ACT Liberal leader Alistair Coe is playing to win this October. Staring down the barrel of more than two decades lost in opposition, the stakes are high.
Most pundits rate Labor as the favourite to win a sixth straight term at the upcoming territory election, but no one is writing the Liberals off. An ACT election has little certainty - there's no long-term polling, so it's difficult to gauge the mood of the electorate through anything more than feel.
But the numbers suggest there will be two key battlegrounds - the Woden and Weston Creek-based seat of Murrumbidgee, and the Gungahlin-based Yerrabi. In reality, the results will most likely come down to just a few thousand votes.
Opposition Leader Alistair Coe is happy to embrace the underdog status as he prepares to face off with Chief Minister Andrew Barr on October 17. He's come under attack for socially conservative views his opponents say are out of touch with those of everyday Canberrans.
But Coe will be pinning his hopes on cutting through with hyper-local issues and cost of living pressures. "We're running to win," he says.
A southside battle between the Liberals and the Greens
The Liberals need to pick up two extra seats to get to the magic number of 13 MLAs required to form a majority government. The seat of Murrumbidgee appears to be the party's best chance of gaining some ground, and is a must-win for them to stay in the race.
The seat currently has two Labor, two Liberal, and one Greens member. The Liberals came very close to winning the third spot in the seat at the 2016 election, with Greens member Caroline Le Couteur taking it by about 400 votes.
Since then, the seat's boundaries have changed, adding in the strong Liberal areas of Yarralumla and Deakin. Ben Raue from the Tally Room says this redistribution made the seat notionally Liberal.
So if last election's results were applied to the changed boundaries, the Greens would lose the fifth spot and the Liberals would pick it up.
Another factor that could favour the Liberals is Le Couteur's retirement. "Generally having a sitting MP is handy, particularly in the ACT when so much is about the individual candidate," Raue says.
"In saying that, it's not like she held the seat for 20 years."
Gungahlin battle lines are drawn
Assuming the Liberals get an extra member in Murrumbidgee, bringing their tally to 12, their next step to government appears much tougher. They would need one more seat to form a majority. The simplest way to do this would be stealing the fifth spot in the Gungahlin-based seat of Yerrabi from Labor. Coe says the party is confident it is well and truly in that race. "There is a clear pathway for a Liberal majority government. It doesn't mean there is an easy pathway, but there is a pathway," he says.
Australian National University politics professor John Warhurst says the fact Coe is based in Yerrabi could give the Liberals a boost in the seat.
"With none of the Labor people there having a huge public profile, at the moment you'd say Labor looks as though they might be a bit weaker in Yerrabi, and Alistair Coe has a chance of dragging three Liberals cross the line," he says.
Labor's chances in the seat were dealt a blow when its most popular candidate, Meegan Fitzharris, stepped down last year. Low-profile Yerrabi member Suzanne Orr was elevated to a ministerial position largely out of necessity, to avoid a critical seat being held only by backbenchers.
The 2016 election was centred around debate about light rail. Crucially, Gungahlin residents were among the most likely to benefit from it. Some Liberals are confident that without the government having a tram to sell to voters, winning the seat is more than achievable for the opposition. Raue says the Liberals would need a swing of about 3 per cent in the seat to claim the crucial third spot - a tough but not impossible challenge.
Warhurst says the Belconnen seat Ginninderra is an outside chance of playing a role in deciding the election. It would probably rely on an independent or minor party taking a spot in the seat from Labor. If that occurred, that member could be the final vote in which party forms government. But this has been historically difficult in the ACT's Hare-Clarke system.
Warhurst says the Belco Party - led by former Liberal opposition leader Bill Stefaniak - couldn't be ruled out of having an impact in the seat. The party has focused on unashamedly populist policies, like reducing car registration and promising to offer free transport. "They've got a bit of the ingredients of success, but you've got to appeal to more than just an older male demographic," he says.
Raue says it appears unlikely an independent or new party could win a spot in Belconnen. "It's a big bar to win a quota in the ACT if you are a minor party or and independent," he says. "You need to win a sixth of the vote basically, so to do that, that is quite a high bar. I could imagine someone really quite prominent and popular could do really well, but you cant just run anyone." The Liberals could feasibly pick up a third seat in Ginninderra, however it would be a tougher task than in Yerrabi.
The pandemic advantage
Australian National University political scientist Jill Sheppard says the pandemic will give a significant leg up to the Labor party. "We know from a lot of existing research that when crises have been handled vaguely competently ... incumbents get a real advantage," she says.
"The Barr government should be able to ride a bit of a wave to government at the election."
But she said while it was tough for opposition parties everywhere in the current climate, the Liberals in the ACT were at an advantage to those in other jurisdictions, because local issues were able to have more cut-through with voters.
"An important aspect of the ACT electoral system is we don't have to vote for candidates the party tells us to, we pick from a list of candidates," Sheppard says.
"We see a lot of candidates from the Liberal Party talking about how we can improve our quality of life in our local area."
The COVID-19 crisis has meant the parties have had to throw many of their planned election strategies out the window. It has also cut the campaign short.
"I think it's fair to say we were expecting a much longer campaign, a campaign that probably built up over five or six or seven months," Coe says.
"But you have to play the hand that you're dealt and so we're ready and rearing to go for the final seven weeks."
Barr and Labor will be reminding Canberrans every chance they get about Coe's social conservatism - for example, he was the only government or opposition leader in the country to vote "no" to same sex marriage.
And it's not just Coe - only four of the Liberals' current MLAs could be considered moderates.
While many have questioned whether Coe is the right person to be leading the party in a socially progressive city like Canberra, the Liberals think they can win by focusing on local issues. Take their focus on increasing green spaces across the territory, pledging to plant 1 million trees, or promising to freeze residential rates.
"We'll keep focusing on real and tangible issues that affect Canberrans," Coe says.
Who's in the box seat?
When it comes to ACT elections, there really is no certainty.
Most experts agree Labor is in the strongest position, but in the absence of ongoing and accurate polling, it's hard to gauge voter sentiment.
Warhurst says while there may be simmering discontent for the government, the anti-Labor sentiment did not seem to be as strong in the community as during the 2016 election.
"They talk about governments being in trouble when people have baseball bats out for them. I don't think I see that at the moment," he says.
He notes while there is significant dissatisfaction towards Barr, the same goes for Coe.
"While that sentiment prevails, the government is probably in a better position to be re-elected," he says. "Unless the pressure builds so much that people say: 'we've just got to get rid of this government regardless of the quality of the opposition'."
Raue says it's quite easy to see the Liberals winning 12 seats, but it is harder to see them making it to 13. "We don't have a lot of polling, we don't have trends of how polling has changed over time, so it's very hard to judge what's going on," he says.
"I think it's possible at some point a few more voters decide they are sick of Labor.
"I wouldn't rule a [Liberal win] out, they don't require a landslide to win. But I think it's probably not as likely as a continuation of a Labor and Greens government."
Despite all the unknowns, Raue says one thing is for sure.
"Anyone who tells you they know exactly what is going to happen at the ACT election is lying," he says.