13 October 2020

Plotting the Canberra Liberals' path to government

| Dominic Giannini
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Alistair Coe

Can Alistair Coe be the first Liberal Chief Minister in 19 years? Photo: Dominic Giannini.

Despite 19 years of Labor incumbency, ACT elections are always close. In the history of self-government, there has only been one majority government, well over a decade ago.

Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe told his party’s campaign launch he was sick of hearing that Canberra is a Labor town.

“It’s clear that there are so many people that are Labor voters, that have decided that this government has been in too long. It is clear that there are so many Labor people that are going to be lending the Liberal Party their vote,” he said.

A year ago, when Labor started planning its re-election campaign, one of their biggest concerns was that people would see two decades in government as too long, regardless of the party.

But in a year of disasters and a global pandemic, Labor’s messaging has changed to highlight their experience in government in contrast to the Liberals inexperience, hoping to stem the tide of voters who think “it’s time”.

The Liberals think just 2,500 people need to change their vote in order to change the government, Mr Coe said.

But from where?

Find out where the major parties stand on the issues that matter to you:

The ACT is broken into five electorates, Brindabella, Ginninderra, Kurrajong, Murrumbidgee and Yerrabi. Each is represented by five elected members.

To take government, the Liberals will need to pick up two seats to reach the coveted 13 members needed to form a majority government. There is also a slim chance the Belco Party, headed by former Liberal leader Bill Stefaniak, could become the first minor party outside the Greens to have a member elected since 2001 and subsequently supply confidence to his former party.

Since self-government, there has been only one majority government.

As it stands, the Belconnen-based Ginninderra is the dark horse seat to watch. Liberal MLA Vicki Dunne is stepping down from her seat and the Belco Party’s convenor and founder, Mr Stefaniak, is running.

Hare-Clark’s quota system essentially gives two seats each to Labor and Liberals, meaning each electorate has a ‘swing seat’. In Ginninderra, this third seat is currently held by Labor, and they are nervous.

READ MORE The ACT election is almost here, so what’s Hare-Clark and what does it mean?

Several factors make the seat unpredictable, according to ANU Emeritus Professor of Political Science John Warhurst.

These include the division of Ms Dunne’s personal vote, the Belco Party’s attempt to syphon disenfranchised major party voters, the local popularity of Labor candidates Gordon Ramsay, Yvette Berry and Tara Cheyne, and a strong swing for the Greens at the federal election.

“You would think if an independent or minor party is going to get up it will probably be the Belco Party,” Professor Warhurst told Region Media.

“You do hear people say ‘I want a change but I cannot vote for the Liberals’, and Bill Stefaniak is a former political leader with some standing in the community.”

Bill Stefaniak

Former MLA Bill Stefaniak’s Belco Party has made Ginninderra one of the most unpredictable electorates in the upcoming election. Photo: File.

Ginninderra is one of two electorates where Labor holds three seats, the other being Gungahlin-based Yerrabi. Labor is also wary of losing there.

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Labor’s Deepak-Raj Gupta inherited the third seat in the multicultural electorate after Meegan Fitzharris resigned last year.

Yerrabi is Mr Coe’s hunting ground and he may be able to use his popularity as leader to springboard Leanne Castley, Jacob Vadakkedathu or Dr Krishna Nadimpalli into a third seat for the Liberals.

Ms Castley has some name recognition after running against Dr Andrew Leigh in Fenner during the 2019 federal election.

The fifth seat in Murrumbidgee will also be in play following the retirement of Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur, who held the seat on a razor-thin margin.

The Greens’ Emma Davidson is campaigning hard to succeed Ms Le Couteur and while she isn’t the favourite, there is a chance of her retaining the seat for the Greens, Professor Warhurst said.

“The Greens are a bit of the unknown quantity in a way,” he said.

“The Greens may be reduced to just Shane Rattenbury but they polled very well in the last federal election here in the ACT. If people are looking for alternatives and Labor voters looking for somewhere else to go, the Greens are a possibility – [they] could hold the seat.”

The Tuggeranong-based Brindabella is a Liberal stronghold with three members, while Kurrajong in central Canberra is typically more progressive with strong support for Greens leader Shane Rattenbury almost certainly ruling that fifth seat out for the Liberals.

The Liberals’ second seat in Kurrajong is held by the more conservative Candice Burch who replaced Steve Doszpot after his death in 2017. She could be under pressure from Labor or the Greens if federal swings are replicated.

Deakin and Yarralumla, traditionally Liberal suburbs, have also been moved from Kurrajong to Murrumbidgee. This could impact their vote across both electorates after the latter became notionally Liberal due to the redistribution.

None of the current Canberra Liberals have ever been in government, while no Labor MLAs have experience in opposition. Can this change after almost two decades?

According to Mr Coe, it can.

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HiddenDragon6:23 pm 13 Oct 20

Congratulations to Dominic for having gone through all that detail without once having resorted to the term “battleground seat” – the breathless use of that term on election night four years ago was a bit sad.

Yes, the most likely scenario for the Libs to take government is for them to win the 5th Murrumbidgee seat and the Belco party to take the 5th Ginninderra seat and provide the Libs with Minority government.

I can’t see the Greens maintaining Caroline Le Couteur’s seat but the lower potential of the Greens winning a 2nd Kurrajong seat would scuttle most of the Lib hopes of government.

It will also be interesting to see what happens with the 5th Yerrabi seat seeing as the strong ALP showing in the last election was significantly driven by the promise of the Light Rail. How much of that “glow” will have faded away?

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