Canberrans contemplating the New Year and all it portends may spare a thought for Andrew Barr, for whom 2016 looms as the most challenging and problematic of his 10 years in the Legislative Assembly.
The Barr government goes to the polls on October 15 with saddlebags overflowing with lead. Its dogged commitment to light rail has polarised the electorate, its deputy leader is leaving politics after falling victim to factional intrigue, and one of its senior ministers, Joy Burch, is on "gardening leave" over allegations that details of a meeting between her and the territory's chief police officer were divulged to a union official. The territory's finances are under renewed siege as a result of declining GST revenues, continued Commonwealth parsimony, and Mr Fluffy buyback program. Moreover, there has been a public backlash against Labor's efforts to put revenues on a more sustainable footing by lowering stamp duty and increasing rates.
Against that inauspicious setting, Mr Barr is seeking to accomplish what few politicians have done before – lead a party which has held power for 14 uninterrupted years to a fourth term in office. Standing in Labor's path is an opposition party which, after having come close to winning government in its own right in 2012, appears supremely confident it has the electoral support needed to end Labor's epoch.
In a town as solidly pro-Labor as Canberra, no one would be counting Mr Barr out just yet. However, a series of trim changes are needed if Labor's ship is to remain competitive, beginning with a ministerial reshuffle. The circumstance of Ms Burch's resignation as police minister, and her leave-taking, have yet to be satisfactorily explained. Mr Barr needs to clear the air, and to move the gaffe-prone Ms Burch aside in the interests of energising and refreshing his ministry.
More fundamentally, Mr Barr must explain to an electorate now weary of rate rises and hikes in government charges just how Labor intends to manage the territory's economy (and to deal with pressing issues like housing affordability and the costly roll-out of light rail) without further slugging ratepayers. Hints that property rate increases and stamp duty reductions (the centrepiece of last year's tax reform) will be slowed are a measure of Mr Barr's vulnerability regarding cost of living issue.
A broader economic outline or blueprint, would seem imperative therefore – with delivery sooner rather than later. With Malcolm Turnbull likely to go to the polls around October or November, Mr Barr cannot afford for his message of economic competence to be lost in the wider tumult of a federal election.
If Labor has one thing in its favour, it's that the Canberra Liberals appear to have effected a certain complacency about their election prospects. The virtues of being a small target are not to be discounted, but the longer the party refrains from articulating its vision of government (and particularly of public transport) the more voters will regard its bona fides with skepticism. Nonetheless, Mr Barr begins the year very much behind the political eight ball.