9 December 2022

Liberals' big call has weaponised the tram for 2024 election

| Ian Bushnell
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Jeremy Hanson, Elizabeth Lee and Mark Parton talk in a parkland

High-risk strategy: Light rail opponents Deputy Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson, Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee and Opposition spokesperson for transport Mark Parton. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

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.

READ ALSO Canberra’s e-scooters hit the south, go further west to make biggest network in the country

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.

light rail

The new London Circuit/Commonwealth intersection designed for light rail will be in place by election day. Photo: ACT Government.

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.

READ ALSO City stadium idea a winner says Lee, with eye on 2024

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.

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If stage 2 goes ahead, the rapid service from Woden to the City will be scrapped (just like the rapid was in Gungahlin).
All the direct suburban services in the area will be scrapped (just like Gungahlin).
Instead of a 12 minute express bus between the two town centres we can look forward to a 25 minute tram ride; Stopping at every stop regardless of how many people are on board (same as Gungahlin tram).
Also, how many additional traffic lights will be installed between the British High Commision and Woden? Five?? Six?? (four additional traffic lights on the northside). Every tram stop along Adelaide Ave will require a new set of traffic lights so that passengers can safely cross the road.
Longer commute time for everyone(mine was doubled from Palmerston to the city).
All suburban services in the area redirected to Woden so that the trams are “full”.
Traffic snarl along Adelaide Avenue with all the new stop lights.
Tugg to City rapid service diverted to Woden so that trams are “full”
Can’t ride from Woden to Gungahlin because the tracks don’t match
All for a measly $2 billion…… What a bargain!
The big selling point for stage 1 was eliminating greenhouse gasses. Surely an electric bus fleet can solve this problem. I reckon you could buy hundreds of electric buses for a quarter of what the tram will cost.
Hopefully it is not too late for the white elephant to be humanely euthanised.

thoughtsonthesubject9:44 pm 11 Dec 22

A recent Canberra Times question to its readers whether they supported the extension of the tram to Woden, showed 43% supported it, and 43% did not. The remainder was undecided. That surely shows that the Libs have more support for their decision to oppose the extension to Woden than the above article indicates.

LR spruikers seem to forget what Katy Gallagher said when Chief Minister about stage 1 – “People are very keen to make sure we can build it within a reasonable cost estimate, no one wants to be pursuing something that is getting to costs that you’re indicating,”. The figure she was talking about proved to be way less than what stage 1 cost. Stage 1 was only approved as a sweetheart deal with the Greens. The Liberals policy is in effect the same as Katy’s was – it is not worth throwing stupid amounts of money for LR to Woden, when considering the opportunity cost of what the additional money could fund over and above the cost of a dedicated electric bus, trackless tram service.

I was in a conversation with someone just the other day who thinks the Liberals are comfortable drawing opposition MLA salaries, because they don’t actually need to work that hard. This is further evidence that they are trying to retain the Opposition benches for another 4 years. The alternative is the cross-bench, of course!

Returning to light rail, by and large, the younger demographic like it and the older don’t. As the oldies get older, their viewpoint counts less and less. Kind of funny to think that when the oldies will get free travel on the light rail services, that they oppose it. Ironically, I noticed one vehement member of the aged anti-trammers got his photo into a Canberra Metro promotion for it the other day.

Capital Retro5:20 am 10 Dec 22

Your colleague was right. The Canberra Liberals are there for the money. To be fair, they know it is impossible to win in a Green/Labor-union but they are unable to even call out the governing parties on anything. They have even started agreeing with government policies.

Yes, the Canberra Liberals are 100 miles off-shore and still drifting.

That is a weak excuse and a cop-out Capital Retro. Kate Carnell, a moderate led the Liberals to victory over two elections. She was clever and popular and remains so. The Liberals since then have moved further to the far right. The party has been hijacked by the ultra conservatives. Zed Seselja, Alistair Coe and the party’s leadership have all contributed to this. All of this supported enthusiastically by the sycophantic Young Liberals. This movement serves as the recruitment platform for the party. Look at their Facebook page to get a taste of the party’s future. Simply embarrassing! There are no elected members in the current Assembly line-up who has the ability to be leader should Elizabeth Lee or Jeremy Hanson fall under a bus. They are all ultra conservatives. Sad but true and Canberra voters are the losers. That is why the party is unelectable.

Matthew Scott1:42 pm 02 Dec 23

In what way is Zed and Coe an ultra conservative?

Matthew Scott1:43 pm 02 Dec 23

In what way are Zed and Coe ultra conservative?

HiddenDragon8:27 pm 09 Dec 22

“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.”

The ACT Liberals could look across the Tasman for inspiration –


This sentiment would horrify people who will never vote Liberal, but would resonate with many Canberrans who are absolutely fed up with Canberra being turned into an over-priced social laboratory run by a bunch of posturing incompetents for the benefit of self-serving, “do as I say, not as I do” elites –

“I seek a complete change in approach at Auckland Transport. You appear to have been focussed on changing how Aucklanders live, using transport policy and services as a tool. Instead, AT must seek to deeply understand how Aucklanders actually live now, how they want to live in the future, and deliver transport services that support those aspirations.”

Every time I hear “that Light Rail will free up the bus service”, I think of the 750 bus stops that the ACT Government removed the day light rail stage 1 started. In addition, I think of the fact that whole swathes of Tuggeranong, Woden and West Belconnen suddenly had slower bus trips to and from work in peak hour.

Light Rail stage 1, took bus services OUT of the suburbs of Canberra and used these buses to feed passengers onto light rail.

More buses, more often for some, worse buses for many others. The lived reality proved to be the opposite of what was claimed.

How then do you explain that this also happened in areas a long way from the light rail? Bus routes were changed in many places. I’m nowhere near the light rail, but we lost our old bus. It was replaced with an inferior service. Where the old 15/30 min (this switched back and forth over the years) bus ran, now it’s hourly. The 15 minute service still runs, but elsewhere. Problem with buses; too flexible.

Maya123 and bj_ACT
I agree with both of you.
Yes, the argument that Light Rail will free up buses etc is a meaningless throwaway line. Services are simply redirected to feed passengers LR forcing people to change services or scrapped. Expresso services have been scrapped and so on.
In fairness, on the services that Action now runs, the frequency of the weekday timetable is very good, but two hourly thru the suburbs after midday on a Saturday and on Sunday is absolutely dreadful. The Government should be ashamed.

Has LR freed us buses to makes the bus network better? I don’t think that argument would pass the pub test. Simply political spin.

I agree that one of the downsides to buses is that they are flexible. It’s ironic because flexibility is usually seen as a significant strength.

I think the problem with buses isn’t so much that they are flexible, it’s that Government treats them as a political play thing! Continual route changes, network redesign and even changing route numbers confuse passengers, undermines their the worth of the bus network.

I think buses could be great, if only the Government was committed to them, which they are not.

Maya I think you’ve strawman’d me. What makes you think I believe this bus issue only happened near light rail?

I’ve named whole regions nowhere near the rail that lost out on their bus services and more bus stops disappeared well away from light rail than bus stops taken away near the light rail route.

Byron Turner1:36 pm 09 Dec 22

This is essentially denying people on the south side of Canberra the transport services we have on the north. I don’t understand the distain towards having a light rail system in Canberra considering how quickly the city is growing. Very short sighted call by the Canberra Liberals.

Absolutely agree. The liberals lack future vision and are just trying for cheap popularity. It will be harder to build when there are several hundred thousand more people. Or even, horrors a million more people. Rail needs to go in before the population arrives. And it will arrive, whether we like it or not.

We’ve already lost the ability to travel by public transport for most of us.

I can’t work out what your on about. The tram is going to add about 30 minutes per day or 4 days a year that a worker will spend in the tram and not with family.

Stephen Saunders11:38 am 09 Dec 22

Chewy, Ian is just pointing out practical problems, in convincing voters (remember them?) that light rail is all wrong.

If the Libs listened to him, they might be further ahead. If they listen to you, they’ve got no chance.

They went to the last election supporting light rail.

How did that turn out for them “listening to Ian” again?

Oh, that’s right, they lost votes and seats.

But really, I don’t care how the Liberals go, I’m interested in good governance and evidence based decisions no matter who is in power.

And the lack of scrutiny to the Light Rail project given by “journalists” in this city is an outrage in itself. If it were a Federal Liberal government making these decisions they’d be screaming about pork barrelling and corruption from the rooftops.

Yawn, ACT Libs keep on losing and you keep on declaring that ditch-LR is a winning move. *insert the Simpsons “Am I out of touch, no, it is the voters who are wrong” meme here*

Please point out where I’ve ever said that ditching light rail will be a winning move politically?

Although you have made one good point, ignorant voters are notoriously bad at being able to objectively assess value.

Elections at all levels are littered with countless examples of voters falling for bribes and pork barrelling.

Apparently you think that’s a good thing.

Oh look,
It’s another Bushnell article boosting for light rail and the ALP/Greens.

Perhaps if the media in this town didn’t treat the government with kid gloves, we wouldn’t need this debate. So bad is the return from light rail, any other city would have scrapped it years ago.

But in Canberra, the government can get away with wasting the most egregious amounts of limited government funding and their backers in the media will continue to excuse them constantly.

If only we had some decent accountability in this place.

Maybe if the ACT libs started running with a policy that might win an election you’d have an accountable party in power? LR is popular with most people in Canberra. The only people I ever see dissing it are the crusty types on this page who would rage against a cure for cancer if it was discovered by Labor. I legit WANT to vote for someone other than the greens or Labor, but the ACT libs are a joke and they keep on proving it.

“LR is popular with most people in Canberra”

Previous surveys show that support is barely over 50% so it’s not like it’s amazingly popular, it’s marginal at best.

“The only people I ever see dissing it are the crusty types on this page who would rage against a cure for cancer if it was discovered by Labor”

And yet here you are replying to a person who is not remotely close to the description you’ve used.

Perhaps you should get out more? Maybe talk to an expert once in a while?

I like how you quoted two of his points for rebuttal but conveniently left out the most important one.

That Liberals lack any sort of comprehensive policy and just likes to throw cheap shots at the government from the sidelines like petty children. Kind of like what you’re doing Chewy?

Compete with competency, maybe then people will start considering voting for the Liberals.

Did you ever consider that I didn’t rebut that part because I don’t support the Liberals?

They are a rabble, who need to massively lift their game.

But they aren’t in charge, so I’m not sure how you think that excuses the total incompetence of the current government?

Or the lack of scrutiny given to them by most of the local media

The current government is incompetent, yet still manage to get elected, so competency doesn’t really seem to be an issue for voters.

And I have absolutely zero idea how you think I’m throwing cheap shots when I’ve repeatedly provided detailed analysis here on why the light rail is a woeful project to move forward for in Canberra and what should be done instead. Options that would both meet current transport needs and set us up for the future when a higher capacity mode might be required.

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