It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Opposition Leader Alistair Coe as he used the ACT Budget to announce a couple of big policies to take to next year’s elections, but more importantly attempt to re-position the Canberra Liberals as the party of fairness and the forgotten.
The rates freeze grabbed the headlines but it’s the language that it and other issues have been couched in that reflect how the Canberra Liberals are preparing the electorate for a poll battle in which Chief Minister Andrew Barr will be demonised for the tax yoke imposed on the ACT’s battlers.
If you listen to Mr Coe these days, you’d think he had joined the Labor Party, not declared war on it. His speeches and interviews are peppered with phrases such as ‘doing it tough’, it’s just not fair’, and ‘justice and fairness’. He has attacked corporate largesse and greed, threatening to reduce Icon Water to a simple water authority run by public servants and slashing executive salaries.
He has even raised the issue of the working poor and the creeping poverty in affluent Canberra that afflicts 8000 children.
Social welfare activists will applaud the new bipartisanship and what some unkindly might say is the Canberra Liberals’ discovery of these issues.
It’s Mr Coe’s job to cast Mr Barr as an indifferent, out of touch Chief Minister leading a government that has been in power too long, is complacent and simply doesn’t care.
Rates are up way beyond the capacity of households to pay, they’re doing it tough and they need relief.
“It’s just not fair, there is a real justice and fairness element to what we are proposing today and we think we owe it to Canberra households to relieve the pressure,” Mr Coe told ABC radio.
He’s accused the Government’s tax policies for making Canberra too costly and driving young people in particular across the border in search of affordable real estate.
“We shouldn’t be pricing a generation of Canberrans out of this city,” he said. “We need to make sure that the ACT is affordable for everyone but it just seems that ACT Labor has forgotten about thousands of people in the ACT who are really part of the working poor.”
The forgotten people – that sounds vaguely familiar.
But you could hardly call Mr Coe and the Canberra Liberals Menzian, dominated as they are by a conservative right wing in the most socially progressive jurisdiction in the land.
The other pivot Mr Coe executed was to drop the Liberals’ longstanding and futile opposition to light rail and support in principle at least the line’s extension to Woden and other centres.
The Government remains sceptical but at least now the energy of stubborn opposition might be channelled into something more productive, if only to throw off the label of being stuck in the past.
With the Government lambasting the rates freeze proposal as irresponsible and claiming the Liberals would pay for it with massive cuts to services and jobs, including health, Mr Coe has been quick to frame Mr Barr and his left-wing allies as negative, and to reassure Canberrans.
“This is the sort of thing that Getup, the Labor Party, the CFMEU and unions in general run,” he said. “Unfortunately Andrew Barr is going to keep going with these negative campaigns.
“We’re far more committed to bringing justice and fairness to the tax regime in the ACT.”
He’s not in the business of cutting public servants. “We’d rather be hiring,” Mr Coe said.
He wants to ’empower’ them, whatever that means.
So, meet the new Alistair Coe, the new Canberra Liberals, battlers’ champions, public servants’ friend, more Labor than Labor.
But the questions about the details will keep coming, about how all the obvious inconsistencies about tax and spending can be reconciled, and about the baggage the Canberra Liberals still carry.
Yes, the Government is vulnerable on rates, property issues and its long time in office but it’s going to take a lot more than a change in tone, tax trucks and social media memes to dislodge Andrew Barr.
In the most educated electorate in the country, ACT voters will want the questions answered.