From legalising cannabis possession to recognising that animals have feelings too, 2019 was all about the ACT's progressive agenda. It's one of the government's biggest strengths and one the government will be looking to capitalise on in the lead-up to the October election. The Liberals on the other hand will be appealing to those it thinks have been left behind, to escape from almost 20 years in opposition.
The year that was
It was about October when the mood seemed to turn in the halls of the ACT Legislative Assembly. Labor staffers and MLAs started getting a little tense while there was a distinct spring in the step of the Liberals. It marked a year to the next territory election, and so far 2019 had not gone the way Labor would have liked. It lost its key performer and heir apparent to Barr when Meegan Fitzharris decided to leave politics. Her resignation seemed to catch just about everyone off guard, including most of her Labor colleagues.
Issues the government hoped would have gone away - like health - only got worse. But It delivered a major infrastructure project when light rail stage one launched in April. It's enjoyed a smooth ride since and has avoided the problems plaguing the newly opened line in Sydney. Plans for stage two came soon after.
But the changes to the whole public transport system that came with light rail caused a whole new headache for the government - one it didn't entirely see coming. It overhauled the bus system to make it into a hub and spoke model. It prioritised rapid bus routes but it meant cutting hundreds of local bus services. Many school buses were ditched
It's especially affected some of Canberra's most vulnerable, like the elderly or disabled, many of whom lost their local bus stops and were forced to travel further to catch public transport. It has drawn the unavoidable conclusion form some that they've lost out at the expense of light rail.
The final report from the review into ACT Health's workplace culture was handed down in March. The report was damning, but the government would have been hoping it marked a turning point. But it's performance continued to slip. No government spin can avoid the fact it's unacceptable. ACT patients are waiting longer than anywhere in the country to be seen in emergency departments and our hospitals have been pushed to their limits. While internal health politics have played a role, it's mainly a problem of the government's own doing.
It has deferred major investment in health infrastructure for years. It's simplistic to say we have light rail instead of a new hospital - both transport and health are worthy and needed investments for the ACT. But there's not doubt the failure has come down to a question of priorities.
The government's legislative agenda for the year has been soft on substance but heavy on progressive ideals. It legalised possession of small amounts of marijuana, causing a brouhaha with the federal government.
Barr would likely relish the tension its caused with the federal government. Most Canberrans would be against any intervention to overturn ACT laws. The law is due to come into effect on February 1 and clashes with Commonwealth laws. So there's still an option open to ACT police to charge people with possession. The real test will be when someone gets charged and they face court.
ACT declared that animals had feelings when it passed its animal sentience laws in September. The laws recognise that animals can feel and perceive the world around them, and deserve to have a quality of life that "reflects their intrinsic value". It introduced tough new penalties for the mistreatment of animals, while also placing more restrictions on pet shop owners and breeders. The government continued to lead the way on climate change action, set to run on 100 per cent net renewable energy.
These social reforms gained both eye rolls and applause - it just depends who you ask. But there's no doubt they're popular with a good chunk of Canberra voters, especially those who are only engaged in ACT politics on a surface level (which is most).
The election year
For the year ahead, prepare for Labor to focus on its key strength - its flashy progressive policies. It's also in the tough position of having to dispel the perception it ignores Canberra's south, while giving Gungahlin the attention it needs. The Gungahlin based seat of Yerrabi could decide the election, with Labor gaining the crucial last spot by only a couple of thousand votes in 2016.
Opposition leader Alistair Coe has been working to up his public profile and seems to see the way to victory as appealing to Labor's traditional base - working class and lower income voters in the outer suburbs. That will rely on the notion that people are actually hurting from rate rises - part of the government's long term tax reform agenda. That they're angry about the state of the territory's health system and don't think the government has prioritised cost of living issues and basic services. The fact work won't have even started on its promised hospital expansion project - SPIRE - by the election will undoubtedly hurt the government.
But Canberra is a unique - and mostly affluent - electorate and championing social reform is a strategy that has served the government well. While on a federal level Labor undoubtedly needs to reconnect with its base, as it has acknowledged, the unique demographics of Canberra mean those trends can't be easily translated to the ACT. It's well know Coe is a social conservative, but he'll likely try to at least neutralise social issues. He seems sure the Canberra Liberals can win the election without appealing to a progressive base. The opposition is ideologically very different to the last and only Liberal government to win an election in Canberra - led by a socially progressive Kate Carnell. The Liberals will be working on the assumption that Barr's flashy social policies have left a group of disaffected Canberrans behind.
Coe faced one of his first major challenges as leader in December, with a slightly under-cooked leadership coup. It showed there were deep reservations about Coe's conservatism among MLAs and their chances of winning with him at the helm. It appeared to fizzle, but with tensions running high and the Liberals facing decades in opposition if they lose, a real challenge in the coming months cannot be ruled out
With no major polling in ACT it's hard to know what will happen on election day and unwise to make any predictions so far out. The Liberals will need a strong grass roots campaign, and to ride an 'its time' sentiment, if it is to emerge from the electoral wilderness.