“The strident approach the Canberra Liberals have taken opposing drug decriminalisation legislation was simply falling into a trap set by Labor,” says political columnist MICHAEL MOORE.
THE Canberra Liberals missed the best opportunity to let the ACT electorate know they were no longer the right-wing conservative force that has cost them previous elections.
Indications over the last three years of a more moderate Liberal Opposition under the leadership of Elizabeth Lee were blasted out of the water.
The strident approach they have taken opposing drug decriminalisation legislation was simply falling into a trap set by Labor. It was possible to be much more tactical. The legislation moves emphasis of drug policy for personal use from the criminal justice system to the health system.
As an attempt to improve her standing with small businesses, Lee argued that she had heard from business owners who were worried they would not be able to take action if they had drug-affected customers.
She could have just explained that the legislation allows police to issue an on-the-spot fine or, where appropriate, to charge the person if they consider the offence warranted a more forceful approach.
In 1992 the ACT Assembly enacted very similar legislation regarding cannabis. It moved from a criminal offence to an on-the-spot fine at the same level as the current legislation. The world, as we know it, did not end. This 2023 legislation has a significant improvement in that it encourages those who use such drugs for personal use, to consider treatment.
Lee had options that would have allowed her party to be seen as less conservative. She could have shown the sort of leadership that we saw decades ago from Kate Carnell. This would mean supporting the legislation perhaps with some minor amendments to be negotiated with the government.
The presumption is that she could not get the numbers in the Liberal party room to support the legislation. She had another alternative. A more sensible approach would have been to allow a “conscience vote”. Having the Canberra Liberals split on an issue like this would have taken no-one by surprise.
Even two of the current MLAs from within the party room would have been enough to illustrate that the party is changing. If Lee was one of them, it would have been even more powerful.
There are nine elected members of the Liberal Party. Surely, at least a couple could see their way to supporting such sensible legislation.
There is a precedent. Jeremy Hanson took a different approach to Lee in the recent referendum.
Under the Hare-Clark electoral system, it is possible for voters to support a specific candidate from the list. Lee could have provided options for those voters who are fed up with more than 23 years of Labor government, and looking down the barrel of almost three decades.
The third option was to go reasonably quiet on the legislation. Let it go through without the Abbott-style oppose, oppose, oppose. There could have been a soft statement along the lines that we have real doubts about the legislation. It is going to be evaluated in two years, and following that evaluation the legislation ought to be reconsidered.
Such an approach would have seemed sensible and moderate.
Instead, the leader of the opposition argues: “The Canberra Liberals strongly fought against its introduction. We did not support the legislation then; we do not support it now and we have committed to repealing this law in government”.
Lee was conveniently kept in the dark about the federal Liberal Party’s attempt by shadow attorney-general, Michaelia Cash to overturn ACT laws. In this case, at least, Ms Lee was also strident in supporting territory rights saying she did not agree with the federal party’s plans and was “very concerned” at any attempt to diminish territory rights.
Actions by the Canberra Liberals that push them further to the conservative side of politics undoes attempts by the opposition leader to position the party as moderate. It also opens the opportunities for a more moderate group of candidates to fill the space between the Liberals, on the one side, and the Labor and Greens parties on the other.
There should be a lesson for the Canberra Liberals from the election of David Pocock to the Senate. Canberra Liberals have a year to go to convince voters they have finally become more moderate. It is not looking good!
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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