With the next ACT election a year away, ‘CityNews’ reporter DANIELLE NOHRA gets an insight into how the Chief Minister rates his long-serving government’s chances of re-election.
ALMOST two decades of a Labor government in Canberra has done little for the confidence of the party, with Chief Minister Andrew Barr saying they’ll be the “underdogs” coming into next year’s election.
“The Opposition Leader, Alistair Coe’s already claimed that he’s on the path to victory and he’s very confident that he will win,” says Mr Barr, who’s been leading the ACT Labor Party for about five years.
“I know that his staff are sniffing around, measuring the curtains in the Chief Minister’s office, which is an indication of just how confident and cocky they are, but we know we’re the underdogs.”
In 2016, Mr Barr led ACT Labor to a minority government win, with 12 seats to the Labor Party and two seats to the Greens, forming a Labor/Greens government.
And, despite rumours of his pending departure, Mr Barr says he will again be leading Labor through the 2020 election push.
“I will be leading the Labor Party to next year’s election,” Mr Barr told “CityNews”.
“I’ve been aware of all sorts of rumours that I was moving to Melbourne or that my partner had already moved to Melbourne and that I wouldn’t be here now.
“All of those rumours have been proved to be just that, rumours. I think that the only way that you can put these rumours to bed is just simply to proceed doing your job.”
Mr Barr’s also squashed rumours about him not committing to a full term in politics.
“If you nominate for election you nominate for a parliamentary term,” he says.
But he admits it’s going to be a challenging task to remain in government.
“I understand not everyone will support us, that’s democracy but we will be out there working hard for every vote that we can attract next year,” he says.
One thing he’s not challenged by though, is the ACT Integrity Commission, which will start taking referrals in December.
“The entire period of self-government is open for referral,” he says.
“There may well be a range of vexatious referrals that will be dismissed almost immediately by the commission [and] I do not believe that there is anything that would warrant concern.”
A re-election will give Mr Barr a second full term as chief minister and Labor a sixth consecutive term, which isn’t too long for one government, according to Mr Barr.
“In the context of the ACT, it’s been a minority government through all but four years of that time and the personnel associated with the government has changed,” he says.
“There’s no one who’s currently in the government who was part of that government in 2001 and eight of the 12 members of the Labor Party were elected in 2016 so we’ve had quite considerable renewal over the last three years.”
With a policy agenda on infrastructure delivery and climate change response, plus traditional ACT election issues such as health, education, transport and local government responsibilities, Labor will also focus on its progressive agenda for Canberra.
“We’ll have a broad and progressive agenda for the city,” he says.
“It’s one that encompasses all of the areas of responsibility for a local and state government equivalent and we’ll be focused on providing the progressive alternative to the most conservative branch of the Liberal Party in Australia.
“My opponent Alistair Coe is the most conservative leader of the Liberal Party in ACT history and in any of the branches of the Liberal Party across this nation.
“He’s perfectly entitled to his views and I commend him on being steadfast in those conservative views in spite of that being obviously not where the majority of Canberrans lie,” he says.
“But what I don’t respect is pretending not to hold those views and that they’re not the reason he is in politics and the sorts of issues that he wishes to pursue. By all means be a conservative and advocate proudly for your conservative values but don’t pretend to be something else. If Canberrans want Tony-Abbott-meets-Scott-Morrison as their chief minister that’s what they’ll get in Alistair Coe.”
A year out to the election, it already feels like a different campaign, and with the light rail up and running the attention will be on new issues as well as some old issues, too, such as rates, which Mr Barr admits will continue to go up, but he says the worst is already in the past.
“I can say that the largest rate increases are now behind us because a lot of the tax reform work is now complete,” he says.
“Increases into the future will be smaller than they have been in recent years but the government does require an increase in rates each year in order to finance and fund health, education, police and emergency services and a forward infrastructure program.”
Q&A with Andrew Barr
Q: With a year until the election, what are the key issues for ACT Labor?
The election will be particularly focused on competing policy agendas across infrastructure delivery, climate change response, mitigation against the changing climate, which is linked to infrastructure, and then what we do as a community responding to climate change.
Traditional issues in ACT elections, [will be covered as well and we’ll] extensively canvas health, education, transport and our local government responsibilities.
How does a Barr government plan on linking climate change needs with infrastructure?
We need to build infrastructure that is resilient against more weather extremes. Our summers are hotter than they’ve ever been and we’ve had some of the warmest summers on record in recent times.
That means we need to augment our city’s electricity network so that we can continue to provide continuous power through those heat wave times and this is a challenge in southern Australia in particular as we’ve seen other states have blackouts as a result of energy infrastructure failure.
It’s why it’s been important to focus on renewable energy projects so having our power sources diversify to include solar and wind as well as hydro power that we can source from the Snowy Region and other power sources. But we will reach the equivalent of 100 per cent renewable electricity for the ACT next year.
We also need to look at the practical liveability of our city, so another example is planting more trees to improve micro climates [and] more shade from summer heat. Local swimming pools is another practical way that the government with its municipal responsibilities can look to build infrastructure to help people cope with a warmer climate.
There’s been a lot of complaints since the release of the new bus network, is ACT Labor planning on reinstating any of the stops that are subject to complaints? Will there be a restructure before the election?
Transport Minister Chris Steel has indicated that and that work is underway in relation to network 2020.
There will be some additions and some changing of some services but I think the description of that is not wholesaled change because the new network has delivered more passengers and more people using public transport.
But we do recognise there are some areas where people have raised legitimate concerns and we’re working to address those. Yes, we are endeavoring to respond to concerns that have been raised. [But] a public transport network can’t address every individual’s personal transport needs. It has to be focused on meeting the greatest needs of the greatest number of people but we will do our best to respond to individual concerns that have been raised.
When it comes to emergency department wait times, is there anything the government can do now to ease these problems sooner?
Part of the challenge is to provide options for people that don’t require them to attend accident and emergency at one of the hospitals so that’s where the nurse-led walk-in centres are a great example and where bulk billing GPs are another good example.
For many people, they don’t need to be at accident and emergency to receive the healthcare that they need, they can get that healthcare for free closer to home and that’s one of the things that we’ll be looking to encourage through the nurse-led walk-in centres and the bulk-billing GP program.
After about five years as Chief Minister, what are your highlights?
There’s been a number across different portfolios. It’s been terrific to see the success of Stage 1 of light rail. I’m particularly pleased that the ACT has the highest “yes” vote in the marriage equality referendum.
I’m delighted that we’ve been able to reform our city’s CTP system to extend insurance coverage to all motorists and to move to a no fault system that will be cheaper for everyone so that’s a particularly significant reform in recent years.
I’m delighted that the infrastructure program that we’ve just launched builds upon a very significant program of infrastructure investment. I’m pleased that we’ll reach 100 per cent renewable electricity for the city next year.
I’m pleased that Canberra is a refugee welcome zone, that we’ve had the highest level of economic growth of any jurisdiction in the country over the last five years, that our population has been increasing faster than the national average.
Just this month, I’m delighted to see that we now have an all-time record level of people in employment in the ACT – 235,000 Canberrans are in jobs and that we have 8600 job vacancies at the moment in Canberra and 8400 unemployed people so with the lowest unemployment rate in the country we now have a situation where there are more job vacancies than there are unemployed people in Canberra.
Canberrans are the healthiest Australians, they’re the most engaged in sport recreation and culture, they live the longest, they’re the best educated and they’re the wealthiest Australians so I think there’s a lot to be proud of in our city and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to be Chief Minister during this period.