3 March 2023

Canberra Liberals' light rail stand may box party in for 2024 election

| Ian Bushnell
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commuters on light rail

Light rail is a winner with Gungahlin and city commuters, but is it still attractive elsewhere? The Liberals are banking on the cost being too much. Photo: File.

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.

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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.

Letterbox drops are urging people to sign a petition to stop the tram. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

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.

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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.

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michael John Little8:47 pm 25 Mar 23

Ahh the Liberals… they opposed the Suburban Rail Loop project in Victoria.. because of Cost… and what happened? They Lost. Now they have lost NSW… they really are on a “Winning Streak”, aren’t they! Canberra needs to expand it’s light rail for the future as Melbourne needs to expand its rail network for the future… I live in Melbourne now, and trams are fantastic!

GrumpyGrandpa7:46 pm 09 Mar 23

The Libs are flogging a dead horse.

In my opinion, their claims that LR to Woden is an expensive waste of money is correct. I also agree with their claim that LR to Woden, will provide a slower form of public transport than the bus network. I support their claim that as a result of LR, our hospitals, schools and police services are underfunded. Etc.

The reason they are flogging a dead horse is simple. Although the ALP only holds one seat more than the Libs in the Assembly, with Canberra’s left leaning and our proportional voting system, they need a total collapse of the ALP supporter base to overcome the alliance support that will come from the Greens.

The other reason that the Libs are flogging a dead horse is Andrew Barr. Frankly, he is best politician in the ACT Assembly, by a long way.

If the Libs ever have a chance, it’ll be after AB retires, because without him, there isn’t much on offer.

Billy Monfries9:32 am 08 Mar 23

Atypical puff minus any substance from the Canberra Liberals, again missing the target of the Labor-Green governments incompetence. The first stage of light rail would have been a good spend, if it had been from the airport to defence, onto the City and ANU, over to the parliamentary triangle and Manuka/Kingston, finishing off past Fyshwick and back to the airport. This could have run both ways, with dual lines. As it stands, it ineffectively services one corner of the city. Ideally, an appealing public transport day pass, providing commuters the ability to use both bus and tram services, would allow people the ability to use a direct bus service to the city, then the option to use the tram into Russell, Campbell Park, the parliamentary triangle, the inner south, Fyshwick and the airport. I would have thought that the Canberra Liberals would want to assist the community with excellent first class public transport? If there argument is to tell us that the labor-green alliance is wasteful, we know that, they personify nasty and incompetent. However come up with something better than its ‘a waste of money!’ what is your alternative?

Scott Anthony5:07 pm 07 Mar 23

Labor announced that the Tram funding is an ‘off budget’ expense, funded through debt which will never be repaid and will saddle our future generations into paying for last centuries transport option with a fixed capacity to carry people along a very narrow corridor. Meanwhile the intelligent world are embracing smart and flexible options with multi-use infrastructure like track-less trams, bio fuel, hydrogen or electric busses that use roads we already own now… Instead of tram tracks, used only by trams at a cost of $100 Million per kilometre!! The list of smarter options than a union preferred tram is very long..

So Scott Anthony you think that introducing trackless trams to compete with buses and cars on increasingly congested roads is intelligent? Not to mention the damage trackless trams cause to roadways!! NSW, Victoria and Queensland can see the benefits of light rail and have been introducing them into their cities for a number of years. Light rail offers the best form of mass, integrated and convenient transport. Meanwhile, in Canberra, the backward looking, crusty old Liberals want to keep treating Canberra as a little old country town by taking us to yet another light rail election. And we all know how that is going to pan out!

Another Liberal Party Petition! My God how the Canberra Liberals love petitions! The party uses petitions as a means of informing their policy because they have no ideas and nothing to offer. It is also a taxpayer funded opportunity to get the personal details of voters who are likely to vote their way, to influence and bombard them with party propaganda. These petitions take on a life of their own, particularly during the leadup to elections. Yep folks, expect a lot more petitions from the Canberra Liberals in the lead up to next year’s election!!
And on to another thing, what is Jeremy doing on the left hand side of the card being letterboxed? Elizabeth Lee is the leader of the party, he the deputy! Elizabeth as leader should be on the left and he should be on the right! Is he in the Assembly to hold her hand?

Thee Liberals policy will find support in Tuggeranong and Belconnen where light rail will arrive in decades. It will also find support in Woden as it is clear to many light rail will mean congestion for years, the end to green space along the route and benefit very few given how far most houses are from the track.

HiddenDragon8:14 pm 06 Mar 23

As things stand, this is shaping up to be a re-run of the 2016 election when the Liberals proposed a new hospital, instead of light rail, Labor initially rubbished that, and later (presumably in response to private polling) told Canberrans we could have both.

If this latest gamble is to have any chance of paying off for the ACT Liberals, they need to summon up the intestinal fortitude to do something they have not hitherto been prepared to do – i.e. confront Canberra voters with the fiscal realities facing the ACT (and not just due to the costs of light rail) and give them the plainest possible choice about what can truly be afforded over coming years – even if nothing goes badly wrong with the national and local economies.

Without this plain talking, ACT Labor and their Green coalition partners will once again serve up a saccharine-coated policy offering – with a plausible mirage of improved services but with light rail front and centre – for the 2024 election which will pander, quite successfully, to the deluded sense of have your cake and eat it too entitlement which is so common in this town.

Hidden Dragon, nail > head.

Too many people are willing to vote for shiny new things and the promise of having it all becaise they don’t understand basic economic realities.

Scott Anthony5:10 pm 07 Mar 23

Yep, to a lot of voters ‘government debt’ isn’t their problem… until it is of course, but by then its too late to fix up government waste.. Meanwhile the rest of the world are looking at smart transport options and we go for a 19th century tram system because the unions like it.

There are no doubts that the Canberra Liberals will be finished at the next election. The party Elizabeth Lee leads will never get into government. The 2024 election will see the party taking Canberra voters into a fourth light rail election. The government does not need to engage with the Liberals on light rail because the Canberra Liberals have become irrelevant. How many light rail elections do we have to endure before they get the message that light rail is here to stay? The Canberra Liberals are the most conservative branch of the party in the country. They have trouble attracting new members and its membership is in despair. The party was flat out recruiting candidates for the last two elections. They became so desperate for candidates in Belconnen that Alistair Coe approached churches in an attempt to recruit nominees. How long do voters have to endure this farce?

Estelle, your vinyl is scratched, it keeps jumping back over the track “Hate the Liberals”.

Trevor Willis1:41 pm 06 Mar 23

The Tram Debacle is paid for by ALL Canberrans but only assists very few. This will continue into the next millennium if Barr has his way. The ACT Government should cease work on it immediately to save the taxpayers millions of dollars and spend the savings on improving the present road systems for electric buses.

Health fundingay not be slashed but it’s not keeping up with the populations reliance on hospitals roads and footpath maintenance. The choice is simple spend large amounts on infrastructure to better all of camberra or stick all your eggs in one basket.

swaggieswaggie11:32 am 06 Mar 23

All the Libs had to do was say what would replace the proposed tram, the trackless buses for example but no….just a negative “we’ll scrap light rail” followed by……….silence.

Scott Anthony5:12 pm 07 Mar 23

That would be a good thing if they did this.. but I also take them at their word that they won’t announce it just yet because they don’t want their ideas stolen.. I trust they will announce it in proper detail before the election, otherwise I expect them to get spanked..

We have one project that as taken the lions share of the funding from every other part of canberras budget. I’m not sure how you can report that its somehow not a single issue?
The full network will be many many billions, a cost we just can’t afford.

If people actually voted what was good for them, we wouldn’t have the obesity crisis we currently have. Half the population of the planet is going to classed as obese in the next 10 years.

The same reason scammers get away with thousands of dollars. After pay zip pay exist. Great many people want the instant gratification wihtout any work involved. Would prefer to risk it all for the chance to benefit without lifting a finger.

The tram is instant gratification that we’ll pay for later, by then most sensible people would have left Canberra. Just look at the demographics, how many people are leaving tuggeranong?

I predict it won’t be long before Barr up and leaves onto the federal politics, ACT left in the rear view mirror.

To make this policy work at election time, the Liberals need to outline a clear alternative transport policy.

And to do so, they need to highlight the clear failings of the ALP/Greens light rail policy (and there are plenty), outline their own policy and then clearly articulate the benefits in comparison.

Light Rail has become an article of faith for the ALP/Greens despite it not making sense from any transport or infrastructure perspective. It is far too costly, inflexible and provides insufficient benefits to a small fraction of the population.

Whether the Liberals can outline a sensible alternative is yet to be seen but regardless, it doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that the Light Rail project doesn’t stack up either.

I don’t know why Labor isn’t challenging the lies the Liberals are making on the cost to the budget of light rail, the cost of the next stage and claims health funding has been cut.

They aren’t lies and the media just hates the librerals?
Labor get to sick back and do nothing and they’ll still get voted in.

Labor haven’t planned the tram and just using it as a pork barrel / applease developers..

They appear to be hanging their whole campaign on a negative which probably isn’t the smartest way to go forward. They’re probably also over-estimating opposition to a light rail network – as stage 1 is already built and running successfully it’s going to be more and more difficult to sustain that argument. Additionally, their policy seems to be unclear and confused. They agree to continue with Stage 2A of light rail (so continuing from Allinga St to the lake, then presumably they want people to get off the light rail at the lake and somehow be bussed over the lake, through the Parliamentary Triangle and on to Woden (including the large additional number of pubic servants who will be engaged with the future cyber-security project based there). From Woden to Tuggers isn’t clear. Are they supporting Stage 4 or not? And, if not, are they only supporting Stages 1, 2A and 3? So, only right rail in the northern suburbs of Canberra and businesses in the south get to waste away. And all to assuage the pearl-clutching sensibilities of a handful of inner south Nimbies in the most expensive real estate block in Canberra. Not the smartest policy we’ve seen so far.

“northern suburbs of Canberra and businesses in the south get to waste away…to assuage the pearl-clutching sensibilities of a handful of inner south Nimbies in the most expensive real estate block in Canberra”. A bit begrudging astro2! Your comment sounds like a big Nimby whinge to me!!

Stephen Saunders8:44 am 06 Mar 23

Lee has got this back to front. She should be promising to build out the rail network efficiently – not the 137 years Labor will take. Instead, she has reissued the Liberals’ political suicide letter from 2016.

Four hundred world cities of all sizes enjoy light rail. Ordinary voters who don’t have $3m stashed in super like it. They don’t need politicians ordering them back onto the bus.

The idea, the capital city of one the richest OECD nations can’t afford it is a joke. Somehow, Labor has plenty of money to pump Canberra population to 784K by 2033 – the last thing ordinary voters want.

The reason why the current government is being so slow on the project is literally due to the enormity of the cost.

Our city is far bigger geographically and has lower population density than most of the cities that have existing light rail systems, that were often built a hundred years ago.

The fact that you think a full light rail system cost for Canberra of $10B+ is easily affordable is the problem.

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