Will ACT Labor suffer the federal party’s fate?

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WELL, wasn’t that a hoot? Leading in the polls every day for three years except on one day. How cruel is that? It really doesn’t seem fair.

Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope.

Tony Abbott, who in my opinion gave the most gracious, thoughtful and dignified speech of any delivered on election night, was the first to identify the phenomenon of swings to the Liberals in non-urban and outer-metropolitan working-class electorates and swings to the Labor Party in middle and upper-middle-class, leafy, inner-city electorates.

I’m fairly sure that if one was able to drill down into the vote in Canberra, the theory would prove to be as relevant as across the rest of Australia.

The Labor vote in Canberra was consistently strong across all three electorates and mirrored the vote achieved in the ACT in every Federal election for the last 30 years. With respect to Labor’s candidates, Bill Hayden’s famous “drover’s dog” would have polled equally as well.

It would be interesting to know within which demographic the 40 per cent of Canberrans who didn’t vote Labor sit. My instinct is that a large proportion would fall within the bottom two income quintiles. The Labor/Greens base in the ACT is clearly the public-service-dominated middle and upper-middle-class who sit in the upper two income quintiles.

A majority of the people of Canberra are socially progressive and Labor’s policies on issues such as climate change, wage fairness, indigenous affairs and health together with its general support for the vulnerable and marginalised would have resonated with them. And Labor’s franking-credit policy would have had less impact here than elsewhere because of the high proportion of residents who, as Commonwealth employees, benefit from one of the most generous superannuation schemes in Australia.

With an ACT election just over a year away, the question is reasonably being asked whether the strong Labor vote will be repeated. Labor is certainly dominant in the ACT, but the Hare Clark electoral system is an equaliser.

The Labor loss also means that Bill Shorten’s promise of $200 million for stage two of the tram is dead. Chief Minister Andrew Barr has rushed to defer commencement of stage two until at least 2025 or, in other words, until after the 2024 election.

On the face of it, this is quite bizarre. The 2016 territory poll was a light rail election. The most significant commitment made by Labor and the Greens in that campaign was the construction of stage two of light rail immediately upon completion of stage one. The election was arguably won on the back of that promise.

The promise was not subject to the outcome of a business case or funding support from the Federal government.

The announcement that light rail stage two is to be deferred for at least seven years is certainly the singlemost significant broken election promise since self-government 30 years ago. However, I’m not the least surprised by the announcement it will be dropped, at least for the time being.

The parlous state of the ACT Budget is obvious to anyone who cares to look at it or who is dependent on a range of core services delivered by the government.

For example, look at the health system or the supply of land to meet the housing choice of residents. My colleague Dr Khalid Ahmed has calculated that hospital funding in the ACT has not kept pace with growth in demand and the increasing cost of wages and medicines to the extent of $483 million over four years.

The government has also tailored its land-supply policies to maximise revenue at the expense of housing affordability. “Housing affordability in Canberra” has become an oxymoron.

It is quite likely that a majority of Canberra residents have not noticed the impact of these cuts. If you have private health insurance and a hospital of choice, then it is almost certain that you haven’t, unlike thousands of fellow residents, been waiting years for routine elective surgery.

And if you own a detached house on a large block, the fact that the government is using its monopoly control to strangle the supply of land means the value of your house has spiralled upwards, thank you very much.

The only two areas of public expenditure that have seen significant growth in recent years are public transport (light rail) and renewable energy. The increases in rates and charges and the cuts to services to fund them have negatively impacted thousands of not so well off Canberrans.

In my opinion, the bemusement (if not bewilderment) expressed across Australia that people could possibly have voted against Labor because of its support for climate change, reticence in declaring its opposition to the opening of a new coal mine or seeking to more fairly distribute income devoted to franking credits is a consequence of not understanding the direct and negative impact those policies had on the lives of the people directly affected.

My prediction is that Labor could very well lose the next ACT election and, if so, it will be for similar reasons.

ACT Labor gives every appearance of being oblivious to the impact that its policies are having on those Canberrans it purports to speak for – battlers and blue-collar workers. Another unfortunate similarity I am increasingly fearful ACT Labor shares with its just-vanquished federal colleagues is the personal approval rating of their respective leaders.



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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.

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