Two things became clear this week – the light rail wars are over and this is a federal election year.
The Commonwealth’s $132.5 million contribution to light rail Stage 2A from Alinga Street to Commonwealth Park and its likely support for the next section to Woden signals the official cessation of any lingering skirmishes on the future of the project.
At the love-in that passed for a press conference announcing the funding, a one-time opponent of light rail, and the Liberal Party strongman in Canberra, Senator Zed Seselja, declared the people had spoken and was quick to say he had been on board for a while, when asked what had changed his mind.
“As I’ve always said, once the first stage of light rail was completed it made absolute sense to expand that into a network and not just have it from Gungahlin to the city. That debate is over. The question now is making it work and be accessible to as many Canberrans as possible,” he said.
That view didn’t stop his successors as Opposition Leader going to election-after-election opposing it or the party sending mixed messages about it as it did last October.
Light rail has been an electoral graveyard for the Canberra Liberals but now with their Senator fully converted, the issue can be taken off the electoral agenda, except perhaps keeping tabs on its construction and argy-bargy over which areas of Canberra deserves a stage.
As Chief Minister Andrew Barr said, $132.5 million is nothing to sneeze at and it signals a new level of collaboration with the Commonwealth on transport infrastructure.
It suggests that when it comes to the much bigger and more expensive Stage 2B, the Commonwealth will chip in again, particularly as that leg will go through federal land in the Parliamentary Triangle.
“It’s a pretty good basis to have a conversation about Stage 2B,” Mr Barr said.
And Senator Seselja was keen to say that he will be pushing for more funding for transport infrastructure, and that light rail will be one priority.
Two things have converged to help the ACT’s cause: the need to boost the pandemic-hit economy and the imperative for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to go to the polls this year to capitalise on the Federal Government’s stewardship of COVID-19 and the vaccine roll-out.
Mr Barr thanked everyone from the PM down, with a special call-out to his Treasurer counterpart in National Cabinet, Josh Frydenberg, for being a good listener when pitching spending ideas.
He praised collaborative federalism for delivering practical outcomes such as the light rail funding.
Deputy Prime Minister and Infrastructure Minister Michael McCormack zeroed in this – people don’t care what political stripe you are, they just want outcomes, he said.
Which is all very well when you have announced a $110 billion infrastructure program across the nation, and you can bet there will be plenty of government ads reminding voters just where the money has come from.
If ever there was a stump speech it was Mr McCormack’s exuberant announcement of the Commonwealth’s generosity towards the national capital, and of more to come.
“It won’t be too long before it will be all aboard, all aboard this congestion-busting, job-creating, hope-building, confidence-creating project,” he enthused.
Senator Seselja, who has been spruiking a $1.4 billion infrastructure bonanza for Canberra, although more than a third of that will be the War Memorial expansion, will be pleased to benefit from the Coalition Government’s beneficence.
Hope springs eternal that the Greens will be able to finally oust him from his Senate seat, despite the maths not adding up, but the recent splurge on roads, bridges, the War Memorial and now light rail can only reinforce the point that having a Liberal senator who, as Mr McCormack says, wears out the carpet in his office in pursuit of cash for Canberra, is more than worthwhile.
Like the gathering at the Alinga Street Station on Tuesday, everyone’s a winner. All aboard, all aboard!