Canberra's next election is two years away and still a distant thought in the minds of voters. But the single issue on which votes might potentially turn, certainly above others in 2016, is the proposed City to Gungahlin light rail project. In an online survey conducted by The Canberra Times last week, a clear majority of respondents indicated that light rail would influence how they vote in 2016. The survey's other findings offer little comfort for the Gallagher government, with nearly 59 per cent of respondents indicating they do not support the first stage, and 58 per cent suggesting the money would be better spent on improving Canberra's bus network. On Monday, ACT Liberals leader Jeremy Hanson guaranteed that light rail would occupy centre stage in the election campaign proper by announcing he would do all in his power to halt its development.
Mr Hanson's declaration that it is "game on" over light rail is unsurprising, although there are some risks involved for the Opposition in opposing a project which will have many downstream benefits for developers and small business – a constituency which tends to be more supportive of the Liberals than of Labor. A reluctance to burn bridges might explain why Mr Hanson has refused to indicate if an incoming Liberal government would tear up contracts for the $783 million project.
Chief Minister Katy Gallagher has cast doubt on the accuracy of the on-line poll, suggesting it bears little relationship to surveys carried out on behalf of Capital Metro. In fact, The Canberra Times on-line poll was never touted as being anything other than a voluntary survey, and certainly not a survey as statistically accurate as a face-to-face or phone poll of a standard sample size. But steps were taken to minimise manipulation by special interest groups, and the voting window coincided with stories and comment articles in the print and online versions of The Canberra Times that were both supportive of and critical of the economics of the rail project. And while the self-selected sample size of 6061 might not be indicative of anything other than a broad outline of voter thinking on light rail – and highly motivated one way or the other, at that – it remains the biggest survey of any kind to date.
As it is entirely to be expected, Ms Gallagher has reiterated that neither the government's thinking on light rail nor its commitment will be swayed by populist sentiment. However, there are aspects of the survey that will give her pause for thought, in particular the indications that the further voters are from the 12km tram line, the more likely they are to oppose it. Such sentiment will be heavenly manna for the Liberals, who profited enormously from the resentment their "Labor will triple your rates" rhetoric generated in south Canberra at the 2012 election. The Liberals' campaign advertising on light rail in 2016 – which may be along the lines of "you're all going to have to pay, but only North Canberrans will benefit" – will be difficult for Labor to counter.
Light rail represents an investment in the public good and Canberra's economic future, one which will deliver us from a likely future of road congestion and over-dependence on fossil-fuelled cars. Most voters instinctively understand this, though the difficulty of imagining Canberra as a grid-locked, smog-shrouded city in 2030 or 2040 does not make for an eager embrace of light rail. Changing inner suburban land use and increasing population density – among the more likely reasons, one suspects, for Labor's light rail enthusiasm – makes sense too, although the government's grand vision of a residential/commercial/retail canyon along Northbourne Avenue and Flemington Road has won few admirers. And then there are Labor's wholly unconvincing attempts to construct a meticulous cost-benefit analysis, gainsaying the assessments of Infrastructure Australia and the Productivity Commission in the process.
Capital Metro Minister Simon Corbell releases the government's full business case for light rail at the end of the month. The strong likelihood is that no matter how little water the business case holds, the government will press on regardless. In which case, as The Canberra Times survey suggests, voters may be lying in wait in 2016.
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