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.
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?
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.
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.
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.