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HOW many of the following can you identify: Tara Cheyne? Bec Cody? Michael Pettersson? Suzanne Orr?
Backbench members of the Legislative Assembly don’t get much chance to build a profile despite it being a factor critical for re-election under Hare-Clark.
Will their hard work cost these MLAs the next election?
Chris Steel was recently elevated from backbench to Minister. What about the others? We are now pretty close to half way through the electoral cycle. My own “off-the-cuff poll” with a few colleagues tested the recognition factor of those above. It does not bode well for many of them.
Tara Cheyne was familiar to some. Perhaps because of her role as chair of the Belconnen Community Council before the 2016 election and being in the electorate of Ginninderra.
Michael Pettersson was recognised by one. He has recently announced legislation to remove the minor civil penalties that apply to personal cannabis use. The Labor Party has allowed him to introduce controversial legislation, which will assist in improving his profile.
The others did not score well on recognition amongst my small, unrepresentative sample. It is quite unfair. These government backbench members work extraordinarily hard on Assembly committees. They wrestle with complex issues, negotiate outcomes with the Opposition and crossbench members and seek sensible, informed and evidence-based decision making in the Legislative Assembly.
Bec Cody is deputy chair of the Justice and Community Safety Committee and sits on the powerful (and busy) Public Accounts Committee. However, she also is part of Select Committees on the Independent Integrity Commission, Estimates and is currently chair of the controversial End of Life Choices Committee. These roles require extensive reading, running public inquiries, negotiating agreements, dealing with differences of opinion and being heavily involved in drafting reports.
This is repeated by others as unseen, critical work for the ACT community. However, no matter how much there are community calls on politicians to “get on with the job”, this type of hard work is rarely rewarded at the ballot box.
Hard work in Assembly committees has, of itself, not always paid off electorally. Carmel Maher was elected with the No Self Government Party in 1989, served a single term working like a Trojan as a committed MLA (despite the party) but was never able to build a positive profile.
Similarly, my close colleague, Helen Szuty, was incredibly committed to Assembly work in the Second Legislative Assembly. However, she simply did not build a high enough profile to be successful at the following election. The same was true for MLAs such as Norm Jensen, Lucy Horodny and many others who were not able to capitalise despite making important contributions over the years.
This is the challenge for government backbenchers unless they can build their profile or be elevated to a ministerial role. Maybe the rumours that Andrew Barr might step down as Chief Minister that have been circulating for more than a year might be motivated by his own backbenchers hoping for a break!
It is not all doom and gloom. Former MLA, Mary Porter, could serve as a role model. She established an amazing reputation and profile in her own electorate in Belconnen and in the wider community simply through hard work and community engagement. She attended an enormous number of community functions, listened to constituents, solved problems and followed up with the appropriate ministers.
It is possible that my (very poor) sample was not able to see the work from Suzanne Orr (Yerrabi). She does serve on committees suitable for building a profile. Perhaps she has done so in different ways in her own communities. But hard work within the Assembly is not enough.
Building a profile takes time and is critical to re-election. Nationally, the community wants our politicians to stop “politicking” and get on with the work. The danger in the ACT is that this might just mean reducing chances for some MLAs continuing working hard in the Assembly after the next election.
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health. He has been a political columnist with “CityNews” since 2006.