“If you’re a Liberal in Canberra you believe in miracles!” responded Alistair Coe when asked if, like Prime Minister Scott Morrison, he did.
It was probably the most candid comment of the National Press Club lunch on Friday and betrayed just how big a task it is for the Canberra Liberals to oust Labor from government after 19 years in power.
Mr Coe is young, an arch-conservative and many say way too far to the right to lead the Liberals to government in possibly the most progressive jurisdiction in the country.
He shrugged off questions about his leadership, saying the party was united behind him. His world view may be different from some but it was all about respect for each other, something he said was in short supply in his opponent Andrew Barr and his ‘vindictive’ Government.
And his pitch, in the Liberal tradition, was to the forgotten middle weighed down by rates, rents and priced out of the housing market by a rapacious Government strangling the supply of land and sending good Canberra families across the border, from where they used ACT services anyway.
Besides trying to flip the ideological record by also championing the downtrodden, Mr Coe’s speech was dominated by land, holding out the promise of cheaper houses and a new era of growth and prosperity that would take care of any hit to revenue from capping rates.
Mr Coe may have successfully fudged the issue when asked how he would pay for everything with less money – don’t mention the cuts – but this will be the question that dogs him and the Liberals as we get closer to the election.
Not that cutting spending need necessarily be a bad thing – all governments need to make choices at different times. It’s just that Mr Coe will need to be upfront eventually with Canberra voters.
The pitch to young families wanting their own home – no apartments, please – is understandable and could be a potent strategy. Mr Barr says the city needs to be contained, hence the emphasis on infill and urban renewal, but given a choice of an apartment or your own patch of dirt, many prefer the latter.
And they’re prepared to go to NSW to find it. Mr Barr even undermines his own argument by the Government being a joint venture partner in the cross-border Ginninderry development.
Many will not care about the logistical and environmental issues of the suggested greenfield sites of Kowen, over the Murrumbidgee in Tuggeranong and west of Weston Creek and Molonglo.
They just want cheaper houses.
For renters, the solution is the same – more land, more houses, more supply.
Mr Coe also had it in for the dead hand of regulation, and government getting in the way of people trying make a success of their lives, which is always popular with the Liberal base.
Although it’s a tricky line to run when property owners are screaming about how dodgy builders have ruined their lives and nobody seemed to be able to be held responsible. Someone’s red tape is another person’s consumer protection.
Mr Coe says for all the complaints there are thousands of happy customers, and anyway, it’s the Government’s fault for not enforcing the rules already in place.
The gist is that the Barr Government is stopping you from chopping down a tree on your own property, putting obstacles in the path of your business, and holding up proper development.
It’s going to be a freer maybe more freewheeling kind of Canberra under Mr Coe.
Despite the Liberals still talking about alternatives to light rail after two elections and approaching a third, Mr Coe remains cagey, saying the party accepts the reality of light rail and remains open to Stage 2 and beyond.
“But it’s got to stack up. It’s got to be at the right time, the right cost and right technology,” he said, alluding perhaps to his Transport spokesperson Candice Burch talking up so-called trackless trams or electric buses in the Assembly.
It’s good to know he won’t tear up any contracts but if the Liberals really want to pitch themselves as a party of the future, it’s time for Mr Coe to get on board so the network can be planned properly and we don’t end up with a bastardised mass transit system similar to the botched ‘mixed-tech’ NBN.
People in the north love light rail and the rest of the city is now clamouring for the same kind of service.
After such a long time in power, Labor has accrued its fair share of scandals, stuff-ups and enemies, and in any other electorate it should be vulnerable.
Which is why some are asking if Mr Coe will survive as leader, believing a more moderate, broadly based Liberal Party that wasn’t hostage to the Right (think climate change, same-sex marriage, abortion rights) should be able to win government.
It’s a good thing Mr Coe believes in miracles.