Are the Canberra Liberals on a ride to nowhere in abandoning light rail?
From the moment they announced they would no longer support Stage 2B to Woden or future legs and opt for a yet-to-be-unveiled alternative public transport plan, all party statements have linked the perceived failures of the Barr Government to its claimed $3 billion price tag.
Whether it be the problems with schools, hospitals, police or basic city services, the fault is now light rail and the money apparently being diverted to the project.
Stop the tram and all those millions can be restored to the essential services Canberrans really care about.
They have begun letterboxing residents spruiking a new petition in a bid to build momentum towards the 2024 election, now less than 20 months away.
The message will be relentless all the way to the poll, and one presumes the Liberals would not have gone down this route without some evidence that it has an audience.
The irony is that in plumping for what they say will be a more agile and mobile bus-based transport system, it has boarded a fixed track to the election that gives them little flexibility and poses the danger of building a campaign on a single contentious issue.
It could prove to be a house of cards – take out light rail and the whole edifice collapses.
The way the Liberals are heading, their key policy announcements, say on fixing hospitals or hiring more police and teachers, will rely on the bounty that will come from scrapping light rail.
We are still to see much policy from the Liberals and probably won’t until close to the election, but the dependence on its light rail stance suggests a reluctance or inability to deal with the Territory’s current position as it stands and construct a broad-based platform that would attract a range of voters to their side.
The big problem for the Liberals is that the Gungahlin-city line is popular and seen as a far superior experience than buses, and other areas of the city are screaming for their own connections.
They will have to convince Labor and Greens voters who have already backed light rail in previous elections that it is now unaffordable and impacting Canberra’s other services.
In their favour has been the glacial pace of light rail planning, not helped by the pandemic, and timelines in the decades, but many see the project as a visionary and necessary one to futureproof a growing city that will need a transport system that can move masses of people efficiently rather than continue to clog our roads with cars and buses.
This leaves the Liberals exposed to attacks that they are backward-looking and ill-equipped to take the ACT forward.
Indeed, the government has basically chosen not to engage on the issue or challenge claims that the financing of light rail is undermining other services, suggesting it believes the Liberals’ are heading towards irrelevance and rolling out a tired and failed strategy.
Then again, that could be the arrogance of a government that has been in power for more than two decades.
Much will depend on the public transport policy the Liberals will eventually unveil, but they will still have the problem of so much riding on it.
A complicating factor could be more funding announcements from the Commonwealth towards light rail, undermining arguments about how the project is being paid for.
It may well have been a better path to accept that light rail is here to stay and to say to voters that the Liberals could manage the rollout better than Labor, giving them the room to offer a suite of policies tackling the issues the party has clearly and properly identified as sore points.
But now the die is cast and the ACT faces yet another light rail election.