Andrew Barr was at his best and his worst during the past week, and not for the first time it was at the same time. Here he was, telling people who were not much listening why he is the leader the ACT needs now and after the next election. And here, in the same interchange, is the man who will not listen, disputing that there is any cause for unease about the smell around his government.
His opposite number, Jeremy Hanson, tried to wrap his suggestions of a smell from articles and comments in The Canberra Times. He instanced suggestions of cronyism, mention by former chief minister Jon Stanhope of corruption and rorts in the Labor Party, ministerial and staffer resignations, and reports of police investigations into land deals.
Barr's response? "Well, I reject most of the assertions in your question, and I think most of them pertain to the tired old Opposition Leader ... [and] a tired old journalism outfit that is in a decaying ... form in terms of readership and interest. The Canberra Times are welcome to their opinions on various issues. They have written an editorial or two about the opposition and its lack of policy development and anything positive to say about the future of Canberra. I am not going to dignify your muckraking with any further response. I will remain focused on the priorities of the people of Canberra, and that is to continue to invest in their health and education and support for community services, responding to family violence, investing in the infrastructure that this community needs, utilising the budget as a tool to support the territory economy, to continue our focus on economic growth and opportunity, to ensure that Canberra remains the world's most-liveable city, a place where all people can feel included and have an opportunity to contribute ..."
You can see his problem. Here is Barr, moving body and soul every day of the week to advance the interests of Canberrans – did they but know it. And here is a shower of mental and moral pygmies intent on distracting him, attacking him, nit-picking his processes, doubting his motives, and criticising the actions and judgment of his political friends, associates and mentors, very loyal staff, his even more loyal and obsequious personal public service and, horrors, sometimes even himself.
One should not draw from this any inference of arrogance, egotism or hauteur, least of all in the context of an election in a bit over three months, at just about the time the dust from the federal election settles. Heaven forfend!
The problem is not conceit. It is the fact that the master artist is at work on the big canvas and it is hard to concentrate while being forced to endure such unworthy and carping criticisms. Paul Keating often had the same problem.
Frankly, Barr does not deserve this. We should wonder at his stamina and patience, and at why he does not simply throw up his hands in despair, heading off instead to some other blank canvas, perhaps in western Tasmania.
Barr's problem is not merely one of facing an election in October. All things being equal, he is probably up to that task, particularly if as expected conservative government is renewed on Capital Hill. It is certainly an election for Barr to lose. Hanson seems up to the job, but his team hardly inspires (though the same might be said – is often enough said – of the Barr team).
The ACT is generally regarded as Labor-leaning, if well capable of throwing out tired, incompetent or arrogant Labor politicians, at either local or federal level. But successful ACT Liberals have generally been liberal rather than conservative in broad outlook. One can expect that the Assembly election will include much Labor mud-slinging suggesting that some of the Liberal team hold extreme views, at odds with the general local view, on social issues. What a pity that there is unlikely to be a same-sex marriage plebiscite before the ACT election to see where everyone stands.
Barr, and other ministers, thanks to the numbers and the support of the Greens' Shane Rattenbury, can comfortably dominate the Assembly. But it is, these days, hardly where the political action is. The danger for Barr is that not everything, including matters pertaining to the smell, is entirely under his control.
One cannot assume, for example, that concerns about why an ACT official, David Dawes, chose the higher of two valuations when buying a section of Glebe Park will die away under a barrage of Barr bluster. Dawes said later the purchase was required for the City to the Lake proposal, which could "yield something in the order of $2 billion over time". That potential project, Barr's favourite, includes the idea of a stadium in Civic Centre.
Barr often mentions the stadium, which has a fervent constituency, not least in a professional sports industry used to receiving regular direct and indirect subsidies from ACT taxpayers, masquerading as a personal favour from Labor, and not one reducing the stock of public housing, the quality of healthcare or of schools.
But the stadium has, as yet, no formal status. It has not been approved as a plan. Indeed, it would be interesting to have the question of whether it should be on a plan (and whether, likewise, the Manuka Oval proposal should be) as an election issue in Barr's own electorate of Kurrajong at the forthcoming election. It is unclear that it would be a winner with voters.
But with or without any such approval, and without what petty-minded purists might call transparency or accountability, Barr and his officials are moving pieces around on the board so as to give the proposal some sort of inevitability. Much as with the Manuka Oval, of course. And the yuppy housing development by the lake.
In the meantime, litigation is proceeding, slowly, in the ACT Supreme Court in the wake of the sacking by the Brumbies board of its former chief executive, Michael Jones. The ACT government is not a party to the litigation, and nor any longer is the Brumbies board. Barr says he has been assured that events at the centre of the litigation do not touch the probity, common sense or actions of ACT ministers or government officials.
I wish I could reassure Canberrans this was so. But, unfortunately, the court has suppressed an affidavit at the centre of the proceedings, which might cast a different light on events. One newspaper – not The Canberra Times – appears to have used the affidavit to tell its readers something of the matters in contention. Oddly, there have been no moves, of which I am aware, to have it dealt with for contempt, either by motion of the judge, Justice Richard Refshauge, or any of the parties, who include building consultant (and former ACT Labor politician) David Lamont and the University of Canberra.
But efforts to keep ACT citizens out of the loop, presumably to a time past the election, continue, with confetti of subpoenas scattered over the local press designed to stop the tide coming in or going out.
Nonetheless, it appears no illegal behaviour is alleged of Lamont, the university or the Brumbies board. The argument Jones has mounted does not require this.
One does not need any affidavits to know that, some years ago, the Brumbies acquired, on very favourable terms, land in Griffith that they used as a headquarters, with a good deal of help from the ACT government. Later, the ungrateful club thought it could upgrade its finances by getting permission to treat a lease it had, effectively, received for nothing as if it were a freehold apartment development site.
In its usually obliging way, whenever the word development or sporting club is mentioned, the government decided to waive betterment fees – to the tune of about $7.5 million. Even now I would be interested in seeing how this value was calculated. The waiver, an effective grant of at least $7.5 million, was lobbied through government but became publicly known.
As is usual with such fabulous generosity to sporting clubs, it was publicly criticised for its want of transparency and its operating as yet another off-the-books subvention to for-profit professional sport. In much the same manner, the Raiders' legal and moral "ownership" of the right to redevelopment of all or part of Braddon Oval (or to operate it as a paid car park) is unclear. Or the idea that anyone with a good idea for developing Manuka Oval has some sort of copyright and can bags first gouge of the public purse.
Barr intended that the benefit of the $7.5 million waiver of betterment tax would go to the Brumbies. They could use it as part of a long-term partnership with UC in developing facilities there. On top of this, the Brumbies stood effectively to gain from the sale of the previous unimproved value of the land and the value of any assets on it.
One of the issues in the Jones litigation, about which one has to be circumspect, is whether in fact it was Brumbies received all or most of the benefit of the tax waiver. There's a suggestion the developers effectively got some or all of the money.
Whether they did involves no particular interaction with ministers or public officials; it is a matter of arrangements between the parties. Some of the parties, it is said, had mixed responsibilities and possible conflicts of interest. Interesting as this is, it might not, as such, reflect on Barr or government officials other than to possibly add weight to suggestions that neither Barr nor his advisers are as savvy in the ways of business as they think.
Refshauge could resolve all of these matters any old way he liked without having to make any judgment about what the ACT government did or intended. But people will be watching the case to see what happened to the betterment money. If Barr's intention miscarried, it could be very embarrassing. Discussion of Barr's stewardship of public money, one might think, is a public-interest matter that the courts will not suppress, particularly in the lead-up to an election.
There are other governance matters inviting cynical public attention.
There is the decision to allow the Canberra Casino to have poker machines. This means the casino would need to buy licences from clubs such as the Labor Club, or, perhaps more significantly, The Tradies clubs, associated with the CMFEU. Organisationally and politically, this is a sink of potential conflict and bad governance. Not unexpectedly, all of the usual cronies, lobbyists and smarties are gathered around the trough.
There are still unanswered questions about police interventions in ACT politics, the resignations of a minister and staffer, and the government's relationship with the CMFEU. There's the continuing resistance to an ICAC, and the government's apparent imperviousness and indifference to criticism from the Auditor-General, and the seeming want of any accountability of public servants.
No doubt, these, like many other matters said to be causing a smell, are entirely above-board, able to withstand any sort of critical examination. But a tired, complacent and irritable government, one that treats requests for openness, explanation and even-handed dealings as impertinence, can hardly be surprised that it excites suspicion. Barr's model of modern government is decaying and out of date, and he has not adapted to the times or to circumstance. I expect this news organisation will be around, in its multiple forms, as he goes out the door.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.