Less accountability is the price of cosy coalition

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The Greens’ Shane Rattenbury and Labor’s Andrew Barr sign the new parliamentary agreement.

“Decades of Labor government have seen Canberra transitioning to a Melbourne-like downtown with leadership from developers rather than planners. Unfortunately, under this agreement, the ability for the Greens to manage this accountability has been severely constrained,” writes MICHAEL MOORE.

THE Labor and Greens’ political parties have signed an agreement that has evolved from previous government arrangements into a true coalition. 

Michael Moore.

This transition provides for a strong, progressive government and, it may be argued, reflects the outcome of the ACT election. The price will be less accountability.

The “Parliamentary & Government Agreement” even identifies this coalition as a “Labor-Greens government”. 

Signed by all Labor and Greens’ MLAs, the agreement commits the coalition to a close working arrangement with “a strategy to address the major social, economic and environmental challenges society faces”. Chief Minister Andrew Barr retains responsibility for allocation of portfolios for all Labor ministers and the three Greens’ ministers.

The guarantee to support supply and confidence in Andrew Barr as Chief Minister provides for stable government. There are provisions for dissent on other issues, including room for moving amendments in the cabinet process and also on the floor of the Assembly. However, there are serious restrictions regarding the extent of dissent. 

The context is within agreement that “this effective coalition is built on trust, mutual respect and our many shared values and goals”. And later, acknowledgement that “this may involve compromise on both our parts and will require innovative approaches to reach agreement on occasion”.

The restrictive approach looks like, say, an election campaign. For example, announcements in the media must include a given text: “This initiative [fulfils/progresses] a commitment of the parliamentary agreement of the 10th Legislative Assembly by the ACT Labor-Greens government”. Included in the agreement as an appendix, and therefore presumably part of the restrictions, are the election platforms of both parties. 

The committee system of the ACT Legislative Assembly has been a key feature of accountability since self-government. The agreement is that backbench Labor and Greens’ members restrict the amount of freedom they have within the committee system to be responsive to community views and to maintain checks and balances on government and the administration. 

Decades of Labor government have seen Canberra transitioning to a Melbourne-like downtown with leadership from developers rather than planners. Despite significant failures in this area, the electorate has not been prepared to trust the Liberals with planning. Unfortunately, under this agreement, the ability for the Greens to manage this accountability has now been severely constrained. 

An Assembly committee ought to be carefully providing oversight, an opportunity to understand community concerns and be in a position to make recommendations on how to improve planning in Canberra. It is of concern that the commitments in this agreement so strongly undermine that ability.

The positive side of this Labor-Greens coalition government is a serious commitment to implement the policies that were taken to the election by both parties. 

Fundamental is protecting the ACT economy while also protecting the environment. The agreement supports “the government’s economic and fiscal strategy, as set out in the August 2020 ‘Economic and Fiscal Update’, of strengthening the ACT economy to protect Canberrans’ jobs and the community as we emerge from a global economic crisis, protecting the ACT’s strong credit rating and ensuring sound public finances and balance sheet over the medium term”.

Environmental protection includes, “building on our achievement of 100 per cent renewable electricity by taking the next steps necessary to reduce our city’s greenhouse gas emissions, and show other jurisdictions what is possible to achieve in a short period of time, while supporting all Canberra households through the necessary transition”.

If things go awry there is an “out” for either party. However, the exemption is only in “instances of proven corruption, conduct that threatens public confidence in the integrity of government or public administration, gross negligence, or significant and intentional non-adherence to this agreement or the Ministerial Code of Conduct”.

The governance of Canberra over the next four years has been clearly set out in the “Parliamentary & Government Agreement”. At times this tight coalition will prove challenging, particularly for backbench members of both parties. 

It will be interesting to see if this coalition delivers on its promise “as a two-party government to govern with, for and in the best interests of Canberrans” as “the most progressive and reformist administration in Australia”.

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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