With a year to the next ACT election, reporter DANIELLE NOHRA talks to an Opposition Leader concerned about debt and questioning Labor’s record in health, education and integrity.
AFTER 19 years of a Labor government, Liberal Opposition Leader, Alistair Coe, says the ACT desperately needs a change.
“After 19 years, the ACT should be Utopia,” says Mr Coe, who became the leader of the Canberra Liberals on the back of the party’s loss in the 2016 election. He took over from now shadow attorney-general Jeremy Hanson.
“Labor have had every opportunity under the sun to make the ACT the place that it should be,” he says.
“Despite all those opportunities, [despite] record revenue and 19 years [of Labor], do we have a health system that we deserve? Are our schools performing as well as they could? Are we treating indigenous Canberrans with the respect they deserve? Are people coming out of our jail better than when they went in?
“There are many shortcomings as a result of this government’s mismanagement and we desperately need a change.”
Even though the Canberra Liberals believe the ACT needs a change, Mr Coe, an ACT Legislative Member since 2008, admits it’ll be a tough challenge but with the right team he’s optimistic they’ll win.
That team will be led by Mr Coe, who feels secure in his leadership, despite criticism from ACT Labor about him being too conservative for a progressive Canberra.
“For people who profess that they don’t like to use labels, Labor sure do like to use them,” Mr Coe says.
“It’s a party that is very disrespectful [and so is] the arrogance that we see on a daily basis by the Labor government.
“It’s a political stunt that the Labor Party wheel out on a regular occasion. “What’s particularly evident is that [Chief Minister] Andrew Barr has no respect for people who disagree with him and if you want to govern for all people, that means respecting those that have a different world view.
“There is a multitude of views in Canberra, there is diversity in Canberra and we need to respect everybody, even those who disagree with you.
“I am never going to seek to impose my views on anyone. I will continue to stand by my principles and my conviction but I don’t hold any animosity for those who hold a different view to me.”
With just under a year to the 2020 ACT election, Mr Coe says issues such as integrity in government and the cost of living, including freezing rates for four years and the cost of houses, will be central to the Canberra Liberals’ campaign.
“[The ACT government] has a vested interest in telling Canberrans that we’re running out of land to therefore drive up the cost of land,” Mr Coe says.
“The ACT’s got no shortage of land and it’s one of the myths being put out by the government.
“Whenever you drive around the city or if you happen to fly in and out of Canberra you know just how much land there is both in the ACT itself and surrounding our borders.
“And it just doesn’t stack up that land just a few kilometres into NSW should be significantly cheaper than here in the ACT.
“The vast majority of land in the ACT is developed by the ACT government so for them to profiteer on the back of Canberra families is pretty disrespectful.
“There is no shortage of families that are deliberately moving to Googong or Bungendore or Murrumbateman or Sutton in search of cheaper suburban land that they’re unable to get in the ACT.
“It’s pretty disrespectful that we drive young families in particular out of the ACT due to the prices set by the ACT government for land.”
As part of a Canberra Liberals solution, Mr Coe says there needs to be consistent and responsible releases of land at a faster rate.
“And that doesn’t mean dumping land into the market because that, of course, has consequences,” he says.
As for integrity in the government, and with the ACT Integrity Commission starting to hear referrals in December, Mr Coe says there’s no shortage of potential subject matter for the integrity commissioner to investigate.
“I think at the top of the list it would be some of the land deals including the Dickson land swap and rural lease issues,” he says.
“When the government has been in for as long as it has, it’s no surprise that the complacency and disrespect are becoming hallmarks of the way they operate.”
While the Canberra Liberals have a long year ahead, the government’s “mismanaged Budget”, which ACT Labor say is “balanced”, might make the ACT Liberals’ job harder if it successfully wins government, but Mr Coe says they’ll play the cards they get.
“The interest bill is growing and I don’t think we’ve had the infrastructure investments to warrant the huge debt that we’ve got,” he says.
“If there was a balanced Budget, debt should not be growing, debt is growing in the ACT. We’ve got a government that’s got debts growing to $3 billion and huge interest repayments to pretty much cover their day-to-day expenses.”
Q&A with Alistair Coe
Q: With a year until the election, what do you think the issues are for voters?
A: It’s going to be the cost of living in the ACT is going to be central to the campaign, the quality of service delivery and integrity in government.
Are issues like rates and trams still a focus for the Liberals?
Well obviously the light rail discussion has been lengthy and the fact that we’ve got Stage One means that it’s a different kind of discussion that we’re now having. We’ve got to ask the question: Is it going to be a network or is it just going to be a single line between Gungahlin and the city? We’re quite open to the idea of light rail going to Woden and Tuggeranong, and Belconnen to the airport but it’s still got to be done at the right time and at the right price, and there is very limited information available about just how much it’s going to cost.
[As for] rates, it will continue to be an issue in the territory as long as rates keep on going up the way that they are.
As an occasional bus traveller, are people right to be complaining about the timetable? What does the ACT Liberals plan to do?
Where there’s dissatisfaction is where you have roundabout bus routes or you have bus routes that have been cancelled. The government turned off 750 bus stops as part of the last network change and that’s had a pretty devastating impact on tens of thousands of Canberrans. While a lot of people can afford to drive cars and a lot of people have that option, there are many people that don’t and for those people in particular, the changes to the bus network have hit them pretty hard.
We’ve already committed to reestablishing the school services [but] as for what actual bus network we’ll inherit come October next year remains to be seen because I expect that the government will have a few changes between now and then.
Will Labor’s SPIRE project fix the health issues in the ACT?
There’s still very sketchy information about SPIRE and there’s no shortage of complaints from Garran residents about the plan. But in terms of the actual proposal, I am yet to see a really considered body of work about what it actually will include and how the hospital is going to function following the construction of SPIRE. It’s already been delayed for several years, it’s been promised now by the government on numerous occasions. Canberrans would be right to be sceptical as to whether it’s actually going to be delivered.
Can anything else be done to tackle the problems in Canberra hospitals before the completion of SPIRE?
Infrastructure is going to be part of the solution but there’s no reason why emergency department waiting times can’t come down, there’s no reason why elective surgery waiting times can’t come down now. There are obviously some cultural and management issues at the hospital and the government was in denial for more than a decade about these issues and whilst they now acknowledge that there are problems, whether they’re actually following through with the required solutions is not evident in all the indicators that we’re seeing.
What’s adrift in Canberra’s education system?
The ACT education system really used to be the envy of the nation and used to stand out for its excellence and while we’re very fortunate to have so many great teachers, it seems that school communities are not given the autonomy and the flexibility and resources to actually serve their particular community or their particular cohort. We have a lot more that needs to be done to properly recognise the importance of the vocational sector. The way the government tries to create this one-size-fits-all approach does a disservice to kids. At the moment it seems that the entire education system is geared towards people going to university and whilst that’s going to serve many, many students, that should not be the only path that’s encouraged to students in the territory.
What do you think about the ACT Labor’s obsession with high-rise infill?
We very much believe in choice of housing types in the ACT. At the moment it seems the ACT government seems determined to push people into apartments. I’ve got no problems with the provision of apartments in the ACT, it just shouldn’t be the only option. Canberra can be the best of both worlds. We should allow suburbs to be suburbs and town centres to be town centres. Where I think things go wrong is where you have apartment complexes without the much-needed infrastructure to support people in these complexes. That infrastructure is both economic but also social and environmental, so it’s being within walking distance of shops and services, but also actually having places to socialise and for recreation.
ACT Labor has committed to 100 per cent renewables by 2020, you’d have to congratulate them on that wouldn’t you?
Yes, you can congratulate them but they’re spending other people’s money to get there so you could say that Labor and the Greens deserve congratulations but again they’ve done so by spending taxpayers’ money so if anybody deserves congratulations and thanks it should be the ratepayers of Canberra for funding this achievement. The Labor Party and the Greens are very quick to take the glory that other people have paid for.
Does the Liberal/Coe government have plans of its own to tackle climate change locally?
With regard to renewable energy, the ACT government has already committed to these long-term contracts so an ACT Liberal government will continue to source that renewable power due to those contracts that are in play. The Canberra Liberals have a responsible plan to deal with climate change and the environment but it involves having very practical measures and that includes what’s already being achieved in the electricity space but also making sure that we have a higher uptake in public transport and making sure that we have genuine tree canopies right across our city rather than denying current and future generations of Canberrans a lack of suburban trees because of a lack of their bad planning. Unfortunately, there are suburbs in Canberra that will never have appropriate tree canopies because of Labor/Greens planning decisions. They can grandstand on a lot of these environmental and climate change issues but the tangible legacy for many Canberra suburbs is a lack of trees forever.
You’ve been leader for three years now, how would you describe your leadership style?
The Canberra Liberals have been unified over the last three years and I think we’ve done a good job at holding the government to account and [we’re] in a position where we can win the election next year. Nobody gets into politics to be in opposition, it’s rubbish, nobody enjoys it, but it’s a role that we take seriously.
We’ve proposed many alternatives along the way but increasingly as we lead up to the decision point for Canberrans in October next year, that’s when the rubber hits the road in regards to policy announcements and commitments for the future.
How have you been going, independently, as the leader of the Liberals?
It’s pretty hard to do a self appraisal but I’ve been delighted to lead the Liberals these last three years. There’s no doubt that it’s a tough job on any given issues. You get people who say that you went too far and others that say that you didn’t go far enough. That’s just the way it is, however, we’re excited that as we get to this backend of the term, that’s when oppositions clearly become alternative governments and that’s where you strategically release your policies in order to convince as many people to vote for you on that Saturday in October. You’ve got to be strategic, you’ve got to do things to optimise your vote on that day and as frustrating as it can be, we’ve got to do everything that we can to make sure that we’re in the best possible position in October next year.
Parties often change leadership before an election, do you feel secure in your leadership?
I feel very secure. We’ve demonstrated a lot of unity over the last three years. Political parties have a broad range of views just like the community at large has a broad range of views. Sometimes it can be a juggling act to make sure that we’re encompassing all those views but we’re fortunate that every issue that goes into our party room comes out better having had a robust discussion, so we’re fortunate that we do have a genuine diversity in our team and people from different backgrounds and different experiences, which contributes to a well-rounded party.