A COMPLACENT and tired government versus a seriously conservative opposition; the ACT election is around 16 months away and the choice is anything but clear.
While voters consider the least-worst option, the parties are already considering their strategies.
Lessons from the Federal Labor Party in the recent election will not be missed. The opposition will present a small target and run a strong negative campaign. Unfortunately, voting on policy is a thing of the past.
At the October 2020 election, Labor will have been in power for five terms – close to two decades. None of the ministers have ever served in opposition. Although previous professions have provided a few with the skills of critical analysis, most have missed learning how to challenge both government and the public service.
The outcome is not just a complacent government but a powerful, dominant and relaxed public service.
The Canberra Liberals may well have the public service in their sights as one of their targets. Levelling criticism at a bloated public service will appeal to ratepayers who have felt the ever-increasing burden of ACT taxation under the Labor government.
However, rates will probably be the first shell in the artillery of the opposition armoury. A series of cross-bench hopefuls will most likely run a similar campaign.
Community members were told that rates would increase as many other less-efficient taxes would be removed. The argument was that taxpayers would be no worse off but, laudably, there would be a more equitable distribution of the tax burden.
Revenue has risen threefold. Labor will be pilloried over this broken promise. According to the last Budget of an ACT Liberal government: “Revenues in 2001-02 are expected to be $2.043 billion”. This is in marked contrast Labor’s most recent Budget after nearly five terms: “The government is forecasting revenue of $5.9 billion in 2019-20”.
No wonder rates are on the rise. No wonder Canberrans are feeling the pinch. A threefold increase in revenue in less than 20 years of Labor. Even allowing for an increase in population and other factors impacting on revenue and expenditure, this may be seen as simply reckless. The Labor government will be seriously vulnerable on this aspect.
There are other areas for the Canberra Liberals to take aim on a vulnerable government. The most obvious is planning. How long before we say goodbye to the “bush capital” and are transformed into a city like any other? Downtown Melbourne seems to be the model for the plethora of apartments and other buildings that spill on to the footpaths, dominate the skyline and create the slums of the future. The question for voters is – will the Canberra Liberals be any better?
Health is almost always a target for an opposition with hospitals being huge organisations undertaking complex treatments and operations. There is no doubt that Canberra’s public health professionals are on a par with any in Australia for skills and commitment. However, things do go wrong and wind up as front-page news.
SA has just announced it will be looking for huge cuts in its hospitals budget. Even so, on national hospital comparisons – the ACT is much more expensive per patient than other jurisdictions.
Perhaps the government is less vulnerable here through the structural changes that have been implemented and the approach taken by Meegan Fitzharris, who seems the most effective of the current ministers.
It is a different story in school education. Despite attempts to gild the lily on the quality of ACT schools, a study in October identified the ACT as “the worst performer on the Grattan Institute’s measure of student progress, which takes account of the fact that some states and territories have more advantaged students than others”. This should be humiliating for Labor.
The tactic used by Scott Morrison to win the Federal election will not be available to Chief Minister Andrew Barr. The lesson is clear. Rather than be attacked, Opposition Leader Alistair Coe is highly unlikely to present other than bland policies. Why would he? The government is vulnerable and it is much more likely his tactic will be to attack, attack, attack.
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.