Determined Coe starts the long, hard slog

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Opposition Leader Alistair Coe… “Because people aren’t following politics, it’s not to say they don’t care about issues.”  Photo by Rod Henshaw

“NOBODY gets into politics to be in opposition.” So says ACT Liberal Opposition Leader Alistair Coe. It’s an ironic observation given that all of his eight and a half years as an Assembly member has been just that – in opposition. And his party has been there for more than 15 years.

“Opposition is very frustrating,” he concedes.

“Unfortunately, the Canberra Liberals are a little bit too experienced in opposition.”

But Coe is quick to deflect any suggestion that his party is actually resigned to opposition: “I think the enthusiasm and the effort we keep putting into the elections proves that we’re definitely dedicated to winning an election.”

Coe clearly balances that motivation and enthusiasm with sheer patience that, after such an inordinate time on the opposition benches, must be akin to mixing bromide with an aphrodisiac.

At just 33, married for three years to Yasmin and with a couple of toddlers at home, Coe’s youthful appearance can be deceptive at first glance.

The “Doogie Howser MD of local politics” impression soon gives way to a much deeper persona once you lock down in serious conversation with him.

Canberra-born, he’s no newcomer to the party political fray, having joined the Liberals at age 16 while he was still at school.

“I firmly believed that governments are best when they concentrate on a limited number of things and doing them well rather than chancing their arm on everything and doing everything poorly,” he says.

He studied commerce at the ANU before going on to stints with a small engineering consultancy firm and then a short time with the RSL, before seeking preselection in Ginninderra in 2008.

As a relatively new leader, Alistair Coe is reluctant to talk about leadership comparisons between himself and his opposite number, Andrew Barr.

Instead, he prefers to point to the double-edged sword of longevity and potential complacency in government, which provides something of an insight to where he is aiming his strategy between now and the next election in 2020.

“We need to have a government that’s approachable and which doesn’t get caught up in its own agenda and I think there are a couple of problems this government is facing,” he says.

“I think they are becoming increasingly elitist and in effect, they have an attitude that it’s their way or the highway.”

The Liberal Opposition team of 11 members is an interesting mix comprising the long-time stalwarts still smarting from the 2016 election loss to the four “newbies” elected last October, still exuberant and busy learning the ropes of their shadow ministries to yet feel the frustrations of opposition.

“We have regular party room meetings and it’s inevitable that what comes out of the party room is better that what goes in. And that’s (because of) the collective experience of the members,” says Coe.

This is a significant dynamic when viewed in the context of the Labor government’s long reign in power, made up of members who’ve never had to experience the sour taste of opposition. And, of course, a couple of supporting Greens help out.

Coe is hardly disillusioned about the task ahead to overcome those barriers. Nor is he daunted by the reality that they simply have to do something different if they’re going to change their electoral fortunes during this term.

This started with the decision to commission a review into last year’s election to work out what exactly went wrong, and more importantly, how to fix it. Coe doesn’t elaborate on the findings, but one suspects it wasn’t flattering.

“It’s provided a lot of advice and a lot of constructive opinion. So that’s certainly an important part of moving forward,” he says.

The hard yards will be to bring the voters of Canberra along with him, many of whom are largely disdainful of politicians of every hue and jurisdiction.

“Because people aren’t following politics, it’s not to say they don’t care about issues,” says Coe.

“The challenge is how we communicate the issues that concern them in a way that’s actually relevant for them.

“I have no doubt the number of people following Question Time in the Assembly would be extremely low. But the number of people concerned about the issues we are discussing during Question Time would be very high.”

Coe has three-and-a-half years to turn it all around. It’s not a long time in politics. As Coe says, it goes like a flash in government, but in opposition it’s a long, hard slog.

If 2016 was psychologically “devastating” despite the closeness of the vote, a loss in 2020 wouldn’t bear thinking about and so far as he’s concerned, that’s not in the script.

Beneath that affable, youthful – and certainly genuine – disposition, you are left with the impression there lies a steely determination to succeed. Maybe longevity in opposition is his greatest friend.

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