The Canberra Liberals’ experiment with an all-female leadership team – the ACT’s first – lasted little more than a year.
On 27 October 2020, it was hailed a historic moment when moderate Elizabeth Lee and conservative Giulia Jones were elected to the top jobs.
This week, Mrs Jones called it quits, citing family pressures amid the ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty.
That didn’t stop Chief Minister Andrew Barr from claiming the pair’s relationship had broken down due to their factional or ideological differences, reflecting unresolved friction within the party.
The Legislative Assembly is a small place so Mr Barr may have heard whisperings, but it is also no surprise that he would seize on the situation and try to make some political capital of it.
It’s in Labor’s interests to undermine Ms Lee’s leadership and paint the Opposition as riven and incapable of presenting a united face to the public.
But without any more than whispers and speculation, it is entirely plausible that the pressures of raising a large family in the current COVID environment have taken their toll on her ability to give 100 per cent to the job. Mrs Jones and her husband Bernard have six children.
That could have been at the root of whatever disagreement there may have been between Ms Lee and Mrs Jones, but no one is saying, especially Mrs Jones who has refused to elaborate on her statement and is not returning journalists’ calls.
It is understandable that she may want to retire from public view for a time and take stock with her family, but eventually, it may be in her interests, and as a support for others in her position, to talk about the tension between a high-profile role and the demands of home, magnified no doubt by the constraints that the pandemic continues to impose.
Ms Lee is also a mother, albeit to only one child, and if anything, should empathise with her colleague’s situation.
But Mrs Jones is still an MLA and portfolio spokesperson, and the Assembly meets next week, so she still has responsibilities and will have to face the media again in some capacity.
With so little experience among the other members, the Liberals had little choice other than to turn to Jeremy Hanson to take over as deputy, although Peter Cain has been assiduously raising his profile.
The less conservative Mr Hanson, who led the Liberals to the 2016 election defeat, has never relinquished his leadership aspirations and is no doubt thrilled to be back.
Will that mean Ms Lee will need to watch her back?
Probably not. She has only been in the job a short time and has said that transforming the party’s fortunes was a four-year proposition that went much deeper than simply nipping at the government’s heels.
Her task is to convince Canberrans that the Liberals have the policies and wherewithal to not just govern but take the ACT in a new and positive direction.
She has hardly gotten started and it would be absurd to see her go so soon and doom the party to more oblivion.
After successfully repositioning the party away from its ultraconservative image, for example, supporting Territory rights on assisted dying and supporting climate change action by attending the Glasgow conference, the loss of her deputy is not the start to 2022 that she would have hoped for.
But Mr Hanson will be a committed and willing combatant in holding the government to account.
That will not be enough, though, to have a chance in 2024. What the Liberals need to do now, as it approaches the halfway point in the term, is deliver substantive policy statements that address voters’ genuine concerns on planning and development, housing, health, taxation and the rest.
Last year’s statement on education, which Mr Hanson delivered, was a good start. The Liberals need to follow that up because while slogans may be enough to slide by in other parts of the country, Canberrans have an appetite for ideas and detail.