Tarnished Labor still more reliable
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Tarnished Labor still more reliable

Almost 11 years ago to the day, ACT Labor's Jon Stanhope led his party to victory and into office. Labor had long dominated this city's politics but, to the surprise of many, the minority governments of Kate Carnell and Gary Humphries kept it out of power for almost seven years. Mr Stanhope went on to become the ACT's longest-serving chief minister before he stepped down last year. He was a formidable leader with a vision for this city's future. It's worth recalling that his great legacy - the National Arboretum - initially attracted fierce public opposition, yet he pressed on with it, knowing its value. Not everyone agreed with his approach; indeed, some say he was unsuited to politics. But history will reflect well on Mr Stanhope's boldness.

Tomorrow, Canberrans decide who will represent them in the Legislative Assembly for the next four years. Neither of the two main parties' leaders casts themselves as a reformer in the mould of Mr Stanhope - and this is almost certainly deliberate. In these straitened times, Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and the Liberals' Zed Seselja have sought to sell themselves as responsible, rather than inspired, managers. With one important exception, ''the vision thing'', as former US president George Bush snr once dismissed it, has been absent from this election campaign.

Yet that exception - tax reform - is crucial for the ACT's future. Most dispassionate analyses of Australian taxes, notably Ken Henry's review in 2009, have urged state and territory governments to replace their confusing arrays of inefficient, inequitable duties with taxes on land, such as rates. As American economist Henry George pointed out in the 19th century, land-value tax is the perfect wealth tax; it's even-handed and even the cleverest accountants can't evade it. Ms Gallagher deserves credit for commissioning a review of ACT taxes when she was treasurer in 2010. But, far more importantly, she followed that through by beginning the wise yet politically difficult task of shifting to a fairer, more-sustainable tax system based on land.

Meanwhile, the Canberra Liberals' campaign has focused on criticising this reform. The opposition proposes to halve stamp duty for first home buyers but leave it intact for everyone else; adding another disparity to an already inequitable tax. Most experts say abolishing this duty and increasing household rates - as the government proposes to do over the next 20 years - will do much to improve housing affordability. Yet the Liberals oppose this policy even while they also urge the government to ''do something'' to make housing cheaper.

This has become the opposition's familiar modus operandi. It criticised Labor's belated backing for a light-rail line in Canberra's north but refused to outline its own approach, arguing such a decision could only be made when in government. Labor's dithering on public transport over the past decade warrants strong criticism, and Mr Seselja is right to highlight the government's failures to build infrastructure on time and to budget. Yet the Liberals, too, have had ample time to absorb the numerous reports Labor commissioned over the years and to develop their own policy on this important issue for Canberra. It says much about the opposition that, on matters of detail, the smaller Greens party has produced a far larger body of policy papers and legislation over the past four years.

Nonetheless, Mr Seselja has proved to be a disciplined, targeted campaigner whose messages may well resonate with many disaffected voters. His tenure as Liberal leader contrasts starkly with those of his predecessors, which were marked by internal bickering and rivalries. Yet there is little evidence that the small-target strategy he has deployed, along with the catchy but dubious ''triple your rates'' slogan that sums up his campaign, has cut through with voters. Similar tactics worked well for the Coalition in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, but, unlike Labor in those states, the Gallagher government's cause is far from lost. The Canberra Times' polling results, published this week, suggest voters' intentions remain much as they were four years ago. In effect, it's a vote of confidence (if only mildly so) in the direction that Labor is steering the ACT.

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We do not suggest that Labor is governing us as well as it should. Delays seem to beset this city's infrastructure projects on a regular basis. The Stanhope-Gallagher governments also took far too long to make a decision to commit to a rapid-transit system. Nor has Labor adequately addressed our hospital waiting lists, which are the nation's worst. This year's data-tampering scandal at the Canberra Hospital might not have been Ms Gallagher's fault, but she showed a lack of insight when she failed to disclose the extent of her connection to the executive at the heart of the matter.

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The ACT's 11-year-old Labor administration does not, therefore, necessarily deserve another term. Canberra may be a government town but, as Ms Carnell showed, it need not be a Labor town. This election should be there for the taking. And this newspaper would willingly back an opposition that had a bold vision for making Canberra Australia's best-governed city. Yet, over the past four years, Mr Seselja and his colleagues have carped at any sign of ambition. Their most novel policy is to provide Canberra homes with an extra bin for green waste. A worthwhile initiative, perhaps, but it's far from enough. We deserve loftier goals.

Criticism is part of opposition, but so, too, is showing that one has the ideas and inspiration to govern. On this point, Mr Seselja has not presented a compelling alternative. The ACT is not a mere municipality; we are spared the buck-passing that dogs councils and state governments. We run our own hospitals, schools and judicial system, and have a unique opportunity to control our city's destiny. Yes, tomorrow's election is about rates, roads and rubbish, but so much more besides. It's about who will shape our future. Ms Gallagher has shown she has a more inspired vision for Canberra than her opponent. We support the re-election of her government.