Limping Canberra trumped by Tassie’s response

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“I refuse to accept that the tram should have been accorded priority over the health care needs of the community,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE. 

SCOTT Morrison is to be congratulated for the audacious scale and scope of the stimulus packages which the Commonwealth government has announced and which it is rolling out. 

Jon Stanhope.

It’s fair to say that the sheer scale of the overall package, currently in the order of $200 billion, has taken most of us by surprise and even the Prime Minister’s army of committed enemies has struggled to coherently decry the Commonwealth’s response.

It is probably inevitable in the face of the cataclysmic impact that COVID-19 will have on the economy and the community that no stimulus package will ever gain unanimous support.

It is also almost certainly the case that no matter how generous any such package may be that it will ever be considered generous enough. I note for example the immediate response of UnionsACT that the Commonwealth’s $130 billion job-support initiative was totally inadequate.

While the Commonwealth’s response, at every level, to the coronavirus pandemic has quite rightly attracted our attention and been analysed and critiqued by economists, the media and the unions, there has been less attention paid to the nature, adequacy and level of support being advanced by the states and territories.

It is, of course, difficult to compare the relative merit of each of the states and territories’ response to the crisis because of the size of their economies as well as differing economic structures and tax bases. 

However, it is reasonable, for the purposes of comparison, to use the level of net debt to operating revenue of each of the jurisdictions.

It is notable that the average of the net debt to operating revenue of all states and territories in 2019 was 24 per cent while in the ACT it was 40 per cent, but forecast in the 2019-20 budget and the 2020 budget review to rise to 63 per cent within the next two years.

It is instructive, in light of this, to compare the response to date of the ACT government to that of the Tasmanian government since Tasmania is the jurisdiction closest to us in population and the size of our respective budgets and economy. 

The ACT budget is in deficit with the budget review, tabled in February, revealing the net operating balance was negative $453 million while the Tasmanian budget is in surplus and that the ACT has net debt of more than $3 billion (forecast to grow to $4 billion in two years) while Tasmania has net debt of just more than $100 million (forecast to grow to $1 billion in three years).

In the last two weeks, Tasmania has announced two stimulus packages worth $985 million including $50 million to fast-track maintenance, $20 million in interest-free loans to affected businesses and payments of $250 for individuals and $1000 for families required to self-isolate as well as $150 million to buy equipment and supplies and provide additional staff to combat COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the ACT government has committed a total of $351 million (ie $634 million less than Tasmania) in an initial package of $137 million including a non-means-tested $150 rates rebate and a $2622 credit to businesses for commercial rates bills and a further package of $214 million of which $126 million is for health infrastructure and staffing including a $23 million “pop up” accident and emergency facility at  Canberra Hospital. 

Incidentally, those of us over 65 years of age and forced to contemplate our mortality as coronavirus goes its merry way are praying this latest “pop up” will be more successful than the ACT government’s last and ill-fated flirtation with a “pop up” facility, namely that at West Basin.

I do, of course, wish the ACT government and all those in the ACT public service who serve it and us every success in combating and responding to COVID-19. We are depending on them. Our lives are literally in their  hands. I have, as I always have had, a deep faith in the professionalism and dedication of the ACT Public Service.

For myself I just can’t help wishing that the government hadn’t decided, in 2015, to abandon the affordable and fully developed hospital redevelopment plan put in place in 2010-11 by then Deputy Chief Minister and Minister for Health Katy Gallagher that would have seen the entire Canberra Hospital precinct redeveloped and somewhere in the order of an additional 150 public hospital beds currently in operation. 

I refuse to accept that the tram should have been accorded priority over the health care needs of the community.

My confidence would also be much higher than it is if the current government had not at the same time reduced funding for ACT Health Services by at least $100 million a year, in real terms, over the last five years. Stay safe.

Dr Khalid Ahmed and I have posted to the University of Canberra Policy Space blog a detailed analysis of the current state of the ACT Budget here.


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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.


  1. Jon Stanhope – please consider returning to politics to provide a rational middle-of-the road alternative!

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