ACT Election: Tired and complacent versus hidebound and headstrong

The biggest argument in favour of showing the ACT Barr Labor government the door next Saturday is that it has become tired and corrupted by too many years of continuous power.

too ready to take the electorate for granted, unwilling and surly about public consultation and, seemingly, all too comfortable with the powerful interests that attach themselves to people with the power to award contracts, spend public money, or exercise discretions in partial ways.

The biggest argument against doing that, and thereby putting Alistair Coe’s Liberal team into power is the argument, or the suspicion that many of the folk in the alternative government are deeply socially conservative, with instincts well out of step with those of mainstream Canberra voters, Labor, Liberal or Green, moderate or socially progressive. The Liberals have actually campaigned on a fairly conventional state or territorial Liberal agenda — which is to say on rates, services, the costs of services and the suggestion of entrenched inefficiencies in the system of government. It even has some promised extra spending in health and education, has engaged in little cultism about debt, or deficits: indeed it is Andrew Barr, rather than the Liberals accusing the opposition of fiscal irresponsibility, particularly over suggestions that some of the revenue shortfalls will be met by planned population growth.

Labor is presently in power because of the support of the Greens, one of whom, Shane Rattenbury is a minister in the government. While this has probably increased the clout and the influence of the Greens over decision making, it has saddled the party with some of the odour that has descended on the Barr government, particularly because of its complacency about planning politics, the influence on Labor ministers of big developers, and, perhaps particularly its seeming indifference to community opposition towards plans for a Lakeside yuppy suburb, apparently on the grounds that the area has long been spoiled by car parks. To such critics, in short, the Greens have had some wins on environmental and social issues, though the extent of these can be overstated because the Barr government has of itself been progressive on environmental and climate change issues. But being in the Cabinet has forced the Greens minister, and, probably the party, to have to share responsibility for some of the outcomes that are not so popular, including planning debacles, and a serious lack of achievement on affordable housing, social housing and poverty in the community.

Just how much the local experience of the pandemic will affect the vote is not clear, but it seems unlikely to be to Labor’s disadvantage. ACT outcomes, whether in terms of numbers of people who caught the virus, or who got Covid-19, or who, sadly, died, were low even in Australian terms, and very low in international terms. Both politicians and bureaucrats managed well, and, if learning from experience in a novel situation, took the public into its confidence and was very successful, again both in Australian and international terms in securing public compliance.  Barr was a player in the so-called National Cabinet (an innovation which, I suspect, will be allowed to wither), and, if he had occasion to curse most of the state premiers (including Labor ones) and the prime minister, generally restrained himself in the hope, ultimately realised that more could be achieved behind the scenes than from public abuse. The Canberra economy suffered considerably from the shut-downs, but generally less than most areas, given the concentrations of public servants and private sector businesses servicing the public sector, and some adept counter-cyclical work by Barr. Long term, the lasting damage will have been to tourism and to the tertiary education sector.

No one seems to have made much of an election issue about the post-pandemic economy, society or community linkages. Perhaps this has been sensible given the uncertainties of the course and local impacts of the virus, the development and provision of vaccines or vastly superior treatments, as well as the local impact of major federal government measures to stimulate business and growth, to get money flowing and to sop up unemployment. In theory, the people of Canberra, and those in territorial government seem likely to be better placed than most states to get access to this largesse, even if the impact of the shutdown on unemployment has been somewhat smaller.

But more is involved than mere economic “recovery,” or “snapback” or some people’s hopes of a restoration of things to the way they were before. Life and economic activity as we used to know it have fundamentally changed, but, right now most of us do not quite know how or to what extent. In many of the changes, whether to workplaces, to schools and educational establishments and to human and industrial networks, the ACT, as a well-resourced, well-educated firm member of what some have called the “knowledge economy” will be leading the way. The crisis saw thousands working productively from home. Many of the gaps this caused in communication between workers, between management and workers, and within workers’ own families, were addressed by new technology, including Zoom. It is not entirely a coincidence that the crisis has also seen a government re-evaluation (if a rout can be call that) of the benefits of a high-speed national broadband service — something conscious local leadership could exploit and dominate far better than regions or economies with less critical mass and firepower.

Federal government and the bureaucracy moved swiftly to imagine and develop new forms of service delivery, particularly over the provision of labour market programs, higher levels of payments to those displaced or put out of work, and in providing relief to businesses trying to hold on to staff as business activity slowed. While government plainly intends that benefit levels will “transition” down as unemployment falls, and some of the incentives to fresh business activity work, it seems likely that what it has done will form the foundations of new and more effective forms of future service delivery. While there is a coalition government, that will probably be by contracting out to the private sector, but that, by no means requires that the number of staff in policy and program development units in Canberra, as opposed to the rest of Australia, will fall.

It is quite true that the momentum of these changes will be determined rather more on Capital Hill rather than in the ACT administration, or otherwise out in the wider economy, of which the ACT is only a small part. But the natural advantages of the Canberra economy and community mean that anticipation, local planning and nimble work by ACT authorities — and, probably, some further local initiatives in helping our universities cope with the crisis that the federal authorities have caused — could be amply repaid. No one is suggesting that existing or would-be Canberra politicians are not thinking about it, but few are doing much to take the electorate into their confidence.

Likewise, it should not only be Labor politicians who are looking closely at reasoned criticisms, including by Anthony Albanese, of the federal budget, or indeed, of fiscal responses all around the world. In general terms, the sums of money being put into restarting our economic engines by the Morrison government are among the highest in the world. Yet Morrison and his Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg made choices about how and where  money should be spent which are open to serious criticism — criticism not only able to be addressed by national political debate, but also by sharp and savvy local action, adapted to local circumstances. Barr has already made a virtue of the way that some of the extra spending brought on by the pandemic was focused on students, casual workers and people of uncertain residency status, because these were people (consciously and unfairly) missing out from the initial federal assistance programs.

That’s good, but there are many new social and economic opportunities — in education, in hospitals and health care, in service delivery, and in housing programs, particularly in social housing, that could and should be addressed. So too with community-based public programs in childcare, health care in the community, in disability and aged care services and in labour market programs that involve the spending of money in the public sector, rather than the ideologically-directed focus on thinking that only private sector delivery needs assistance. Australia-wide, public sector spending amounts to more than a quarter of the national income. It is consumption, service delivery and supply of capital. If it is not harnessed to economic revival there is so much more work to be done, mostly at greater expense, and, probably, with less transparency and accountability.

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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