12 July 2020

Does Andrew Barr have a Jon Stanhope problem?

| Ian Bushnell
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Jon Stanhope

Former Labor chief minister Jon Stanhope is an unrelenting critic of the Barr Government. Photo: File.

There is a convention that former political leaders are supposed to stay out of the spotlight once they have left the arena but it seems these days that few rarely do.

Call it relevance deprivation syndrome, an ongoing commitment to public service or a media gig that needs regular feeding, the result can range from mere annoyance to fury, especially if the target used to be on the team you once played for.

For some time former Labor chief minister Jon Stanhope, assisted by former government economist Dr Khalid Ahmed at the University of Canberra, has been haunting Andrew Barr’s government via a regular spot in the weekly City News, pointing out the dire state of the Territory’s finances, the alleged underspending on health and housing, and the diversion of resources to light rail, or as it is more derisively known, ‘the tram’.

A recent column actually called on the government to stop the tram and start caring for the community, claiming the ACT did not have the finances to extend light rail.

When the government rolled out the still unused COVID-19 surge centre at Garran, Stanhope called it a panic-driven decision and the facility a $25 million shed.

If Barr had funded the hospital as he should have it would not have been necessary, he argued.

Stanhope and his number-crunching mate have consistently attacked the Territory’s financial position, not challenging the strong economy claim from Barr, but arguing spending is out of control and debt is blowing out unsustainably.

Light rail

Stop the tram, says Stanhope, we need to get off.

There is no love lost between these two Labor figures. Stanhope often refers to the neo-liberal, pro-big business Barr Government and how it is betraying workers and the vulnerable in Canberra.

“The working poor, pensioners or people in lower-income households have been abandoned by the Labor Party, ignored by the unions and are invisible to the Greens. Ironically, they now have nowhere left to turn but to Alistair Coe – and who could blame them,” he wrote earlier in the year.

Barr’s approach has been to ignore Stanhope’s criticism and focus on flicking off the often ineffective arrows fired off without much thought by Alistair Coe’s Canberra Liberals, the official Opposition.

The problem is, Stanhope won’t go away, he has cred and a visible legacy every time Canberrans drive past the National Arboretum, which he championed. Along with a knack for a zinger, his theses are argued like an academic, based on actual research.

They often appear to have a more solid basis to them than anything the Liberals can throw at Barr.

As the ACT heads towards the October election, how long does Barr continue to turn a deaf ear to his former chief minister, or how long will he be allowed to do so?

When does Stanhope become a political problem that has to be confronted?

No doubt Barr’s old Labor mate will pour some more fuel on the fire during the campaign, and could be more of a threat to the Labor ascendancy in Canberra than the Liberals.

There’s nothing lower in Labor folklore than a rat who turns on the party that nurtured it.

But Stanhope has always been a man of principle, stiff and prickly maybe, but resolute in taking the higher ground and telling it like it is.

And with a regular audience in the shopping centre freebie, Andrew Barr might ignore the Stanhope factor at his peril.

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HiddenDragon7:21 pm 13 Jul 20

I have yet to hear a detailed rebuttal of Jon Stanhope’s central point about the state of the ACT Government’s finances.

From the cheer squad, there’s distraction, deflection, psychoanalyses, conspiracy theories etc. and selective, airy dismissals about the costs and financing of the light rail/tram (choose your preferred shibboleth) – but nothing of detail on the broader fiscal picture.

From the Government, there’s generalisations about the strength of the local economy (largely due to federal spending and the overseas student trade), sloganeering about “borrowing never being so cheap”, and the supposed ace card of the verdict from the credit ratings agencies – i.e. the masterminds who found out about the GFC when people were clearing out their desks, and who really only care about whether bond-holders will be OK, even if taxes have to be raised to crippling rates to ensure that.

Beyond this, there’s apparently a blithe assumption that things will always be OK because future federal governments will continue to maintain large, centralised bureaucracies in Canberra, the overseas student trade will recover and resume its growth, and Canberra’s share of “Big Australia” population growth will keep the building sector pumping. Maybe, but maybe not – and if there’s a Plan B, it’s a very well kept secret.

And what do you get from the Liberals and their fanbois?

Yup to quote you you get. “distraction, deflection, psychoanalyses, conspiracy theories etc. and selective, airy dismissals about the costs and financing of the light rail/tram (choose your preferred shibboleth) – but nothing of detail on the broader fiscal picture.”

So your point is?

ChrisinTurner4:22 pm 13 Jul 20

I always thought the Light Rail would drive the ACT broke. A heap of money spent to exchange rubber tyres for steel wheels. But the trams do look so pretty.

The thing is though the way it is financed it won’t make the place broke.

I stopped reading City News when a former owner of RiotACT who allowed a pile-on on me began working for them. As for Stanhope, it is a bit rich for him to complain about Barr wasting money when he (Stanhope) wasted over two million dollars on public art including the infamous Skywhale which made us a laughing stock all over the world.

Capital Retro12:32 pm 13 Jul 20

“……as people take up transportation choices in a way that is reflective of the climate crisis….”

My transport choice is my 20 year old car. It is fitted with a heater and air-conditioner so whenever the climate crisis comes (whatever that is) I will simply dial “hot or cold” and motor past the sardine-packed trams.

I can’t say I read the City News any more, too negative and owned by a Labor hater. It is perfect though for wrapping Kitty litter.

Capital Retro5:32 pm 13 Jul 20

And it’s free!

The waste and mismanagement of the ACT Labor Government under Andrew Barr verges on negligence. Former Chief Minister Stanhope comments:
“Since becoming Treasurer in 2011, Andrew Barr has, for example, turned the level of net debt in that year from a negative of $736 million to $3.1 billion this year, that is, an increase of $3.8 billion.”

This is a damming indictment coming from a former Labor Chief Minister.
Everyone who habitually supports Barr and ignores the ineptitude of his government is contributing to the rates and debt burden he is placing on all Canberrans, especially the young.
Come back Jon Stanhope, all is forgiven! Even as an independent, someone needs to rein in Barr.

‘Does Andrew Barr have a Jon Stanhope problem?’ Don’t know about that but Jon Stanhope certainly has an Andrew Barr problem. Nothing wrong with a bit of honest feedback and criticism but Jon’s constant carping has strayed into the realms of obsession. People have stopped listening.

No people are still listening. But the ones listening are the ones who hated Stanhope when in power, but now live in hope for the next zinger that reinforces their view of Barr and ACT Labor. They love to quote Stanhope as if it were gospel despite of course all those years ago calling him names like Stanhopless etc. it must bring a cheer to their day.

anthonypesec9:38 am 13 Jul 20

The fact that the former Labor Chief Minister is a more effective critic of the current Labor Chief Minister than the Liberal opposition is demonstrates how party politics has failed, certainly here in the ACT.

What a shame the Canberra Liberals are so hollowed out and trashed by useless reactionaries that they need a Labor man to do their job for them. This must be humiliating for them.

Stephen Saunders9:28 am 13 Jul 20

Public transit didn’t thrive under Stanhope. Light rail was endorsed by the people, built on-time on-budget, well accepted pre-COVID.

Waving his cost-benefit analyses, Stanhope is confident he knows what’s best for the people. If Canberra “can’t afford” it, he should be petitioning the feds, not ordering us back onto the buses.

So you think it’s perfectly acceptable for governments to waste money as long as people vote for it?

You do realise that you just said pork barreling is perfectly acceptable political practice right?

For your statement to be true it must be proven that the money was spent for the purpose of buying votes. Fact is Stage 1 light rail was not about vote buying, you could argue that stage 2 is as it isn’t the most logical route for stage 2 the most logical is Belconnen but that wouldn’t work as it is Northside and people would claim waste and prom barrelling. Government cannot win really.

Pork Barreling doesn’t mean that it has to be for the sole purpose of buying votes. As the recent “sports rorts” scandal shows, it can exist where there is actually a real need for funding but political drivers skew the assessments to meet political needs as well.

That is what happened here.

The project was shown on the government’s own figures to not be the best value from a transport perspective and barely breaks even from a economic side only when you include benefits that are typically excluded from assessments with projects such as this.

And saying something of this nature “might break even” is an extraordinarily low bar and would almost to exception see it not go ahead. That is the reason it received no federal funding, it’s not an investment grade or priority project that was needed now.

So who benefits the most?

Land holders along the route who have seen massive property value increases and public transport users in those areas who’ve been given a massive piece of gold plated infrastructure.

In areas where it was very advantageous for the government and Greens to hold and grow votes. Particularly in Yerrabi where the electorate’s demographics more naturally leans towards the Liberals.

So either they were incompetent in their planning or the politics had a large say in the decision making.

Neither is a good look.

And as you say, stage 2 is looking even less feasible. Do you think that they suddenly discovered that they could exploit the politics just recently?

Steven – “built on-time on-budget”

I think you mean 9 months late and over budget, because that’s what happened. It was supposed to be finished in August 2018, and didn’t get done until end of April 2019. And no, the people didn’t vote for it. It was the result of Barr agreeing to a deal with the Greens in order to form minority government after the 2012 election, with the process commenced just *before* the 2016 election so that the Libs couldn’t scrap it if they won government.

Whilst there are grains of truth in what Stanhope says around spending and economic management (light rail being an obvious one), a large part of it clearly comes off as a whinging, petulant child who can’t get his own way.

He clearly has an axe to grind that exists outside any objective assessment of the facts and evidence.

And when you then consider that a large proportion of the “problems” he whinges about, existed and were exacerbated when he was chief minister, his articles look extremely disingenuous.

Lightrail isn’t an obvious sign of a spending problem. Big problem is people cannot see that the way it is financed is totally different to how say a hospital or built or run. The main one being the headline figure is financed by the private consortium with payments spread over 20 years (with some front loading). Compare that to a pure capital project like building a hospital where the money needs to be found or borrowed more or less upfront.

This kind of detail and the lack of an ability for the general populace to read and understand an article And the detail, as evidenced by many of the Facebook comments on this and other news sites Is the core issue that people like Stanhope exploit for relevance.

And I just love reading comments from those here who couldn’t stand a bar of Stanhope when he was leader but now lap up and quote his every word as if it were gospel.

Summed up perfectly chewy – a lot of these problems have their genesis from his time in office. This campaign seems as much a campaign to try and turn himself into some sort of ‘deity’ with the people, then any serious attempt to see better outcomes. If that was what he was after, he’d be running for the Assembly again wouldn’t he?

Him and his co-contributor from the UC were both central to a period where the books were ‘fiddled’ to try and make things look a lot better than they were. I assume such fiddling still goes on now, but its pretty disingenuous to suggest its not been part and parcel for a long while.

You’ll notice that I said spending and economic management.

I don’t think Stanhope’ s complaints about a lack of health spending or other social spending areas hold water. They’re cheap and lazy populist points attempting to cover for his clear personal dislike of Andrew Barr.

But Light rail is clearly an example of a government putting politics above sound economic management, due to the woeful justification that was put forward to support it.

The first stage is a land development, rather than transport project. The long term opportunity costs of devoting that amount of money, when it could have been better utilised elsewhere are huge. If they wanted to build it anyway, it should have been funded (at least partially), with direct value capture taxes along the route for a period of time.

And Stanhope is right to point out that any future stages are going to be vastly worse from an economic standpoint and that does impact the underlying fiscal position long term if they were to go ahead. All evidence shows those future stages arent even close to being viable at present.

Capital Retro6:16 pm 13 Jul 20

You’re totally correct about the effective funding aspects of the light rail but the point you’re missing is that it wasn’t needed or justified in the first place.

You are right about light rail being about development but here is the thing the money which is speed over 20 years is a nett profit, which means that “profit” is what can be used to go elsewhere.

Lots of people carp on about opportunity cost and the like, but by doing this and realising the value of the land along Northbourne has provided far greater opportunities elsewhere. Plus it is providing a good public transport option too. Many more progressive places would call that a win win.

Whether it was justified is a matter of debate and ideology not fact (either way).

Except on the government’s own figures it barely breaks even, so from an economic perspective is dead money.

I’m not “carping” on around the opportunity cost, there’s nothing to debate, the lost opportunity costs are huge from the government’s own figures.

If you’ve got an alternative assessment from the government’s one that shows something different i’m happy to read it. You can link it here.

And once again, I’ll repeat as I’ve done multiple times, the land value along Northbourne could have been realised without light rail.

I’m not arguing that they couldn’t or shouldn’t have freed up that land, with alternative transport options.

It’s not light rail or nothing. Thats a strawman.

The most logical solution from a planning perspective being to put in place an option to handle transport constraints until the demand grew sufficiently to require a higher capacity system like light rail.

The exact same corridors could have been used and reserved for upgrades when and if they would have been justified. In a few decades time.

But that doesn’t allow politicians to announce as many big, new shiny things or cut ribbons for “sexy” trams.

As I said, the politics is more important.

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