A week is a long time in politics and the Canberra Liberals will be glad to put last week well behind them.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one candidate may be seen as bad luck but to lose two is just careless.
The party rolled out stalwart and 2016 candidate Peter McKay as a stopgap in Kurrajong after dumping Vijay Dubey, who had apparently gone off message to the point that an ultimatum had to be issued – quit or be disendorsed.
No sooner had the Libs put out a statement announcing Mr McKay was stepping into the breach than reports were surfacing that in 2018 the former army officer had written a darkly conservative treatise on religious freedom, possibly while humming Onward, Christian Soldiers, and submitted it to the Turnbull Government’s Expert Panel.
The publicly available document was soon doing the rounds of journalists and by the end of the day Liberals leader Alistair Coe had the solemn duty of ending Mr McKay’s political career, making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear by framing it as decisive action.
Mr Coe had little choice. Mr McKay’s views were even too extreme and out of touch for the socially awkward local Libs.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr, more out of sorrow than anger, but with obvious relish, painted Mr Coe’s team as a bunch of ultra-conservatives unfit for government in the socially progressive ACT.
Mr McKay’s views were regrettably mainstream in the Canberra Liberals, he said, shaking his head.
Oh such a gift, only a couple of months out from the election.
It is good that Mr Coe did act quickly, especially after all the work the party has put in to shake off the ultra-conservative label.
But the slipshod endorsement that bypassed the usual vetting process, probably due to Mr McKay’s previous selection, also betrays a lack of attention to detail that the Liberals unfortunately have shown in policy areas.
Mr Coe has rightly identified unease in the electorate about Labor’s health, housing and development directions but apart from some general policy statements on rates, taxes, cheaper housing and the headline-grabbing million trees, has offered scant detail about how the Liberals will go about things in government.
They continue to hedge their bets about light rail, allowing Mr Barr to characterise them as the party that just says no.
Liberal strategy has also often been bewildering, such as going after the government for its COVID-19 response, which has been advice-based and commendably cautious, especially in light of what has been happening in Victoria and NSW.
Time is running out, and after last week some wavering voters may have made up their minds. Remember, voting starts on 28 September.
Any ideas that the Liberals can be a small target and slip back into office because Labor has been in power too long and ‘it’s time’ is pure fantasy.
Mr Coe needs to start rolling out the big policies that everybody has been waiting for, or be crushed by the avalanche of announcements from a government keen to portray itself as the only one that can deliver the big projects and take Canberra into a new era as a mature city.
There is risk, but he and his team need to go for broke or by the time we get to 17 October it will be all over.
Sometimes it seems that Mr Barr’s main opponent is a former chief minister who is doggedly pursuing the government for trashing his legacy, particularly when it comes to health.
Questioned by Region Media last week about Jon Stanhope’s relentless accusation that the government has cut health spending and is about to shortchange the Territory with the $500 million Canberra hospital expansion, Mr Barr played the man, saying the Labor hero was out of touch and that his assumptions were wrong, without going to the substance of the claims.
But he overstepped when he said previous projections about the hospital were now not valid because of COVID-19’s impact on migration and population growth.
To introduce current circumstances into a project that has been in the works for more than a decade is misleading and plainly nonsense.
It’s fine to reassess a project for financial reasons or because the need may not be as great as first seemed but the Labor Government has form for underestimating demand in health, such as the Centenary Hospital for Women and Children which is still having to catch up to Canberra’s growth.
Mr Barr is talking up his government’s infrastructure credentials and record in delivering projects, especially the popular first stage of light rail. He is spruiking public and social housing initiatives, although the government has been criticised for playing catch-up.
On the weekend the spectacular $36 million Stromlo Leisure Centre opened, an asset desperately needed in the Molonglo/Weston Creek area.
The government does have runs on the board.
Mr Barr has also played a measured hand guiding the ACT through the COVID crisis and has been a team player at National Cabinet, even during the recent NSW-Victoria border farce.
All the more reason for the Liberals to put some flesh on the policy bones it has thrown voters and get on the front foot instead of constantly responding to events.
It needs to make some headlines for the right reasons, quickly.