4 August 2022

Resurgent Barr means trouble for Lee as Liberals lose their way

| Ian Bushnell
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Shane Rattenbury and Andrew Barr in an electric car

In the driver’s seat: Chief Minister Andrew Barr is in for the long haul. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

Labor figures and staff in the know were not surprised by Chief Minister Andrew Barr’s one-liner near the end of his speech to the Canberra Business Chamber lunch this week declaring that he would lead his team into the next election in 2024.

But many thought that after a gruelling couple of years guiding the ACT through the pandemic, the two-time election-winning leader had lost his mojo and would not mount up for another campaign in 2024.

For the Canberra Liberals, the idea offered some hope that without its star performer, Labor would be vulnerable, and Elizabeth Lee would be a match for any successor.

They can forget that now.

Mr Barr, after the frustration of the Morrison years when it was “heavy lifting” to get anything done, is back to his exuberant self, excited at the thought of working with a Federal Government that gets Canberra and wants to take the lead on issues of common interest such as climate change and education.

He shrugged off the Liberals’ motion of no confidence this week, dismantled the flimsy reasoning behind it and left Ms Lee clinging stubbornly to sound bites that simply aren’t cutting through.

READ MORE Canberra is ‘back’, and so is Andrew Barr for the 2024 election

It’s hard to know where the Liberals stand on the economy or government finances, falling into the previous trap of questioning the quality of services while calling for fiscal rectitude.

“Better services, lower taxes” is not a mantra that will be taken seriously. It’s as if the Liberals have learnt nothing from the last election.

Ms Lee has called for a Commission of Audit into the ACT’s finances, the inference being that the Barr Government is wasting taxpayers’ money.

Mr Barr has rightly countered that such an exercise would only be about identifying services and programs that could be cut. In any case, the government, as a matter of course, constantly reassesses its financial position.

If Mr Barr is being profligate, it doesn’t come through in the post-Budget criticism from business to the community sector that he wasn’t doing enough to support them.

Many in this town continue to want the ACT Government to build a new city stadium, at a cost of anywhere between $500 million and $1 billion, and probably more in the new construction environment.

It’s in Mr Barr’s “nice to have column” but not essential.

It also sits – as it always has – behind a new Canberra Theatre in the government’s priorities.

Which is one reason why the money for a stadium – and yes, it would be great to have – is going to have to come from somewhere else if it is to be built sooner rather than later.

Some of the complaints about services, especially from the Liberal Party, are a bit like the famous line from the Life of Brian – what have the Romans ever done for us?

READ MORE ACT Budget Reaction: Business urges more action on skills, attracting staff

The government has borrowed big – and again been criticised for carrying too much debt – to pay for a bigger hospital, a new northside hospital, a new CIT and public transport interchange in Woden, new schools and to prepare the way for light rail to be extended to Commonwealth Park.

And let’s not forget the pandemic.

Elizabeth Lee

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee: time is running out.

It’s a $7 billion infrastructure program that Mr Barr says is unsustainable and will have to be eventually wound back to more modest levels.

The point is Mr Barr is a fairly orthodox economic manager who guards the Territory’s finances closely but has an uncontroversial Keynesian approach to future generations having skin in the game when it comes to financing long-term assets that will serve the community for many decades.

He also is working with a jurisdiction reliant on Commonwealth money – hence his joy at the population growth and a friendly federal government – and property. It’s a shallow pool that can only get shallower because land is a finite resource.

The Liberals can’t have it both ways and have reverted to going negative without offering their own solutions.

It is absurd to say the government is tired and out of ideas when it continues to announce nation-leading initiatives from EVs to phasing out fossil-fuel gas.

READ ALSO ACT lays ground work to be gas-free by 2045, new connections banned

The no-confidence motions and the call for an integrity committee – we have an Integrity Commission – seem more about attempting to build a narrative and hog the spotlight rather than offering a compelling alternative that the electorate might buy.

The Legislative Assembly does not sit too often and many would conclude that such stunts are wasting its precious time.

It’s not as if the government is perfect, but Canberrans want more than just a broken record of complaint.

It is nearly halfway through the electoral cycle, but we know next to nothing about what the Liberals would do in government.

Where would they find savings? Where would they find more land for stand-alone homes? Would tax reform go on the back burner? Would business and the property industry get a better deal? How would they pay for it? Would they be so supportive of public housing in office? How would they fix the health system? Where would they find more teachers? How committed are they to the government’s climate change program? Would they stick with light rail?

In short, where are the policies? Policies – not just thought bubbles.

Yesterday’s announcement in Ms Lee’s Budget reply that she will take on a new shadow portfolio of Housing Affordability and Choice sounds promising but will only mean something with some flesh on the bones.

Time is running out for Ms Lee, who I fear is not being listened to anymore, and the Canberra Liberals, because the ACT electorate in recent years may have shifted further to the left, is marginalising conservative politics.

By 2024, unless there is a dramatic shift in how they operate in the Assembly and talk to voters, the Canberra Liberals could find themselves relegated to third-party status.

Having to face a fully energised Mr Barr will only make the task harder.

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Sadly, there is a bit of a talent deficit on both sides.
As Treasurer and Chief, Mr Barr has control of the top jobs in the Government, which in itself is a problem for the Government.
I seriously can’t think of anyone in ALP that could take over from him.

Ian, that is a good list of questions, I look forward to your interview with MLA Lee.

Hasn’t taken long for all those Liberal toadies to get started! Blaming the media for the Liberals’ shortcomings. Yep it looks like Labor’s on a roll with the Canberra Libs under Elizabeth Lee looking increasingly unelectable. Roll on Labor!!!

It’s hilarious that you call other people “toadies”, whilst accepting unthinking cheerleading of the ALP from our local media, despite the government having clear failings that should be better tested by both the local opposition and the media.

The local Liberals are woeful, so how do we get better government when the media does nothing but praise the incompetence of our current government?

But I’m sure the Labor “toadies” don’t care, their “team” is in power. Go team, yay.

swaggieswaggie10:31 am 05 Aug 22

Bushnell is a Master of the style and no substance school of journalism – plenty of good looking sentences without much meaning. There is plenty of wastage going on in this town sadly, quite apart from the CIT debacle someone also needs to look at Transport Canberra’s dealings with Ipsos for example. Any “fairly orthodox economic manager” would certainly keep a keen eye on wastage and reign in any sign of profligacy – something Barr seems unable to do.

Ah Bushnell back to his best writing ALP press releases again.

Perhaps if he (and other local media cheerleaders) actually took the same level of effort to properly critique the local government’s performance as they do about the opposition, things might not seem so rosy.

Yep. It would be good if Mr Bushnell could have a think and write about the quarter of Canberrans that Mr Barr isn’t interested in representing or supporting.

The ones who can’t get public housing because Mr Barr got rid of the properties and never replaced them. Those outer suburb people who lost their bus service so an inner north resident could get better public transport. The kids whose public education is suffering because their school and teachers in Tuggeranong don’t get the extra funding they need. The people who lost loved ones because the emergency centre is dysfunctional. The people south of the lake who lost their basketball courts, indoor sports centres, gymnasiums, playgrounds to property developers.

This has become a city of haves and have nots. Mr Barr wins elections by focusing on one side of that cohort.

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