The ACT's 2020 election campaign has been a unique experience for candidates and voters alike. Not only has it been conducted under the shadow of COVID-19 with an unprecedented number of Canberrans voting early, it has also lacked a central or defining theme.
This has been in stark contrast to 2012 when rates were the dominant issue, and to 2016 which was cast as a referendum on the light rail. It is also an election in which neither of the major parties have given voters a coherent plan for the next decade and beyond.
Labor's electoral centrepieces are essentially light rail to Woden, West Basin and urban renewal, and promises to do better on service delivery, and to be more consultative.
The Liberals, who have failed in their bid to make this a referendum on the cost of living, have pinned their promise to lower rates and charges without cutting services on the dubious hope they can reverse the flow of Canberrans across the border into NSW.
This lack of vision and policy development has highlighted the decision by both parties to run presidential-style campaigns built around Mr Barr and Mr Coe respectively. As a result it seems likely Saturday night's result will be driven by style rather than by substance. 2020 is not a poll in which voters have been won over by an inspirational vision. It is, instead, a choice between leaders and different styles of prospective government.
On the subject of perceptions, while Andrew Barr has gone to some lengths to shrug off the "old and tired government" tag, and made efforts to address perceptions he can be arrogant, and that his government has a poor record on public consultation, his own intentions are a mystery. Will Mr Barr see out the full four-year term if his government is returned? If not, what is the succession plan? Who are Canberrans really voting for? Labor's lack of a vision that extends beyond light rail, West Basin, and urban redevelopment suggests he is not taking a long term view.
While Alistair Coe has worked hard to present as a credible alternative Chief Minister following the Liberal's poor showing in 2016, he has not been able to completely disown the "L-plate" tag. Despite pushing back against claims neither he nor his team have the experience needed to govern in challenging times, most people would be hard pressed to name the prospective members of a future Liberal ACT cabinet.
While Labor, on the other hand, needs to address deficiencies in health, planning, building standards, the Alexander Maconochie Centre, public transport, and a range of other services, it can point to its record on the management of COVID-19 as a proof of competence. Standouts include the mature and measured way in which social distancing restrictions have been managed, the speed and efficiency with which the emergency field hospital was constructed, and the best record of case management of any jurisdiction with an open border in the country. The Barr government stepped up when it had to.
At a time when voters are looking to their politicians for leadership and vision even more than usual, Canberrans have not been given a lot of material to work with. It is likely the ballots of the many thousands of people who have already voted were decided on the basis of special interests and needs. Older residents will be looking at health, parents at education, and the environmentally minded may be influenced by the Liberal's promise to plant trees. Socially progressive residents, of whom we have many, will be asking themselves if Alistair Coe reflects the Canberra they believe in.
This has been a difficult, and at times confusing, campaign which has been further complicated by COVID-19 and electronic voting. In the absence of a key issue or competing visions it will be decided by perceptions and personalities.