ANDREW Barr has made a poor start in filling the shoes of former Chief Minister, Katy Gallagher.
Barr is entitled to some honeymoon period. It is certainly unrealistic to expect him to step into the top job and immediately be on top of every issue.
However, he will need to ensure that his own (very adept) political radar is picking up misfiring waves from his colleagues. His government has stumbled once and, without his intervention, it is about to stumble again.
Gallagher had the advantage of having built up high levels of community trust as Minister for Health and in the top job and learnt to handle hiccups before they became public embarrassments.
The end-of-year $50 fiasco over poker machines is the first significant stumble of the Barr government. Minister Joy Burch released the regulation, co-signed by Attorney-General Simon Corbell, ahead of the holiday break on December 22. The regulation should never have seen the light of day. Burch should have known better. It is probable that this one slipped past the normally much more astute Corbell in a pile of co-sign regulations in the hectic pre-festive season rush.
The critical political issue was not so much that they had not really considered the right and wrong in the ramifications of increasing harm associated with gambling but the failure to recognise the level of political sensitivity. Both ministers should have been aware of the vulnerability of the Labor Party because of its conflict of interest over poker machine funding of their own political party.
The Labor Party has over the last five years received over $2.4 million from the Labor-affiliated clubs.
What is more, the trouble came just a couple of months after a storm followed the decision by Minister Joy Burch to introduce the Gaming Machine Reform Package that links the number of machines to the size of the population, which guarantees an increase in the number of poker machines and removes the “cap” that restricted growth, slowly reducing harm.
At least in the first situation there was consultation. Increasing the amount of money that could be fed into pokies from $20 to $50 was done without any public consultation. And there was a clear consequential increase in the amount of money that would go into the ACT Labor Party coffers.
Step up Andrew Barr. Standing next to Minister Burch at a press conference, he publicly ensured the decision was reversed. She eats humble pie! It is the first indication of Barr as a strong leader.
The trouble for Labor is that its conflict of interest goes to the heart of politics – community trust. In reversing the $50 poker machine decision Barr has now made the Labor Party worse off financially, but has increased the party’s social capital and its level of trust.
There is another stumbling block on the horizon that puts the Labor government’s social capital at risk. The Electoral Reform Bill that has been tabled in the Assembly carries a clause that will also test this government.
They have presented the idea of removing the annual cap of $10,000 for party donations, which means donations from individuals and organisations including businesses and lobby groups that seek to influence the political process will become unlimited, even though they are still reportable after the event.
Our democracy is under threat from inappropriate donations and this softening of the law will need to be reversed. How can ordinary voters trust a political party that will not discard its pokies conflict of interest (as Jon Stanhope tried) and now plans to open another avenue of inappropriate influence?
Barr moved quickly and decisively to publicly deal with the first conflict of interest. On the second, he can move quietly within the Cabinet, do the right and democratic thing and build trust in his government.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.