Perpetual government will fail democracy

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“If the Liberal Party doesn’t find some way to form an alliance with a credible territory-wide minor party or high-profile and electable independents then it’s highly likely the Labor/Greens coalition will govern for many years to come,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE.  

FIRSTLY, congratulations to the Labor and Greens Parties for their win in the election. It was a significant achievement; the sixth straight win for Labor and the second victory in a row for the now formalised Labor/ Greens coalition.

Jon Stanhope.

The emergence of the coalition and the appointment of Greens members to the cabinet is an interesting and strategically savvy adaptation by Labor and the Greens to the rigours of the Hare-Clark system.

It represents a major challenge to the Liberal Party and indeed all minor parties and independents vying for election to the Legislative Assembly.

Reflecting on the outcome of the last two elections I think it highly likely that if the Liberal Party doesn’t find some way to form a similar alliance with a credible territory-wide minor party or high-profile and electable independents then it is highly likely that the Labor/Greens coalition will govern for many years to come.

As lovely as that may be for the Labor Party and the Greens I am not sure it is good for either the quality of governance or our democracy.

It is probably time, I think, that we had a look at the governance arrangements foisted on us 30 years ago. In four years time we will have had 12 consecutive years of majority government with a unicameral parliament (no upper house or house of review) and a single tier of government, i.e. no pesky mayor or local government to contend with.

This is a dream scenario in which to govern – for those governing – but probably not conducive to open, transparent and accountable government.

Excuse my cynicism, but it has lately been refreshed by my experience with two FOI requests I made more than four months ago for information on two subjects each of which was a major focus in the election campaign, namely the redevelopment of the Canberra Hospital and West Basin.

The requests were simple and straightforward, but after four months of requests by the ACT government to change the scope of the requests and for extensions of time for this and that and a decision to take legal action to challenge the decision of the ombudsman to overturn the decisions to refuse access to the information, none of the information I had sought has been provided. 

I know, of course, what the information I sought in relation to the Canberra Hospital will show. It will reveal that the timetable agreed, in 2010, for the refurbishment and/ or replacement of the entire Canberra Hospital precinct was abandoned by the then Labor/Greens government in about 2014/15. The funding dedicated to the hospital project and to public health was almost certainly then transferred to the light rail project.

I am not suggesting that the decision to abandon a previously announced decision to invest in public health and to transfer the funding to public transport was not a decision that Labor and the Greens did not have the power to take. 

However, I believe that they should explain the basis of the decision to prioritise public transport over public health and that attempts by the public to access information relevant to that decision in the lead up to an election should not have been resisted at every stage. 

In addition to taking a look at the structure of the Assembly and the form of governance in the ACT, both the FOI Act and the Ombudsman Act are clearly in need of review. I am beginning to fear that the ombudsman is about as useful as pockets in a shroud.

I was interested in a conversation with Fiona Carrick, a very good independent candidate for Murrumbidgee, who would have been an excellent member of the Assembly if elected, that one of her great frustrations as head of the Woden Valley Community Council and more recently as a candidate for Murrumbidgee was the refusal of Labor and the Greens to take the people of Canberra into their confidence on the question of the “opportunity cost” of light rail.

In other words, in deciding to proceed with the multi-billion dollar light rail project, what were the range of projects and initiatives that it was decided would need to go on the shelf, so that light rail could progress. 

Is, for example, the fact that up to 4000 Canberra children from families without private health insurance, many of them undoubtedly Aboriginal, wait up to four years for an appointment with a specialist in any way a consequence of the reduction in health funding of more than $100 million a year, in real terms, for the last six or more years directly attributable to the decision to fund the tram? The answer is clearly, yes.

Is the fact, as reported during the election campaign by the St Vincent de Paul Society, that there are in Canberra today 208 fewer units of public housing in Canberra than there were in 2010, despite the population having increased over that period by 65,000 people, directly attributable to the decision to fund the tram? The answer is clearly, yes.

Is the fact that the government has deliberately reduced the supply of land for detached housing in order to obtain super profits from land sales thereby excluding thousands of Canberrans from home ownership, attributable to the need to fund the tram? The answer is probably, yes.

I could go on and on.

A question I have asked myself is: Have we, in our overwhelming endorsement of the Labor/Greens government, declared that we are fine with this and that it reflects our values and priorities?

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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.

14 COMMENTS

  1. We would need to go back to 7 member electorates to get any independents now that a vote for the Greens is just a vote for Labor.

  2. Hare Clarke is a gerrymander.

    If the Brisbane City Council can do so much more with single seat Alderman, then the ACT could surely accept that single elected members can take responsibility for geographic areas and represent the needs of their electorate … and be judged accordingly.

  3. Health and hospital services in the ACT, I believe, are as good as they can be, given the constrained availability of health professionals – especially specialists – a problem not entirely within the Labor-Green government’s power to solve (looking at you, AMA and Australian medical training institutions!). The light rail project, expensive though it may be, is appreciated by many Canberrans who do not have private transport. It is a visionary investment that will hold Canberrans in good stead for generations to come.

    • The lack of specialists is partly a training shortage in Canberra. Doctors leave Canberra for specialist training and don’t come back. Then there is also a lack of suitably paid positions at the hospitals to overcome market failure.

    • The light rail at present makes public transport slower for most people, taking away are direct bus routes to the city and forcing us to get one bus to the tram stop, then get off the bus, then wait for the tram, then get on the tram, then go to the city.

      Why not just replace the Red Rapid route and leave the rest of the bus network alone?

  4. Hare-Clark is not a gerrymander; 7 members in 5 electorates would lower the threshold, but of the 2020 result may not significantly alter the mix of parties (proportionately) nor draw in many (any?) minor party candidates.

    It is unlikely that Canberrans really have an attachment to the type of very localised area that a single-member seat system would produce without reducing the size of the legislature. Doing that would re-create the problems identified in the 2013 review of the ACT electoral system: that the nature of the work of Ministers necessitated a larger legislature given the hybrid responsibilities of ministers (both like state and local administration tasks) found in the territory. That review did recommend 35 members for 2020, but this was rejected.

    Light rail may have put off the Canberra Hospital investment as the article claims, but its not as straight forward as presented likely (be interesting to see the results of these FIOA) given health funding went up and the cost of the rail has been spread out over the life of the contract without dramatically increasing spending on transport

    • Let’s work like with like here. Brisbane City Council has 26 Wards and a Council of 27 elected officials to service a population of (approx.) 2.3 million.

      Each Councillor “owns” and is therefore directly responsible for their Ward, regardless of their political hue. Responsibility is not shared with 4 others, and therefore issues of community support can be identified.

      Hare Clark eliminates the ability for Independents and minor parties to gain a seat … unlike the very start of voting in the Territory. So you end up with a endless succession of the same minority governments. It is flawed in practice, however much it is beloved in Govt 101 tutes.

      As to Ministerial workload as justification for larger Assemblies – a quick review of the portfolios quickly identifies a large number of questionable responsibilities that could only be construed as busy work.

      • Hare Clark isn’t the problem, it is how it has been refined in the ACT to the advantage of the national parties. Five-member electorates, party grouping on the ballot, pushing true independents to the far right column, and recommendation to number only five boxes (short-voting gerrymander) leads to results that diverge very significantly from first preferences. Robson rotation may even help parties, as staying in the count is an advantage.

        There were more independents and minor parties elected in early ACT elections because we initially had a single 17-member electorate, and then one electorate had 7-members prior to 2016.

        We are seeing the short-voting gerrymander coming back to bite the Liberals in Ginninderra. It is probably hurting the Belco Party so they don’t gain a seat from independent and minor party preferences, but when Stefaniak is excluded 54% of the votes sitting with him are exhausted. Of those with further preferences 64% is flowing to the Liberals, about 1,000 rather than a likely 2,000+.

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