The New Year will present many challenges for the ACT, including the clear and present danger to the territory's economy from continuing cuts to the federal public service. To offset this brake on growth, the territory government is financing an ambitious range of projects but must also push for new investments from the federal government, as major construction projects wind down.
For Andrew Barr in particular, 2015 is a key year. The newly-installed Chief Minister, the nation's first gay leader, must get runs on the board well ahead of the October 2016 Legislative Assembly elections. He has to assert his authority in the role and create a leadership presence to fill the significant void left by Katy Gallagher.
He has correctly declared the economy as his highest priority, as Canberra faces the most testing economic environment in 20 years.
One of his key tasks is to convince voters of the merits of light rail. Many members of the public appear sceptical about the viability of the Gungahlin to Civic link and others are concerned about its impact on the territory's relatively small budget.
The government is selling the project as visionary and affordable, overlooking its genesis as a political deal between Labor and Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury. Ironically, the bus service has been improved since the introduction of paid parking in the Parliamentary triangle – leading to even more questions about the need for light rail.
Mr Barr's third and perhaps most difficult budget, delivered mid-year, was an example of Keynesian pump-priming and sought to shield the neediest and most vulnerable Canberrans from economic adversity. He said the ACT was deliberately not choosing the austerity path taken by conservative governments around Australia, and would not "sacrifice essential services for the sake of the budget bottom line."
The deficit is forecast to balloon to $332.3 million in the 2014-15 financial year – resulting in a warning by ACT Auditor-General Maxine Cooper that the territory is exposed to worse results with unexpected adverse events – before a predicted return to surplus by 2017-18. The budget will lift borrowings significantly over the next four years (to $1.7 billion over the forward estimates) to fund a range of stimulus measures, large and small.
This is vital because a report published in June said all current major construction projects in the ACT would be completed by next year "leaving a stark pipeline beyond the next two years". The gloomy forecast by the Deloitte Access Economics Investment Monitor coincided with the dampener applied to the territory's economy by the reduction in the federal public service in Canberra by 6000 jobs over the next two years.
However Mr Barr says the ACT government's record $2.5 billion infrastructure investment in the 2014-15 budget will drive construction in Canberra, to compensate for the public service cuts. There are significant projects totalling billions of dollars in the pipeline such as the Northbourne corridor redevelopment, Capital Metro, University of Canberra Public Hospital and City to the Lake including convention and stadium facilities.
Construction on the ASIO fortress is completed but the spies are certainly taking their sweet time to move in. Work on the Majura Parkway continues and demolition of Mr Fluffy houses will generate work. The rebuilding on those sites will provide many jobs but the Real Estate Institute of the ACT has warned of an artificial price boom with hundreds of families looking for new homes.
The economy will receive a boost this week from visitors to the Summernats car festival while sports fans can look forward to international treats in the New Year. Canberra is hosting six pool matches and a quarter final of the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup in January. The Prime Minister's XI take on the Poms in two weeks and in February and March, three matches of the cricket World Cup will be played at Manuka Oval.
Next year Anzac Day at the Australian War Memorial takes on a special significance, on the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli. A huge crowd is expected at the Dawn Service and National Ceremony, to reflect on the spirit of Anzac and remember Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations.
Canberra is a modern, forward-thinking capital, which gives full confidence the city will dig deep in 2015 to counter the blow of the public service cuts.
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