11 January 2023

In a system without checks and balances, who can make the ACT Government accountable?

| Genevieve Jacobs
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ministers of ACT Legislative Assembly at round table

Ministers Shane Rattenbury, Rebecca Vassarotti, Emma Davidson, Rachel Stephen-Smith, Andrew Barr, Yvette Berry, Mick Gentleman, Chris Steel and Tara Cheyne. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

It’s mid-term and things are travelling reasonably well for the Barr Government.

They’ve seen off the pandemic, the economy is in reasonable shape (albeit with an ongoing and hefty deficit) and light rail is proceeding, despite a fair degree of irritation over the project in some quarters.

But irritation is about as strong as it gets – because, after two decades of one-party rule in Canberra, there’s not only a lack of opposition, there’s also no structural way to enforce accountability on the Government and no meaningful way for other voices to influence decision-making.

Short of legal proceedings and the occasional dead hand of the Commonwealth (recently seen off, and rightly so, by the Territory Rights bill), the ACT Government is bound by remarkably little apart from itself.

All decision-making rests, ultimately, with the Chief Minister. His powers are wide-ranging in a jurisdiction without a third tier of government, an upper house of review or any checks and balances other than a commitment to community consultation.

There is no popularly elected local government. Community councils, populated by energetic and enthusiastic volunteer members, are, in essence, toothless tigers.

Their members develop briefs, make submissions on issues of importance, survey their communities and advocate extensively. But the ACT Government can also comfortably ignore all this because the Community Councils are not legislatively constituted and have no decision-making powers of their own. Politicians would be prudent not to ignore Community Councils – but the sky won’t fall in if they do.

At another level are Ministerial Advisory Councils, ranging from multicultural affairs to disability. The ACT Government provides a modest retainer for the chairs and members of these bodies, covering the costs of meeting and external deliberations.*

The councils are supported by directorates and often work hard to produce reliable information for decision-making. The roles, however, are loosely defined, ministers are not bound (and nor should they be) by any of the Council’s work and again, can feel free to completely ignore an ocean of well-intended advice.

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Within the Assembly, it’s long been a point of pride that the committee system works with far more bipartisan cooperation behind the scenes than is generally obvious to the public.

But unlike most State Parliaments and the Commonwealth, the Assembly has no Senate or Legislative Council to coax into agreement on major issues. There are no deal-makers and deal-breakers with whom to reach a compromise, no concessions that must be made, and no framing that must encompass a diverse range of views to ensure legislation passes.

The very mandate conferred on David Pocock in the Senate – to stand for the Territory, to argue our case and wield his balance of power to our benefit – is entirely absent in the Territory.

About the only brake on Labor is the governing agreement with the Greens, but in December it was revealed only 16 of more than 100 commitments made in the 2020 power-sharing agreement have been delivered.

The six Green MLAs could conceivably wield a fair degree of power if they chose to find common ground with the Liberals. That’s not out of the question – for example, Liberal MLA Nicole Lawder has been arguing strenuously that water quality in Lake Tuggeranong and management of the southern catchment needs urgent attention.

There would be other issues where the Greens could flex their muscle and force a vote, particularly if they fall within the governing agreement’s ambit, provided the Liberals can get over their factional warfare and direct their energies towards making change.

The ACT population won’t actively choose more layers of government, so a house of review is unlikely, as are popularly elected local councils. The committee system could be strengthened, but there are few other avenues to challenge the Government other than the court of public opinion.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr has flagged that the Assembly will legislate on voluntary assisted dying this year and consider how the proposed Indigenous Voice will affect the Territory. There is a sizeable deficit, and the ongoing constraints light rail imposes on the ACT’s slender budget are a matter of continuing concern. There is work to be done on major issues.

As independents surge on the federal stage and voters across Australia seek out strong local representation, now is the time for both the Liberals and Greens to flex their muscles and ensure, at the very least, that the Government is called to account as it decides our future.

*The author has been a Ministerial Advisory Council member in the past.

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I have long suspected that short of a major crisis of confidence, the Clayton’s Parliament will just muddle along in perpetuity, without a formal constitution. Service delivery will continue to be ordinary, policy implementation will rarely be delivered as specified and the liberals (with a couple of exceptions) will continue to enjoy their pre retirement salaries while displaying limited ambition.

Of course this means taxes will remain high, hospital waiting lists as long as the grass around a Lake Tuggeranong algae bloom, the coppers will continue to argue with callers that they are not facing an emergency and the road casualty list will continue to burgeon. Happy days!

Firstly our local media don’t really hold the ACT government to account, they consistently let Ministers spin information or allow them to make totally false claims without being asked proper questions.

Secondly the 5 seat 5 electorate ACT voting system, makes it very difficult for independents to win many if any seats. The way Canberra votes almost ensures an absolute minimum of 50% of voters will vote either Labor or Green, ensuring them a huge advantage in forming a coalition government.

HiddenDragon10:03 pm 14 Jan 23

For much of the life of self-government in the ACT (after the “recession we had to have” and the slashing and burning of Howard’s first term were in the rear vision mirror), we – like the rest of the nation – have been floating along on a tide of prosperity, some of which has been earned (although not always by the people benefiting from it), but a great deal of it (epic mining boom and central bank money printing and negative real interest rates) has been pure windfall.

This prosperity has made it easy for mediocre governments to spend their way out of trouble and avoid difficult choices. It has also encouraged many voters (including more than a few who are old enough to know better) to believe that if something proposed by a politician sounds like a good idea, the money to pay for it will magically materialise without the need to raise taxes and/or cut spending elsewhere. This mentality is absolutely rampant in Canberra and surely goes a long way towards explaining why a very ordinary government has found it quite easy to gloss over its serial oversights and stuff-ups.

The good news – and also the bad news – is that the tide of easy prosperity is receding and with it, the easy options for politicians. Over time, this should sharpen the focus of voters on what their governments are doing and not doing and also, importantly, encourage more in the media and commentariat to do likewise rather than being too easily distracted by the latest media release (usually with a budgetary price tag attached) from government. It might even (fingers crossed) encourage more able and experienced people to put their hand up for politics if more attractive jobs elsewhere start evaporating.

If only the Liberals could make themselves even vaguely electable, something they’ve completely failed at for 20 years plus. The Labor government is modestly competent but make plenty of errors, but the Liberals consistently look like bumbling fools in comparison. Solve this, and ACT politics will become more contestable, and force accountability to be taken more seriously.

I am voting for sock puppets.

What is the use of having checks and balances when the same tired, incompetent mob keep getting voted in again because the same tired incompetent opposition offer nothing different

Capital Retro9:13 pm 15 Jan 23

And ACT public servants, Territory and Federal, are compelled by various ways to vote Labor/Green.

One way to enforce accountability would be for the Greens to leave the Government. By all means put a confidence and supply agreement in place, but vacate all ministerial positions. The would allow bills to be debated on their merits and would encourage the Liberals to put forward some reasonable ideas with a chance of getting them passed, instead of just opposition for oppositions sake.

One-party rule, as things currently are in effect, is in no-ones interest. Alas, the Greens have been subverted by ministerial allowances and perks.

The Barr government is an autocracy, not least because the Chief Minister is also the Treasurer. In well run organisations these roles are always kept separate, to ensure all financial decisions are evaluated more broadly. Without this control, there is no real oversight and no checks and balances on decisions that impact every Canberran, especially those bearing most of the costs ie rate-payers.

The Greens underperformance is not surprising, but is very disappointing given they gained more votes and thus more power than ever before. They’ve failed to use it to make Canberra better for all. We still see developers running this city, with trees, gardens and parks being lost to more steel, concrete and glass. Apartments dependent on clothes dryers and airconditioners, instead of housing design that enables residents’ comfort and wellbeing without reliance on expensive forms of energy. Trees, gardens and clothes lines these costs tremendously, but no-one is advocating for these ‘green’ solutions. The Greens are missing in action.

Fiona Carrick3:09 pm 14 Jan 23

The lack of checks and balances can be seen in Woden – we have lost our basketball stadium, pitch n putt, bowling greens, tennis courts and now the Phillip pool and ice rink has been sold to Geocon. The town square has been zoned for 28 storeys around its perimeter which will cause significant overshadowing. The proposed CIT could have had a street theatre/art centre with al fresco dining on to a park on its west (plaza, town square) side to create street life and a ‘vibe’ however a prominent corner of the west side will have an electrical substation.
Without some checks and balances how do we ensure that the new outcomes based planning system provides good outcomes?
Fiona Carrick

I must really get out a little more.

Three of the flags behind the cabal I recognise, but the 4th on the right, has me a little stumped.

It has a green tinge to it, so is it Mayor Rattenbury’s
green party flag. ?
And I don’t see a ACT flag ?

that’s the torres strait islander flag, the act flag is to its left

The second flag from the right is the ACT flag (blue and yellow) and the flag on the far right is the Torres Strait Island flag which generally accompanies the Aboriginal flag.

From left to right: Mr Harold Thomas’s (indigenous) flag, National ensign/flag, ACT flag, Torres Strait Island Flag

You do indeed need to get out more. The flags are L-R: Aboriginal Flag; Australian Flag; ACT Flag; Torres Strait Islander Flag

The green one is the Torres Strait Islander flag. The ACT flag is next to it.

Thank you astro. I really stuffed that up, but I thought the Torres Strait flag was all blue with a white dhari headdress in the middle.
Regret I don’t see it all that often.

Capital Retro9:06 am 17 Jan 23

The ACT flag denotes two swans, a black one and a white one. When was the last time anyone saw a white swan on LBG?

Capital Retro10:09 am 17 Jan 23

You will be seeing it a lot more I think.

Scott Anthony2:45 pm 14 Jan 23

This mob are a fringe issue disgrace and their insulated supporters need to visit the real world where hospitals are properly funded, where police are properly numbered and funded and crime and in particular drug and drug driving crime are controlled…!! No wonder our road toll is the highest its been in ten years, get ready for more as drug laws are softened and the age of criminal accountability is raised… No wonder the Greens / Labor want kids to vote, they don’t know better…

ChrisinTurner1:26 pm 14 Jan 23

I think a major difficulty with the ACT government is we don’t have our our own representative based in a local electorate office. Ask anyone who is their local member (non-federal). They have no idea.

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