There were few fireworks at Wednesday’s ACTCOSS 2020 Election Leaders Forum, with the participants using the opportunity to position themselves before the start of the election campaign proper.
It was up to Chief Minister Andrew Barr to let off a couple of crackers outside the venue, inspired or goaded by media questioning about (the now probably former) Labor hero Jon Stanhope and Opposition Leader Alistair Coe’s claims that there will be no cuts to jobs or services under a Liberal Government.
He called Mr Stanhope’s acceptance to chair the Liberal Government Poverty Task Group “a stunt”, and that the former chief minister’s standing in the Labor Party would be diminished.
But he said Labor voters could see through stunts and the rhetoric.
Asked whether Mr Stanhope should be tossed out of the party, Mr Barr let fly: ”It’s not something I give a rat’s arse about.”
He then turned his attention to Mr Coe, calling him a liar when it comes to his rates-freeze position and assertion to reporters that he would not be cutting jobs or services.
”Did he confirm that he would run larger budget deficits and increase public debt? No, he didn’t. He’s just lying through his teeth. He’s got to ultimately answer the question, if you’re going to collect hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of less revenue then you’re either going to rack up more debt or you’re going to start cutting things.”
Mr Barr rubbished Mr Coe’s growing-the-pie theory, based on retaining people who would otherwise head across the border for cheaper housing and business opportunities, saying he had never produced any evidence for this claim.
”We’re getting into this part of the electoral cycle when he doesn’t get just to make statements and walk away Donald Trump-like,” Mr Barr said.
READ MORE: Leaders clash over housing policies at forum
Inside, things were much more measured, apart from Mr Coe slapping down Greens leader and Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury for expanding Canberra’s jail after Mr Rattenbury had talked about not wanting to build a bigger jail but a bigger community.
It was mostly a policy-free zone, with only the Greens coming armed with anything like a plan, including a proposal for a community cabinet to guide the ACT out of recession.
ACTCOSS CEO and debate chair Dr Emma Campbell did her best to call the leaders to account on particular issues but there were not any gotcha moments.
ACT leaders debate with Shane Rattenbury MLA, Andrew Barr ACT Chief Minister, and Alistair Coe MLA head-to-head for the first time this election. The debate will be facilitated by Emma Campbell, CEO of ACTCOSS – ACT Council of Social Service Inc. covering the urgent social issues important to all Canberrans.
Posted by The RiotACT on Tuesday, 1 September 2020
But for the community sector and anyone who cares about a fairer society, it was at least heartening to hear all the leaders wanting the same result – a reduction in poverty.
And while the disadvantaged in an affluent town like Canberra are never going to swing an election result, it is important for leaders to show voters they care and want a fairer and supportive ACT, because in these strange days, there but for the grace of God go many of us who may need help ourselves one day.
As a guide to the election, the main combatants were keeping their powder dry for the weeks ahead, staking out territory and setting the right tone.
”We’ll have more to say” was the catchcry while musing about making Canberra a better place.
Mr Barr pitched himself as the voice of reason and experience, the safe pair of hands to shepherd the ACT back on track, while Mr Coe made sure to hammer his message to battlers who might vote Labor about high rents, lack of housing choices, cost of living and Canberra’s hidden poverty, without offering anything beyond his proposed Poverty Task Group.
The danger for Mr Coe when there is a government with runs on the board is to fall short on substance when the campaign runs hot. It will be interesting to see just what the Liberals have planned.
Mr Rattenbury sees housing as a priority, calling for 1000 more public and social properties over the next four years.
But he also believes that after the crisis the ACT should not just snap back to where it was but take the opportunity to be creative and imaginative and forge a new path.
If there is going to be a fully fledged election debate, rather than ACTCOSS’s civil conversation, as the weeks warm towards 17 October, expect the political temperature to also rise.
Then we may see some real fireworks from all sides.