisms that, while there is merit in their ideas, this may not be the right time to act. Therefore, say the critics, the project should be delayed. In the case of the ACT the most obvious alternative priority is the compensation for the Mr Fluffy victims but there are the other usual ones, such as hospitals and schools and roads, in a difficult financial environment.

Even without the light rail project 2016 will be an unusual election. There will be the new "five by five" electoral system, with lots of new candidates and existing members switching seats. There is also the question of the local political fallout from the actions of the Abbott government. Still it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that without the light rail project the Gallagher government would be sailing much more easily. They wouldn't be cruising but they wouldn't have to cope with an issue which the public opinion polls show has divided the community and generated considerable opposition.

Over the next two years the challenge for all sides of ACT politics will be better communication. At the federal level the politics of the carbon tax was not just about the substance of the issue but about its communication to the electorate by both sides. Gillard was widely criticised for being a poor communicator, while Abbott was able to cut through, though his tactics were debated.

In the ACT case trust and communication skills may decide the politics of light rail. That puts the pressure on Gallagher, Rattenbury and Jeremy Hanson.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University

John.Warhurst@anu.edu.au

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