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When trust runs dry and tram spinners take over 

“As far as the lobbyists were concerned, the tram was about opening up development opportunities between Civic and Gungahlin.” Photo: Paul Costigan

“Once people learnt of the reality of how the tram had been funded, there was a reduction in trust in both the Greens and Labor. People now know that they have been and continue to be scammed,” writes “Canberra Matters” columnist PAUL COSTIGAN.

IN 2012 when the debate about the tram kicked off, there were several people who influenced thoughts on whether the city should have a tram.

The first were Walter and Marion Griffin, the second was Katy Gallagher and the third was Zed Seselja. 

The Griffins, being from Chicago, understood the benefits of a compact city and an integrated public transport system that included trams. Their plans for Canberra were for a compact city, with semi-detached housing and for public transport networked through that city. 

While Canberra today is much larger and different to the Griffins’ concept, plus in the 1950-60s the planners emphasised cars (thanks to the oil lobbyists), the idea that the ACT government was again thinking in 2012 about an integrated network that included trams seemed reasonable.

When Gallagher’s ACT government talked about the first tram proposals, she gave assurances that there was no open cheque book for the tram. There were debates about the fate of the cherished Northbourne Avenue trees, about how much of the social housing would survive and whether a tram/light rail was actually the best option. The business case for the tram was not clear. 

Gallagher’s government had the benefit of trust in government inherited from former chief minister Jon Stanhope. 

The Canberra Liberals under the leadership of Seselja conducted negative campaigns loudly opposing loads of stuff. Seselja’s leadership did not build trust in his brand of the Canberra Liberals. The Liberals lost the 2012 ACT election. Seselja soon departed local politics, but his influence continues to this day.

The voters generally trusted that Gallagher’s government would do the right thing when it came to whether there should be a tram or not. Those outside the Greenslabor inner circles knew little about the games at play and that the insiders were determined that the tram would happen no matter what evidence was put to the contrary.

At the 2012 elections, the leader of the ACT Greens lost her seat and the leadership was handed to Shane Rattenbury. A deal was done for Labor to support the Greens’ proposal for the tram. The tram was favoured by the developer lobby and so it became a policy owned by ACT Labor. 

As far as the lobbyists were concerned, the tram was about opening up development opportunities between Civic and Gungahlin. Follow the money!

The Greenslabor government and its supporters constantly play with statistics to convince themselves about the success of the tram. For the development lobby, these statistics are irrelevant as the success of the tram has been the creation of profits. The presence of the tram along that corridor is a gift from the ratepayers to the developers. Building the Better Normal.

Greenslabor’s twisted version of being progressive is to justify the unjustifiable with a flow of carefully crafted deceptive spin from the chief minister’s well-paid communication consultants. The tram looks good for photo opportunities, it moves people along the Civic-Gungahlin transport corridor (there is no other choice except cars), but it has turned out to be bright-red folly paid for by reducing services in other portfolios. 

The financing of the tram drew funding allocations away from essential government programs such as social housing, the environment, climate change, city maintenance, the police, health and education. 

From December 2014 Andrew Barr has been the chief minister and treasurer making those decisions. Once people learnt of the reality of how that tram had been funded, there was a reduction in trust in both the Greens and Labor. People now know that they have been and continue to be scammed. 

Back in 2012 Seselja’s negative campaigns drove voters to consider any alternative and even with some doubts, the majority voted for Greenslabor. That electoral success was translated as a vote for the tram. While this may be partly true, a major factor in the 2012 election was Seselja. This rejection of the Liberal’s negative campaigns was repeated in 2016 and 2020.

For the last decade the progressive voting electorate has essentially had little choice – the not-so-progressive Greenslabor and that included a de-facto vote for the tram. 

People remain desperate for an opportunity to vote for a real progressive ACT government that is honest, does not use spin and can be trusted with how they make decisions. Will the October 2024 elections be any different?

Paul Costigan is a commentator on cultural and urban matters. There are more of his columns at


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7 Responses to When trust runs dry and tram spinners take over 

Palmerston's Lament says: 5 July 2023 at 8:21 am

I will watch with interest any comments on this piece. The tram has changed the nature of this town, and has become synonymous with the Chief Minister, to the point they are often interchangeable.

But, like the Sydney monorail and the Springfield monorail, the march of days will always show up what is folly and what reality. I strongly suspect that a post-Barr governance structure will collapse in on itself as his character is the glue holding institutions together.

Much like Queensland under Joh, we are like flies caught in amber. There is a 10 plus year recovery ahead of us.

Separately, I would like to drill down more on the cognitive dissonance displayed by the Greens over the past 20 years. Is the chimera of “power” so addictive that their personal and party core principles can be ignored?

Hamba says: 5 July 2023 at 11:50 am

Classic! Funding the tram has sent us backwards on health, education, social housing, etc. (objectively true), but instead of blaming Labor or the Greens (who made it a condition of forming government), we should blame Zed! 😛

Palmerston's Lament says: 5 July 2023 at 1:47 pm

Zed did not run an effective opposition campaign – simplistic and binary. Neither did his successor, whose name escapes me.

But ALP and Greens have managed a narrative that no one seems willing to question over the years. Blame shifting is a centrepiece of this town’s attitude and the voters need to accept they are also part of the problem.

Hamba says: 5 July 2023 at 4:11 pm

It’s true that Labor and the Greens are far (far!) better at spinning a narrative than the Libs. It’s also true that, in 2012, Liberal candidates won slightly more first-preference votes (86,032) than the ALP (85,991). The sole Greens member (Rattenbury) then compelled Labor to build a tram as a condition for forming government.

Tom Adam says: 5 July 2023 at 1:01 pm

I have to agree, negative campaigning doesn’t work. If the Liberal party want to win an election, they need to focus on what they will do – not what they won’t. If they don’t heed that advice, it will be at their peril.

Robin Underwood says: 5 July 2023 at 2:51 pm

There are many arguments why billions should not be spent on an extension to Woden of the slow tram. However, for the Greens a change of mind should have come the moment electric buses became operational and the tram was no longer the only means of transport where the running produces no greenhouse gasses. Now the large amount of greenhouse gases involved in laying the steel tracks embedded in concrete, the stops in the middle of an overhead highway where elevators have to transport passengers to board and exit, the pollution from cars caught in traffic jams over years to come, etc. must be considered.
As someone else said, the name of “Greens” for this party is most appropriate. But now it’s time that they leave behind the green ideas of their student days and do a bit of adult thinking. Surely, no adult can support the net of trams they dream of for hilly Canberra (lowering Barry Drive to get to Belconnen?) at the cost of billions of dollars, far too slow to become the transport of choice for car owners.
When the Griffins included the tram in their plan 100 years ago, it was the latest technology, the only surface transport without pollution and producing a smooth ride on rough roads with its steel rails. Moreover, they expected the Australian government to lavish funds on their new capital which unfortunately has never, and likely will never come about. There can be little doubt that if they lived today, they would advocate a net of the latest e-buses covering the city and linking suburbs with direct routes along the highways as the 333 buses used to do.

Christopher Emery says: 5 July 2023 at 4:24 pm

Anyone can see the general neglect of Canberra caused by $billions being diverted to a tram to Woden – that will take twice as long as the existing buses (government’s figures). We need a network of electric buses in bus lanes.


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