10 November 2023

Polished Lee in fighting mood but she still has party baggage weighing her down

| Ian Bushnell
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Elizabeth Lee speaking at the National Press Club

ACT Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee on the front foot at the National Press Club. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

It was probably expecting a little too much for Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee to deliver much policy at her National Press Club speech this week.

But three years into this term, there was hope that Canberrans would learn more about the Canberra Liberals’ plans for the ACT if they managed to take government next October, apart from 35 previously announced commitments listed in a glossy handout.

This was more a branding exercise and reset for Ms Lee so she could do the ‘vision thing’ and show party members and supporters she has the goods to be Chief Minister.

That she did successfully, with a slick backstory video showcasing her family and migrant background, an accomplished presidential-style speech and a sometimes combative round with journalists.

The one policy announcement she did make – $100 million for suburban works – was not big on detail, but that really wasn’t the point.

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Ms Lee was staking out her territory in the suburbs where rates keep rising for what some feel is little return as the Labor-Greens Government pursues vanity projects like light rail.

It was about getting back to basics and setting priorities.

This was forgotten people stuff, in line with Liberal tradition and values.

Part of Ms Lee’s pitch is that she is a progressive Liberal and a change from the previously hard right and socially conservative leadership that has failed to gain office in 22 years.

But she still needs to have points of difference and accommodate the right-wing elements in her team and those that still dominate the party organisation.

Ms Lee supported the Yes case in the Voice referendum, believes human-induced climate change is real, and backs the right of the ACT to debate and legislate all issues, including voluntary assisted dying.

She is a different Liberal leader, but also understands she can’t just be a mirror image of her opponent.

To this end, she is willing to tap anxieties about the cost of living to qualify her support for action on climate change by committing to not phase out gas or internal combustion engine vehicles, something straight out of the UK Tory playbook as it backpedals on its decarbonisation commitments.

She won’t be soft on crime, promising more police, reviewing bail and sentencing laws, and repealing drug decriminalisation laws.

On the latter, Ms Lee is happy to evoke parents’ sleepless nights and businesses fretting about drug-addled criminals.

Hell, you can even keep your wood heaters.

Whether that resonates with the majority of Canberrans will only be known on election night.

An area that Ms Lee will need to defuse is one that has brought the Liberals undone before – how they will pay for promised cuts to rates and charges and cheaper land for detached housing while at the same time committing to spend more on things like maintaining the suburbs.

The government is already accusing the Liberals of Trojan horse statements that really mean taking the razor to programs.

Ms Lee is too wily to fall into this trap, saying all policies will be fully costed as required and hinting at savings to be made through an overhaul of the government’s “dodgy” procurement practices.

It may seem political kryptonite to argue for “efficiencies”, but finding areas to trim is not necessarily a bad thing.

Given the government’s acknowledged procurement issues, the state of the budget, and the loss of the ACT’s coveted AAA credit rating, economic management will be a live issue.

Then there is the ‘tram’.

Ms Lee is making a virtue out of its early withdrawal of support for light rail, and there will no doubt be some sleight of hand during the year about the billions saved to at least give the impression that there will be more money to spend elsewhere.

We will have to wait for an actual policy to see what will replace light rail beyond just carrying on with the current arrangement.

It’s a risky position given light rail’s popularity and its endorsement in successive elections, but one the Liberals feel is worth taking.

Ms Lee also took aim at how the government has run schools and the health system.

The Liberals do have an education policy, committing to evidence-based methods to improve literacy and numeracy, among other things.

Significantly, Catholic Education and the independent schools’ lobby were in the room.

The government remains vulnerable on the performance of the hospital system, but we will have to wait to see how the Liberals will fix it, although Ms Lee took delight in calling out Chief Minister Andrew Barr for blaming the Abbott Government budget from a decade ago for the ongoing problems.

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But her key message to voters was that if you are unhappy and want real change, then don’t look to the Greens. The Liberals offer the only real alternative.

Although winning a majority is probably a longshot, the Liberals’ best chance may be to gain the backing of any Independent that might come through the fray, something Ms Lee is open to.

If nothing else, the Press Club event showed Ms Lee is up for a fight and willing to do whatever it takes to win. But she will need a united team and organisation behind her.

It remains to be seen whether the party has learnt the lessons of the disastrous 2020 federal election, detailed in its own review of the campaign.

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Incidental Tourist8:39 pm 12 Nov 23

Whether you like ACT Liberals or not, ms Lee is the only alternative to mr Barr. And while Liberals are not perfect the alternative at least makes sense. But choosing between greens, labor or even “independent” in ACT is pointless. It would be vote for mr Barr anyway, the same labor/green government and the dead spiral of raising taxes and falling services.

Martin Keast12:36 pm 11 Nov 23

The Liberals would achieve a lot if they dropped the progressive ideology, seriously started advocating for a lean, reduced regulatory bureaucracy and proper function of the ACT justice system with less open ideological agendas on display. Pushing back the inrush of “woke” in the public schools would also go a long way as would releasing land for development and cutting red tape to build.

Dear me… some people think they are living in Queensland

These people love their buzzwords..
Also “cutting red tape in construction”, I bet this person would is the first to complain about shoddy builders and concrete jungle even as they demand less regulation.

Finger on the pulse of the ACT

Agree with dsact. Elizabeth Lee would make a good leader, however, she would need to watch her back every day. Cain and others would love her job sadly and lead the LIbs back to the 1950’s again.

Rob McGuigan1:25 pm 12 Nov 23

The 1950’s through to Howard is exactly where the LNP needs to go to get relected. Australians now have a very clear choice between an increasingly Socialist/Green elite catering ALP and the Communist Greens and a true centre right Liberal/NP coalition that is not going to send Australia broke and buddy up to the Communist Chinese government. It’s an easy choice for most come 2025-6.

@Rob McGuigan
Your ‘back to the 50s’ dreams are just that, Rob. Thankfully the majority of the electorates have moved on.

Ms Lee is an ok liberal but is in my opinion weighed down by hard righters in the party that will not go away.

I also take issue with Mr Bushnell’s view athah the light rail is popular. The City-Gungahlin leg may now be a non-issue but the “cross the lake” debacle is certainly not popular. The waste of public money, the disruption to traffic and the utter pointlessness of a tram to Woden makes it distinctly unpopular. I have yet to hear any Ken Behren say that it is good idea.

It’s clear that Bushnell can see that Elizabeth Lee presents a real alternative and that the ACT is crying out for a change of government, but he just can’t help himself with his smug, anti-Liberal, back-handed compliments.

While Elizabeth Lee’s ‘vision thing’ was light on detail in her National Press Club speech to party faithful, she has provided an insight and confirmed my anxieties of what a Liberal government led by her will bring. Any pretense at delivering a progressive program was swiftly put to rest. Her speech, seemingly written by her deputy, militant and chief teeth nasher Jeremy Hanson, confirmed to voters her party’s visionless and deeply conservative right wing agenda. A shameless agenda that protects all of those little comforts for their dwindling membership and delivered to a room full of party faithful.

I just loved that slick and sickening presidential style backstory video. All those nice things Jeremy Hanson said about her through gritted teeth! Although I think he could have smiled just for a short while and looked a little happier throughout the speech rather than snarl and look like he would rather be somewhere else!

This is a party that is going back to the future of Liberal traditions and values in their attempts to appeal to socially progressive Canberra voters. Elizabeth Lee, again invoking her idol and the conservative leadership of Menzies and all that 1950’s Liberal type humbug. She delivered a bare bones suburban works program that lacked any meat. Ms Lee and her party’s constant flip flopping on climate change had her finally acknowledging their non-commitment to any action by not phasing out gas or internal combustion engine vehicles. She also confirmed a tough on law and order approach to crime by reviewing current laws and repealing the ACT’s drug decriminalisation legislation that her federal colleagues failed to overturn.

Ground hog day and another luckluster election campaign for Canberra voters! Another election that will see the Canberra Liberals vote slide.

Roll on election night 2024!

The views of the rusted on are really pointless. Your views were a bit light on with proof of what you’re saying. It will play well with the rest of the rusted on but in the world of the swinging voters, the only votes that really count, it just brings a smile to our faces.

Won’t need progressives but agree that Liberals won’t win the next election

ACT electors are informed and progressive voters Futureproof. They have voted this way since self government. Even Liberal leader Kate Carnell was elected on her liberal and progressive values.
The current Liberals, dominated by the right won’t have a bar of that!

Progressives are why everything is wrong with Western society

Rob McGuigan1:17 pm 12 Nov 23

Jack, it really is totally irrelevant what ANY election issues are in the ACT. That place (like you) always votes ALP/Green and always will. The only saving grace Canberra has is that it will always have too few seats in the Reps and Senate to greatly effect the national vote. I for the most part vote centre right but on a couple of rare occasions I did vote ALP for Gough and Hawke. Gough I instantaneously regretted, not so much Hawke. Hawke and later Keating were sensible ALP politicians. Your current ALP Government are probably the worst government Australia has ever had of any persuasion. The LNP mind you have had some pretty bad ones as well. Turnbull and Morrison immediately come to mind. Simply because you can’t be a conservative politician while espousing ALP Socialist policy and survive at the ballot box. Something Dutton will fix at the next election when Albo gets booted.

Rob McGuigan1:36 pm 12 Nov 23

No Jack, the Liberals won’t wear a leader espousing so-called “progressive” policies. These are what’s called LINO politicians Jack. (Liberals in name only). Turnbull, Pine, Bishop and Morrison are other notable examples of LINO’s Jack. Their own base unelects them by walking away from them at the ballot box as happened with Morrison and almost happened with Turnbull.

@Rob McGuigan
“Their own base unelects them by walking away from them at the ballot box …”
Yes, Rob, they did walk away at the last election and moved to the Teal independents … so much for not espousing progressive policies!

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