The Coalition’s miserly treatment of the ACT this Budget continues a pattern of neglect that reflects both the solid Labor voting record of the Territory electorates and the fact that the rest of Australia believes that Canberra is already the most privileged city in the country.
Canberra hasn’t had a Liberal member since Brendon Smyth in 1995 and it is virtually guaranteed a Liberal Senator under the current system.
There isn’t much incentive to throw money at a bunch of safe seats, and that attitude may not be limited to the Coalition, something that could be tested after the election.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr says it will take a change in government for the ACT to get a fair deal, but that is not a given.
The ACT has gotten so used to being shortchanged that the response from some at the Budget Breakfast this week was “at least they didn’t cut the national institutions”.
Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar didn’t even bother to respond when asked why Australia’s most successful regional city could not get its fair share of the pie, or even pork.
Senator Zed Seselja plays up whatever Federal spending comes our way. Out of $18 billion in the infrastructure spend, Canberra got $51 million, most of which was for a road. Throw in $35 million to the NCA to keep Scrivener Dam going and it still pales in comparison to Tasmania and its $639 million.
Even if one takes into account the geographical differences, the ACT is still way behind.
Senator Seselja will reel off a bunch of commitments in recent years, especially the contentious $500 million Australian War Memorial development, although for some reason the $100 million for light rail failed to be mentioned in the latest dispatch.
It’s not as if we’re not grateful, and it must be remembered that the Abbott Government’s asset recycling scheme helped pay for the first stage of light rail.
But as an advocate for Canberra, it must be a hard sell for the Senator.
The Canberra Liberals will tell voters that the answer is to make Canberra’s seats more marginal, but their antipathy towards the Coalition only grows with each election, and every Budget seems to confirm that the feeling is mutual.
Perhaps the independent push might give Senator Seselja enough of a fright to try harder.
But the situation reflects a problem that has become endemic in Australian political life – the weaponisation of the grants system, the political distortion of infrastructure priorities and straight-out Canberra bashing.
The ACT’s growing needs should be assessed fairly and it should receive the funding it is due – not more, not less.
The Commonwealth should at least maintain its own assets, and the running down of the Australian Institute of Sport, including AIS Arena, is a disgrace.
It may be too much to expect the Commonwealth to help pay for a new city stadium as some would like but at least keep running a facility that the ACT has come to rely on.
The national capital is now more than just a centre of government, although it remains core business. It is a thriving regional centre of 450,000-plus people who aren’t all public servants, but I doubt it made Barnaby Joyce’s $20 billion list.
The ACT Government pointed to the AIS and National Cultural Institutions, Commonwealth Park, an additional public service agency in the Gungahlin Town Centre, and social housing as projects that could have been funded this Budget.
But help to pay for a new Cultural Precinct would also be welcome. And among the national rail promises, something to speed up the slow coach that is the Canberra-Sydney line would also have been welcome.
If Mr Barr is right, the next Budget may be more favourable and the acid will be on the Labor members and Senator to deliver. There will be no excuses then.