News location:

Canberra Today 16°/18° | Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

How the Libs missed the moment to be moderate

Cartoon: Paul Dorin

“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.

Michael Moore.

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.

Who can be trusted?

In a world of spin and confusion, there’s never been a more important time to support independent journalism in Canberra.

If you trust our work online and want to enforce the power of independent voices, I invite you to make a small contribution.

Every dollar of support is invested back into our journalism to help keep strong and free.

Become a supporter

Thank you,

Ian Meikle, editor

Michael Moore

Michael Moore

Share this

3 Responses to How the Libs missed the moment to be moderate

Tom says: 8 November 2023 at 1:45 pm

Bad laws are bad laws Michael so Kudos to the Liberals for standing up against this one. If the Liberals are to go along with every crazy idea Labor and the Greens have in the name of appearing ‘moderate’ why would people vote for them when there is no point of difference. I think people are far more concerned with the neglect of the suburbs and the current mob not prioritising local government services which is why it was pleasing to see Elizabeth Lee announce her policy this week to try and address that.

Palmerston's Lament says: 8 November 2023 at 3:04 pm

Hmmm. Interesting argument but one that does not take legal consequence into account. “Moderate” does not, and should not, automatically presume soft on drugs or on any social issue.

Rather “moderate”, given its most liberal interpretation (pun intended), sits central and would best be described as social democrats insofar as issue are looked at holistically for the betterment of society. I suggest these laws are not that.

Now a clever Liberal leader, oxymoron and all, would have publicly stated that Green/ALP have the numbers but we (Libs) require a clause of review to be inserted to test the effectiveness of these changes. This would have placed pressure on those sponsoring the changes to appear … moderate.

Palmerston's Quincyist Lament says: 9 November 2023 at 7:38 am

I note, with wry self-reflection, the results of the waste water analysis for illicit drug use in Australia. Canberrans appear to like heroin and oxycodone more than other cities and cannabis traces have increased since that penalty was relaxed.

But the best comment to the article, the most sarcastically insightful, would have to be “I’d be more interested in seeing the usage rates of Ritalin and SSRIs, given the public service is here.”.


Leave a Reply

Related Posts

Follow us on Instagram @canberracitynews