Originally published in The Canberra Times on October 21, 2020

by Ben Oquist
[Originally Published in the Canberra Times, 21 October 2020]

It takes a lifetime to become an overnight success and after 19 years in government the ACT Labor-Greens thumping win felt like it had been years in the making.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Greens Leader Shane Rattenbury are surely two of Australia’s best and most underrated politicians. Even their own parties seem not to make enough of their respective successes on the national stage. After 19 years of Labor government, eight of which were in an ALP/Green power sharing government, the Liberals just suffered a 3 per cent-plus swing against them and lost their sixth election on the trot.

Perhaps the lack of national focus on Andrew Barr and Shane Rattenbury is a consequence of living in what Scott Morrison has derisively referred to as the ”Canberra bubble.”

However, there are lessons from how politics is played in the ACT. Of course, the territory is not a microcosm of the rest of the country, but nor is Far North Queensland, Melbourne or even New Zealand. Indeed, for some reason we analyse the entrails of the US Presidential race looking for the implications for Australian politics far more closely than we look to the ACT.

If the ACT election was a referendum on anything, it was a rejection of the Opposition slogan “lower taxes, better services”. Local Liberal leader Alistair Coe was relentlessly on message with this theme. Boris Johnson-style stunts and wall-to-wall advertising repeated the phrase right up to election day.

The electorate saw through this cognitive dissonance being presented that they could have it all. The public endorsed the progressive economic agenda of land tax reform, which means higher rates (and lower stamp duty) but better services that are properly funded.

The last ACT election in 2016 was a referendum on plans for light rail – now delivered – and 2020 was a vote on taxes. While land tax reform is something advocated for by economists of all stripes but in the ACT it was a progressive government that delivered it.

Introducing land tax was not always popular, it was not always easy, but in the end voters knew it was good for the territory overall to have a fairer and more secure revenue base to build the Canberra they want to live and work in.

Perhaps this is the biggest lesson from the election: sound economic management is progressive reform. Building public transport and a stronger revenue base helps build the economy and secure the services for the future. It has certainly helped build political support for Labor and the Greens. It also means the Liberals have now spent more than a decade opposing the things that voters clearly want.

Andrew Barr’s competence in handling the pandemic locally also played a key role in his electoral success. But the success of his government’s response to the health crisis is the other side of the tax reform coin. Sound and competent management of the health crisis is a progressive reform. Expanded health care capacity and some of the first drive-through COVID-19 test centres were accompanied by permanent new progressive health infrastructure such as walk-in nurses centres. They saved lives, created jobs and won votes.

Years of a Labor-Greens power-sharing government has not delivered chaos, it has delivered economic reform, social cohesion and the implementation of the boldest environmental and energy policies in Australia. So-called minority government has delivered progress by forcing rival political parties to collaborate before plans are announced, and has paved the way for far more effective government. Even on the cusp of going into caretaker mode, Andrew Barr has shown his willingness to take on new ideas – adopting groundbreaking truth in political advertising laws proposed by the Greens.

Having become the first major jurisdiction outside Europe to achieve its 100 per cent renewable energy target the ACT government has adopted a net zero emissions by 2045 goal and has announced it will build one of the world’s biggest battery plants having just delivered a billion dollar light-rail project and promised to double its length before the next election.

Like other jurisdictions, the ACT has faced the pressures of rapid population growth including rising housing costs, rapidly growing student and patient numbers and traffic congestion. But unlike most jurisdictions, the ACT has met these challenges head on with timely investments in public transport, public housing, services and a world leading energy market.

Meeting such challenges requires the ability to work with diverse constituencies and communities. Some environmentalists were unhappy that the light rail would come at the cost of so many urban trees, some in business were worried about the cost of pursuing 100 per cent renewable energy and some in the community opposed the move to medium density housing along the new light-rail line. But in Canberra, the existence of disagreement has not been used to divide the community, it has been used to improve policy and improve politics.

The reality is, that what the Prime Minister calls the “Canberra bubble” is as welcoming to new people, new ideas, and new technology as any other city in the world. It is a radically different place than most people remember from their school excursion here. It is a lot bigger and a lot more dynamic.

That leads us to lessons for the Liberals. The big boil over on election night was the terrible showing for the Opposition in the inner city. In Kurrajong the Liberals are predicted to win just one of the five seats. This is a crushing result for the “Modern Liberals”. It represents the big risk for a party that identifies too strongly with a super-conservative base. The party clearly was aware of the potential problem with attempts to market themselves as “pro green-space” and promoting a plan for 1 million trees. But Liberal Leader Alistair Coe was too well known as an ultra-conservative factional leader – as far as you could get from a “Modern Liberal”. While much of Australia’s political debate discusses the electoral alienation of regional Australia, too little focuses on the disenchantment there is amongst progressive Liberal voters that live in Australia’s growing capital cities.

Andrew Barr and Shane Rattenbury might not have the global profile of Jacinda Ardern, but when it comes to lowering emissions, expanding public transport, reforming the tax system and winning successive elections they leave our trans-Tasman rivals in their wake.

  • Ben Oquist is the executive director of independent think tank The Australia Institute. Twitter: @benoquist

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