The Canberra Liberals have decided to take the high-risk, high-reward road to the 2024 elections by confirming what many had suspected when they dumped light rail this week.
Not all of light rail though. By election day the new level intersection between London Circuit and Commonwealth Avenue to allow a right-hand turn for light rail will be complete, and the first tracks may be down for the Stage2A extension to Commonwealth Park.
But if the Liberals form government that will be the end of the line.
What they will do instead remains to be seen, although we are promised a “comprehensive public transport policy” in the lead-up to the election.
Which means they haven’t got one yet.
There are hints – electric buses, trackless trams, but nothing tangible.
The Liberals went to the last election grudgingly accepting light rail after previous defeats on the issue and widespread satisfaction with Stage 1.
But they have become more critical of the next stage, its cost and disruption.
The Barr Government has contributed to this loss of faith with the glacial progress of the project, and its refusal to provide timelines or any cost estimate for commercial reasons.
The Auditor-General’s criticism of the 2A business case has also fed the anti-light rail sentiment.
But it is one of Labor’s own who has emboldened the Liberals with a relentless campaign against the financial management of the Barr Government.
Andrew Barr’s old boss and chief minister Jon Stanhope, together with his former Treasury offsider Khalid Ahmed, has waged war on the government’s budgeting for years. The key complaint: money for health and public housing has been siphoned off for light rail.
Mr Barr has generally ignored the pair’s regular, statistically heavy missives in one of the city’s free magazines but it seems the Liberals now see Mr Stanhope’s claim as the perfect vehicle to attack the government on multiple fronts.
The tram – the pejorative for light rail that will fit neatly into election slogans – will become the scapegoat for a whole host of ills.
Sick of ED waits? The tram. Public housing waiting lists? The tram. Schools can’t afford basic resources? The tram. Developers running rampant? The tram.
The Liberals want to ride the tram all the way into government.
Their goal is to transform what is supposed to be a Territory-building project into a money pit and white elephant that will take so long to build most people will be lucky to see it in their lifetime.
But it will be a challenge. Light rail is liked, and many want it to come to their neck of the woods sooner rather than later.
It remains globally a popular people mover and its byproduct of providing established corridors where medium- and high-density housing can be built is a valuable one.
Especially in a city like Canberra which cannot sprawl forever and where many do not want to live a long way from employment or the city’s attractions.
The government might welcome the Liberals’ decision – the most significant so far in the term.
It will paint them as backward looking, without vision and economically illiterate.
Mr Barr has already pointed to the planned security precinct in Barton which will add a further 5000 public servants to the parliamentary zone.
They and other colleagues will need more than buses and cars to move them in and out the precinct and puts an onus on the Federal Government to step up for Stage 2B to Woden.
The decision will also put the Liberals offside with what should be a natural constituency – the property industry which stands to benefit from the expansion of light rail.
A Liberal Government will need to overhaul the entire public transport plan of which light rail is but one part.
Does it understand the idea of a multi-modal network that aims to integrate all forms of travel?
Questions in the Assembly about whether buses will be taken off light rail routes are either mischievous or reveal ignorance of what light rail is designed to do – free up buses for local routes.
How will a Liberal public transport policy fit with a housing policy that is likely to favour more estates on the city’s edge?
These questions and more will intensify the closer we get to the polls but for now the Liberals have given themselves a point of difference and weapon with which to attack a government long in the tooth and vulnerable when it comes to basic service delivery.
Mr Barr may no longer get away with ignoring his former boss and will have to ensure that in the next two years the government will hit its infrastructure milestones.
So in 2024 it can tick off raising London Circuit, first tracks for Stage 2A, the Canberra Hospital expansion, the Woden CIT and Interchange and a start in sight on the Canberra Theatre redevelopment.
That would be a formidable record.
What you won’t see is a city stadium on the list unless the Commonwealth has a big change of heart and coughs up both land and cash or the private sector comes to the party.
This week the Liberals also repeated their support for the stadium idea but that’s all it was. Finding the money as an election commitment is another thing.
But politics in the ACT did get a whole lot more interesting this week and the Liberals certainly believe their big call on light rail will make them competitive in 2024.