‘Invisible’ Canberra Libs chafing at the bit 

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“It takes just two government ministers to postpone an ACT election. This is an astonishing power. The Assembly is not needed… This extreme power is in place for unusual and disrupting circumstances such as an earthquake. Or perhaps a pandemic!” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE.

HOW frustrating is it for the Canberra Liberals with less than five months to the next ACT election? They must be chafing at the bit. Getting a voice has been nigh on impossible. 

Michael Moore.

In contrast, Labor’s Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith have had constant positive exposure in the media over COVID-19.

An attempt by Liberal Opposition Leader Alistair Coe to grab some attention by supporting businesses to open early might have backfired. On face value, the push for “a more tailored approach to reopening the local economy” seems sensible. The notion that opening up Canberra with what was the government’s “one-size-fits-all-approach” seems ripe for criticism.

However, the public servants in Canberra are voters and they all recognise that complex policy approaches are difficult to implement, fraught with problems and take a huge amount of administration. It is desperation when a conservative part of our political system is making a call for more bureaucracy when, for so long, the mantra has been small government.

On the other hand, the approach is there to support the hospitality industry and to encourage people back to work. Coe explained: “Venues with a single but large dining area could spaciously separate tables and chairs, and provide table service only. The government could require temperature checks and hygiene officers to remain on site”.

But he was to have the rug taken from under him by the Chief Minister, whose approach takes into account the amount of space available ranging from five people in 20sqm to 20 people where more than 80sqm is available.

Winning even one election point has been seriously challenging. The electorate should give credit to the Canberra Liberals for supporting the government and the health advice during a time of the pandemic crisis. 

However, while the Canberra Liberals were holding their collective tongues, the Health Minister was growing in confidence and impact, media interview by media interview. At the height of the pandemic she answered questions effectively and presented the government approach with appropriate composure and equanimity. 

The COVID-19 pandemic really has handed the Chief Minister and the Health Minister a considerable boost in terms of the election. The response from the Opposition has been that Coe “stands ready to work with the ACT government to reopen Canberra”. Excellent. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t help with chances at the October election.

Through no fault of their own, things could get worse for the Canberra Liberals. The election could be postponed.

One possibility is for the ACT Legislative Assembly to legislate a postponement of the election beyond October. The Assembly, as a whole, could move amendments to the ACT Electoral Act 1992. Depending on progress in dealing with the pandemic and the possibility of a “second wave”, they might be tempted.

Alternatively, it takes just two government ministers to postpone an election. Section 159 of the ACT Electoral Act states: “The executive may, by written notice, make provision for extending the time for holding the election”. This is an astonishing power. The Assembly is not needed. Just two ministerial signatures are required under the definition of “the executive”. This extreme power is in place for unusual and disrupting circumstances such as an earthquake. Or perhaps a pandemic!

Fears of public reaction should this section of the Act be misused, probably curtails the misuse of this power. However, should a government feel that it is under threat and just need more time, the temptation is there.

Apart from the pandemic, Labor is ripe for criticism. A shadow still hangs over the government regarding land deals and there is still a conflict of interest over gambling and the Labor-owned or affiliated clubs. These are just two examples. After the best part of two decades in government there is a dangerous complacency. So many more issues need to be aired in the light of an 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.

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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