Tough call: two leaders, one prize

LEADING your party through an election campaign for the first time is “not small work”, says Chief Minister Katy Gallagher.

“There’s a lot more pressure on the leader of a political party, I’ve got more responsibility not only to the community, but also on behalf of the team I lead,” she says.

“You have to accept it comes with opportunity and not everyone gets to do it, so it can be a positive thing, too.”

Gallagher stood as Deputy Chief Minister at the last ACT election in 2008 alongside then-Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, and took over as leader after Stanhope’s resignation in May 2011.

She describes her leadership style as “what you see is what you get.”

“If I had to look at other words to describe it it would probably be ‘honest’, accepting that I don’t have all the answers, and I’m more of a consensus-style politician – I don’t like agro in politics,” she says.

“I just bring my personal style to the job, you know some people have a view about whether that’s enough, but that shouldn’t be misread that I’m not tough; when I have to be tough I am tough, but I hope that I’m tough and fair.”

Opposition Leader Zed Seselja knows what it’s like to have the weight of an election on his shoulders, too, after leading his party through the Territory’s last election.

He says he “learnt a lot” from the experience.

“I think I’m bringing a certain amount of experience now having led the Liberal Party for the best part of five years now, so I think that will hold me in good stead,” he says.

“I think we’re more equipped, we’re more ready this time. We worked very hard last time and did some big things, but obviously we didn’t quite get there. The last four years we’ve really built up our team, our policies. With five years as leader, I feel more ready.”

But after 11 years under a Labor government, Seselja “doesn’t underestimate the challenge in Canberra”.

“It’s never easy to change government anywhere, it’s perhaps a little more challenging in Canberra than maybe other places for the Liberal Party, but I don’t accept the categorisation that it’s a ‘Labor town’,” he says.

“I think the community will assess both parties, but where the votes come from, I don’t know. I think they will come from a broad cross-section of the community, that’s who we’re appealing to, particularly the outer suburbs, they feel those cost-of-living pressures perhaps more than other areas.”

Seselja says he has felt comfortable in the role of leader since his appointment in 2007.

“I think my leadership style has always been to lead, everything’s not necessarily put to a vote, but also to take my colleagues with me and show to them they can trust me,” he says.

“I think that speaks to the community, because we have a high level of respect for each other, show each other respect, that is reflected in the community as well.”

The Liberal Party’s “core strength” is a connection to the community, says Seselja.

“All of our candidates are very well connected to the community, there’s a great diversity amongst our candidates, and that is a core strength. So basically we focus on the issues that really matter to them, not what we think is the biggest issue of the day.”

While Gallagher says she doesn’t “reflect much” on her strengths, she believes her involvement with the community is an advantage.

“I get up, go to work – I don’t spend an awful amount of time navel-gazing,” she says.

“I guess one of the strengths is I’ve got the capacity to lead, to work hard, and people understand I work in the best interests of the community.

“I think people understand I’m one of them and I am Canberra, I’ve grown up here, I live here, I shop, I go to kids’ sports, so I think that’s one of the really good things about our Assembly, we’re really interconnected to the community.”

Gallagher says she is “hopeful” that Labor’s election platform, based around building on “Canberra’s strengths”, will get her party through.

“I think the future of our city is very bright, but we’re sort-of at the decision point now about what do we do to be the best we can be,” she says.

“For me, it’s about starting the next chapter in our city’s history and that’s growing our economy and it really has to be our strengths – our health, education and jobs tied together to create a different Canberra – and if we get it right, it will be really good.”

Meanwhile, the Liberals are focusing on reducing the cost of living with “lower rates and charges”; and Seselja believes there is a “mood for change” ahead of the election.

“I think there’s some good signs about our chances, but I know the only way we get there is if we work very hard in the same way we have for the last four years,” he says.

“While I certainly think there is a mood there, that’s not enough. You have to show people that you’re ready.”

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