The biggest argument in favour of showing the ACT's Barr Labor government the door next Saturday is that it has become tired and corrupted by too many years of continuous power, too ready to take the electorate for granted, unwilling and surly about public consultation and, seemingly, all too comfortable with the powerful interests that attach themselves to people with the power to award contracts, spend public money, or exercise discretions in partial ways.
The biggest argument against doing that, and thereby putting Alistair Coe's Liberal team into power, is the argument, or the suspicion, that many of the folk in the alternative government are deeply socially conservative, with instincts well out of step with those of mainstream Canberra voters - Labor, Liberal or Green; moderate or socially progressive. The Liberals have actually campaigned on a fairly conventional state or territorial Liberal agenda - which is to say on rates, services, the costs of services and the suggestion of entrenched inefficiencies in the system of government. They have even promised some extra spending on health and education, and have engaged in little cultism about debt or deficits - indeed it is Andrew Barr accusing the opposition of fiscal irresponsibility rather than vice versa, particularly over suggestions that some of the revenue shortfalls will be met by planned population growth.
Labor is presently in power because of the support of the Greens, one of whom, Shane Rattenbury, is a minister in the government. While this has probably increased the clout and the influence of the Greens over decision-making, it has saddled the party with some of the odour that has descended on the Barr government, particularly because of its complacency about planning politics, the influence on Labor ministers of big developers, and perhaps particularly its seeming indifference to community opposition towards plans for a lakeside yuppy suburb, apparently on the grounds that the area has long been spoiled by car parks. To such critics, in short, the Greens have had some wins on environmental and social issues, though the extent of these can be overstated because the Barr government has itself been progressive on environmental and climate change issues. But being in the cabinet has forced the Greens minister, and probably the party, to have to share responsibility for some of the outcomes that are not so popular, including planning debacles and a serious lack of achievement on affordable housing, social housing and poverty in the community.
Once planning was the jewel in the Canberra crown: these days, the people of Canberra would be relieved by a standard and a service as good as Port Augusta's. Or Wollongong's.
Just how much the local experience of the pandemic will affect the vote is not clear, but it seems unlikely to be to Labor's disadvantage. ACT outcomes, whether in terms of the number of people who got COVID-19 or who, sadly, died, were low even in Australian terms, and very low in international terms. Both politicians and bureaucrats managed well, and, if learning from experience in a novel situation, took the public into their confidence and were very successful, again both in Australian and international terms, in securing public compliance. Barr was a player in the so-called national cabinet (an innovation which, I suspect, will be allowed to wither), and, if he had occasion to curse most of the state premiers (including Labor ones) and the Prime Minister, generally restrained himself in the hope, ultimately realised, that more could be achieved behind the scenes than through public abuse. The Canberra economy suffered considerably from the shutdowns, but generally less than most areas, given the concentration of public servants and private sector businesses servicing the public sector, and some adept counter-cyclical work by Barr. In the long term, the lasting damage will have been to tourism and to the tertiary education sector.
No one seems to have made much of an election issue about the post-pandemic economy, society or community linkages. Perhaps this has been sensible given the uncertainties of the course and local impacts of the virus, the development and provision of vaccines or vastly superior treatments, and the local impact of major federal government measures to stimulate business and growth, get money flowing and sop up unemployment. In theory, the people of Canberra, and those in territorial government, seem likely to be better placed than most states to get access to this largesse, even if the impact of the shutdown on unemployment has been somewhat smaller.
But more is involved than mere economic "recovery" or "snapback", or some people's hopes of a restoration of things to the way they were before. Life and economic activity as we used to know it have fundamentally changed, but right now most of us do not quite know how or to what extent. In many of the changes, whether to workplaces, to schools and educational establishments or to human and industrial networks, the ACT, as a well-resourced, well-educated firm member of what some have called the "knowledge economy", will be leading the way. The crisis saw thousands working productively from home. Many of the gaps this caused in communication between workers, between management and workers, and within workers' own families were addressed by new technology, including Zoom. It is not entirely a coincidence that the crisis has also seen a government re-evaluation (if a rout can be called that) of the benefits of a high-speed national broadband service - something conscious local leadership could exploit and dominate far better than regions or economies with less critical mass and firepower.
The federal government and the bureaucracy moved swiftly to imagine and develop new forms of service delivery, particularly over the provision of labour market programs, higher levels of payments to those displaced or put out of work, and in providing relief to businesses trying to hold on to staff as business activity slowed. While government plainly intends that benefit levels will "transition" down as unemployment falls, and as some of the incentives to fresh business activity kick in, it seems likely that what it has done will form the foundations of new and more effective forms of future service delivery. While there is a Coalition government, that will probably be by contracting out to the private sector, but that by no means requires that the number of staff in policy and program development units in Canberra, as opposed to the rest of Australia, will fall.
It is quite true that the momentum of these changes will be determined rather more on Capital Hill than in the ACT administration or otherwise out in the wider economy, of which the ACT is only a small part. But the natural advantages of the Canberra economy and community mean that anticipation, local planning and nimble work by ACT authorities - and, probably, some further local initiatives in helping our universities cope with the crisis that the federal authorities have caused - could be amply repaid. No one is suggesting that existing or would-be Canberra politicians are not thinking about it, but few are doing much to take the electorate into their confidence.
Likewise, it should not only be Labor politicians who are looking closely at reasoned criticisms, including by Anthony Albanese, of the federal budget, or indeed of fiscal responses all around the world. In general terms, the sums of money being put into restarting our economic engines by the Morrison government are among the highest in the world. Yet Morrison and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, made choices about how and where money should be spent which are open to serious criticism - criticism not only able to be addressed by national political debate, but also by sharp and savvy local action, adapted to local circumstances. Barr has already made a virtue of the way that some of the extra spending brought on by the pandemic was focused on students, casual workers and people of uncertain residency status, because these were people (consciously and unfairly) missing out on the initial federal assistance programs. That's good, but there are many new social and economic opportunities - in education, in hospitals and health care, in service delivery, and in housing programs, particularly in social housing - that could and should be addressed. So too with community-based public programs in childcare and community healthcare, in disability and aged care services and in labour market programs that involve the spending of money in the public sector, rather than the ideologically directed focus on thinking that only private sector delivery needs assistance. Australia-wide, public-sector spending amounts to more than a quarter of the national income. It is consumption, service delivery and supply of capital. If it is not harnessed to economic revival there is so much more work to be done, mostly at greater expense, and probably with less transparency and accountability.
Power in the ACT: only an afterthought for the Zed Seselja preselection machine?
Andrew Barr has been an inordinately active Chief Minister. His personality and his will affect almost all areas of government - to the point that most of his ministers are not particularly well-known. Neither, likewise, are most of the Liberal candidates, including Coe himself. By comparison, ACT voters already had a reasonably good feel for incoming chief ministers of the past such as Mr Barr as well as Katy Gallagher, Jon Stanhope, Gary Humphries and Kate Carnell. More likely than not, for most voters it is a referendum on Andrew Barr: does he deserve another go or not?
In many way, Barr could be considered a success, and not only for the general health of the ACT economy before the pandemic struck, but for the broad delivery of promises. But his big handicaps - and they have become Labor's handicaps - have been in planning and over land development. They have been aggravated by inept consultation processes. This is a government which does not much listen, or, when it is forced to listen, respond. Perhaps it would be nice to imagine things being different under a new leader or administration, but so systematically has the ACT administration bureaucratised and bypassed process on such matters that one can confidently predict that not much will change, especially with planning. Once planning was the jewel in the Canberra crown: these days, the people of Canberra would be relieved by a standard and a service as good as Port Augusta's. Or Wollongong's.
Some Labor folks yearning for an end to the Barr era (and the fact that there are plenty of those is epitomised by the scathing public criticism by a former Labor chief minister, Jon Stanhope), might think that Kurrajong voters could simply decide to dump the Labor leader, but not a Labor government. That could happen if the number for Barr on the ballot paper is 3 or 4. Barr has, in any event, indicated that he would abandon politics immediately if the party loses government. He has long seemed to chafe at the ingratitude of the electorate, and the indignity of dealing with carping critics, particularly, it seems, long-term residents over the median population age (such as me) who are less than delighted by the urgency with which he has embraced projects he has thought would create jobs, bring tourists, or make the city a more vibrant place.
Barr has not organised a logical succession, even in a manner likely to guarantee the position to his own centre-right faction, because the balance of factional numbers will change after this election. After the last election, Meegan Fitzharris looked the anointed successor, but she tired of politics and got out. A number of the current ministry have the general experience for leadership, but none has a big profile or personality and few were given much scope to parade their wares, let alone in any argument with Barr.
The general innuendo of the "too conservative" tag on most of the Liberals involves Catholicism, and seems to have its origins in the suggestion that former Liberal Assembly leader Zed Seselja used Catholic parish networks to execute the ambush of Gary Humphries as a Liberal senator for the ACT. Since then, Seselja has become a leading backroom boy for the conservative wing of the federal Liberal parliamentary party, if not a particularly successful one, given the miscounting of the numbers for Peter Dutton against Morrison. Secured by the need to get only one-third of the Senate vote, Seselja votes his own socially conservative views in Parliament, as he did in opposing same-sex marriage legislation, in spite of the fact that the ACT recorded the strongest vote in favour in the nation.
At least some of those who used Seselja's control over the numbers to get ahead in ACT politics have socially conservative views on matters such as abortion, euthanasia, gender and sexuality education in schools, and anti-discrimination legislation. Coe was almost certainly played by Labor into almost reflexively opposing a proposal banning gay "re-education" programs in the ACT. The slur, or the hint, is that those of this philosophical bent entered ACT politics to promote this agenda, and that they see the exercise of power - over rates, or schools, or hospitals - as, at best, an opportunity to impose their views on the system, and at worst something to keep ticking over while they concentrate on the moral issues. No doubt an equally wounding suggestion is that the faction exists not so much to seek and win power in the ACT, but so as to shore up the Senate numbers for a politician not particularly popular in his electorate, nor among constituents generally minded to vote Liberal. No doubt he will be caught napping one day, and be removed with the same ruthlessness and lack of compunction he showed to his predecessor.
It is also noteworthy that while some in the group are said to have views similar to those pressed on politicians by the Catholic hierarchy, there is very little evidence that Catholics, as a whole, are more likely than anyone else to have such views. That is not only a reflection of the declining reputation and moral authority of the church, especially since the child sexual abuse scandals, but of the fact that Catholics entered the social mainstream 50 years ago. Similarly, the idea that there was some sort of "Catholic vote" - available for disposition on the whim of an archbishop - disappeared, along with most sectarianism, several generations ago.
I expect that Coe and his colleagues are there to win power, and that while they might approach new problems with their philosophical base, they do not have a secret agenda to set back the clock, introduce the Spanish inquisition or to have regular witch-burnings. Were they to win power on the back of a strong reaction against Barr - a possibility but not, I expect, a probability - I expect they would be fairly conventional managers of ACT politics and, initially at least, possibly a breath of fresh air. Most state or territory-level politics in Australian is based on service delivery - particularly in health, education and law and order - and the scope for ideological flourishes at anything except the margins is limited. Those who push too hard - Jeff Kennett, say, in Victoria, or Campbell Newman in Queensland - are often given quick reminders that their tenure on the government benches is leasehold, not freehold. So mundane is much of the job, indeed, that even a good many partisan politicians agree that a big clean-out every two terms or so is necessary.
This is not only to throw out those who have proven to be rascals, but so as to make sure that the recharging of batteries and the stock of ideas comes from experience via austerity, rather than a doting bureaucracy and a battalion of handsomely paid cadres and minders ("suits") with very little practical experience of the actual lives of voters.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org