Is the ACT turning into a one-party state?

Genevieve Jacobs 13 June 2019 70

Do nearly two decades of Labor incumbency mean that the ACT is now effectively a one-party state? File photo.

In many ways, the ACT is a blessed and comfortable community. We are the best educated, longest-lived citizens in the country with the highest median incomes. Politically, we’ve nailed our colours to the mast: there’s always been a Liberal vote, but this is emphatically a Labor town at every level. We’re on the cusp of two decades of Labor government at next year’s local elections.

So as years of incumbency creep on, has the ACT effectively turned into a one-party state? And if so, what are the consequences for politicians, ordinary Canberra voters and our participatory democracy?

In recent months I’ve had private conversations with several senior figures across the political spectrum. In measured, thoughtful analyses, they agree that the unchanging Labor government is not good for our political wellbeing.

On the Labor side, the argument is that the party is too busy with the everyday work of government to pause and reflect on their direction, to ask searching questions about whether they’re on the right track. There’s less opportunity to cut out the dead wood in the representative ranks or behind the scenes. The well-oiled machine rolls along. Networks become entrenched.

Of course, there are people within the current administration putting hard work into the ideas they’re developing. But wouldn’t it benefit everyone in government to have the time and space to have a good hard look at themselves and ask the tough questions about whether they’re on the right track? And while the Greens promote their separate policy initiatives, they are, fundamentally, part of the government mechanism and therefore the power structures.

For the Liberals, the problems are different but no less significant. There’s the same risk of laziness: nothing’s likely to change at the next election, so why put much effort into developing a thorough-going set of policies for an alternative government, a genuinely different vision? Much easier to simply oppose the current government about anything meaningful.

Long-running Labor incumbency means it’s been easy to get comfortable in Opposition without making decisions for which voters will praise or blame you. The arguments become internal, about who wins the party room rather than who wins the election. I’ve been told that there are those within the ACT Liberals for whom ideological purity matters more than victory. Surely that’s a perilous state of mind for any opposition?

A further consequence is that the political talent pool can be increasingly shallow once you get past the principal operatives. In a jurisdiction where it’s always “business as usual”, exceptional outside candidates have less incentive to nominate and party processes dominate pre-selections. That, in turn, can mean a dearth of inspiring politicians to fire the electorate’s imagination.

Business has problems too. Entrenched relationships with the same government, year after year, as a client or a grant provider have a stifling effect on the commercial community’s voice and influence. It’s understandable that business people don’t want to endanger those relationships, but nor do they have much alternative when there’s little chance of a new government on the horizon.

Problems flow through into planning and consultation too. With just one layer of government in the Territory, there’s little capacity to argue out decisions beyond an ACAT challenge or find a different avenue for change. The government has been making efforts to remedy its consultation issues, but in general, they’re only obliged to carry out the process, not implement the results.

Surely, then, the answer is to vote in strong independents in both the Legislative Assembly and in the Federal Parliament? Not so much: as the recent Federal election shows, it’s very very hard to take a seat, even for well resourced third parties like the Greens, much less an independent like Anthony Pesec. Next year’s ACT election is likely to deliver similar results to the last one.

Is there an obvious solution? Labor won’t easily give up local government and the Opposition doesn’t show much sign of mounting a strong challenge. In the end, it’s up to the voters of Canberra. If we’re all not willing to shake up the system, then it will indeed continue to be business as usual.


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70 Responses to Is the ACT turning into a one-party state?
Claire Claire 5:22 pm 20 Jun 19

Sadly I think that it has. No matter what they do most will vote Labor/Greens. If the Liberals and Nationals ever got in they would need a couple of terms to learn how to govern and I don’t think they would be given the time.

    k452 k452 1:28 pm 16 Jul 19

    Liberals and Nationals?? Nationals aren’t even aligned with the Canberra Liberals,

verstapp verstapp 9:28 pm 18 Jun 19

the complacency of incumbency set in long ago with this bunch. perhaps they might like to try, just for a change, doing something for the benefit of us 99%-ers.

Shahzad Ahmed Shahzad Ahmed 9:24 am 17 Jun 19

The libs need to support more permanent public service jobs in the ACT if they want more votes.

Claudine Norton Claudine Norton 9:30 pm 14 Jun 19

I have wondered why the ACT is so predominantly Labor. Canberra with the strong public service sector.....does not trust the Liberals

Ian McShane Ian McShane 9:27 pm 14 Jun 19

One thing the current government is good st is Corruption.

Bernard Lyons Bernard Lyons 9:04 pm 14 Jun 19

ACT is never going to go LNP, but they should consider going Green.

bj_ACT bj_ACT 4:23 pm 14 Jun 19

Excellent article and analysis. ACT Labor are doing a good job for many residents and for many zones across Canberra. But ACT Labor have totally ignored some outer areas of Canberra and these residents are unfairly suffering through Mr Barr’s school closures, bus removals, tax hikes and lack of investment in updates and basic maintenance to their outer suburban facilities.

The key issue I see is that neither Greens or Liberal’s offer any clear improvements to the status quo. I bag Mr Barr, but Mr Coe doesn’t offer me a valid reason to vote for him. And Mr Barr knows this is the case across key electorates.

The Liberal’s Rates freeze for 4 years is just LAZY policy. They should be fully analysing the Stamp Duty to Rates shift and designing a fairer system for residents whether they live way out in Richardson or In central Braddon. Not just implementing unfocused policy on rates freezes.

    Mike of Canberra Mike of Canberra 3:12 pm 17 Jun 19

    I agree with what you say the Libs should be doing. However, I don’t see the rates freeze as an end in itself and therefore am not as critical of it as you seem to be. Rather, I see it as a way for Canberrans to catch up in income terms with the very high cost of living imposed on them by Barr and company in the name of “tax reform” over a number of years. I don’t see any problem with the Libs both implementing the freeze and doing what you suggest in terms of much deeper and more cohesive policy reform.

Brindie Brindie 1:16 pm 14 Jun 19

If the Canberra community want more dodgy landsales; poor, and inconsistent, planning; congested roads; longer hospital waiting times; declining educational standards; higher rates; a public transport system that only provides a service to the inner north and Gungahlin; violence in schools and at public housing sites – then continue to vote Labor.
If the community wants something better, then there are alternatives. Not the Greens who are as much to blame for the current state of the ACT as Barr and his cronies.

    Gilavon Gilavon 5:48 pm 20 Jun 19

    The ACT has degenerated to a one party state, the GreLabs, no difference between them.

Russell Nankervis Russell Nankervis 12:43 pm 14 Jun 19

Well no, The Greens help Labor hold power and influence their policies.

Theo Dimarhos Theo Dimarhos 10:37 am 14 Jun 19

Not sure what you mean when you say turning? 16 years is permanent

    Jorge Gatica Jorge Gatica 11:14 am 14 Jun 19

    Theo Dimarhos hopefully your not right about this

Jorge Gatica Jorge Gatica 10:25 am 14 Jun 19

After 16 years of labor government I prefer the devil I don’t know than the devil I know

Geoff Hazel Geoff Hazel 8:28 am 14 Jun 19

and really do we need a 'state like' government at all

Geoff Hazel Geoff Hazel 8:27 am 14 Jun 19

has been for a long while

Ajay Mehta Ajay Mehta 4:06 am 14 Jun 19

Lobor always ruins everything. This Konigs chap has no idea. We pay more rates than the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. For what??

    Tanya Louise Tanya Louise 7:39 am 14 Jun 19

    Ajay Mehta for stable government funding. There was a review and stamp duty was found to be an unstable source, so it is being slowly phased out. This means rates have to increase. But it pays for so much. Have a look at the ACT budget

    Tuula Irene Tuula Irene 5:53 pm 14 Jun 19

    Ajay Mehta if you dont like, move to eastern Sydney .😏

Stephen Close Stephen Close 3:38 am 14 Jun 19

It’s a valid premise but ultimately the arguments aren’t very convincing. Long-term governments may also be better because they are able to make tough reform decisions in long-term interests without the short-termism and superficiality inherent in federal politics. Given the serious lack of leadership in many parts of Australian politics and the unhealthy influence of media sensationalism undermining opportunities at serious evidence-based policy, the argument that the ACT Labor government “need a rest to reassess” doesn’t really stack up as a big priority. And after all - if the Liberal party engaged the public service better when in power, eg federally, more Canberra public servants may vote for them.

Kuan Bartel Kuan Bartel 12:07 am 14 Jun 19

We can solve that with a larger number of Greens, the real opposition holding the government to account.

Shane Jasprizza Shane Jasprizza 10:36 pm 13 Jun 19

Risk of becoming? We’ve been there for years.

Jay Annabel Jay Annabel 9:27 pm 13 Jun 19

Many Canberra residents equate the Canberra Liberals with Zed, and wouldn't vote for someone like Zed to run the territory in a pink fit. The biggest thing holding the ACT Tories back is themselves.

Phil Andrews Phil Andrews 9:09 pm 13 Jun 19

The system of Government is broken. With no house of review and an ineffective opposition, Hare-Clarke doesn’t produce true representative government in the ACT. After 20 odd years of self-govt that has seen the ACT regress as the nations capital, as a city and our home, it’s time there was a review into the system of governance in the ACT with a view to identifying a more suitable model that delivers good governance, good government and doesn’t cost the earth. As it is we have half of our elected reps being paid, but not in a position to hold the government to account or provide a viable alternate government. Genevieve is right, we have a lazy government that has become complacent, a lazy opposition that has no expertise or prospect of governing, a lazy public service that is expensive, inefficient and ineffective that benefits from the current state of laziness compounded by a lazy electorate that complains about but maintains the status-quo.

    Maya123 Maya123 5:37 pm 20 Jun 19

    Hare-Clarke is fine. We just need the whole ACT to be one electorate. This might get a better representation for the ACT. The smaller electorates are to suit the major two parties.

    BlowMeDown BlowMeDown 7:33 pm 20 Jun 19

    That’s a very interesting point you’ve made. Why indeed do we need more than one electorate?

Tom Porter Tom Porter 9:03 pm 13 Jun 19

Having lived in ACT since the early 90's , I left in 2015. I have been back about 6 times since and am happy I left. The lack of political change has give ACT the appearance of a tired dirty city.

    Brendan Cock Brendan Cock 12:01 am 14 Jun 19

    Tom Porter just curiously, where did you go to

    Tom Porter Tom Porter 2:12 pm 14 Jun 19

    Elroy Jones it didn't. If you like the over development that has become Canberra, your choice. We lived in the bush capital that was planned.

    Valerie Merritt Valerie Merritt 4:50 pm 14 Jun 19

    Tom Porter - I’ve only lived in Canberra for 15 years but love, love, love it in comparison to other Aust towns and cities and I’ve lived in a few. I agree, development is going a bit overboard but give me Canberra any day.

    Tuula Irene Tuula Irene 5:52 pm 14 Jun 19

    Valerie Merritt I agree, love Canberra, best City in Oz.

    Tom Porter Tom Porter 6:01 pm 14 Jun 19

    Valerie Merritt, Tuula Irene, Canberra has many great attributes such as a great road system, clean Air, good schools, but the boxes lining the roads to the town centres is depressing.

    Valerie Merritt Valerie Merritt 8:30 pm 14 Jun 19

    I can put up with the boxes lining Northbourne because the benefits far far out weigh the disadvantages. It is a good city to bring up children and while we must have crime somewhere, I am not exposed to it on a daily basis as I was in Adelaide, Sydney or Melbourne.

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