Viewers tuning into the ACT’s only televised leaders debate between Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe last night would be excused for feeling jaded. For the most part, both leaders appeared to stick to their placards.
Mr Barr spoke about his Government’s COVID-19 response and Mr Coe about making Canberra more affordable for families fleeing over the NSW border – although the heat was turned up when questions turned towards health, housing and light rail.
The first question went straight to the Canberra Liberals’ costings and how they would pay for all their election commitments. Liberals leader Mr Coe repeatedly answered that the Liberals would “unashamedly grow the pie”.
The Territory was losing $400 million in land sales and stamp duty from people going over the border to places like Queanbeyan and Googong, he said.
In the last census, thousands had moved from Canberra to the surrounding regions, he said, although he could not provide evidence that this was for cheaper houses when pressed by moderator Adam Shirley.
“If you go to the Googong display office you will see a lot of Canberra number plates there on Saturday of people who are looking to buy a block of land there that they simply cannot afford here in the Territory,” Mr Coe said.
The Chief Minister was on the back foot when it came to health, having nowhere to hide after 20 years of incumbency. He did not commit to a waiting time guarantee, instead touting the government’s investment in the sector and expanded elective surgeries to bring down waiting times.
Mr Coe, on the other hand, committed to reducing wait times in the ACT by 50 per cent, although he was unable to adequately explain how this would be achieved when Mr Shirley pointed out that no other Australian state or jurisdiction had managed the feat.
Nurses, doctors and specialists would be recruited by making Canberra more attractive to live and work through a lower taxes regime Mr Coe said, as Mr Barr criticised the lack of staff and infrastructure to achieve the Liberals’ promise.
Housing was another big point of contention as Mr Coe lambasted overdevelopment in the city – if only Mr Barr built hospitals like he builds apartments, Mr Coe quipped at one stage – but he failed to detail the Liberals’ land release policy to make houses more affordable.
He also avoided detailing whether he would develop west of the Murrumbidgee River near Tuggeranong or Kowen Forest.
Mr Coe appeared to trip over his feet on the topic of light rail, saying that Stage 2 is definitely going to Woden, but that they would first review and publically release the full business case. They would also put the project up for competitive tender, unlike Labor, Mr Coe said.
“We will review the engineering studies and the business case and we will make them public and we will then build it, but we cannot make a blind commitment on the basis of Andrew’s secret negotiations,” he said.
The full business case would be released after commercial negotiations for Stage 2 concluded, Mr Barr said.
“We are in the middle of commercial negotiations. We are not going to reveal our hand to the market.
“It is a project [the Liberals] have never supported and everyone knows that and that is why it was Alistair’s most uncomfortable two minutes of this debate.”
When it came to questions, the Chief Minister was hoping to trip up the Liberals leader by framing him as going against the health experts, questioning why he chose to undermine the Chief Health Officer’s (CHO) COVID-19 response when Mr Coe suggested that “this idea of minimising risk for the sake of minimising risk is absurd”.
Mr Coe doubled down, suggesting that the CHO did not have access to all the evidence when making her decisions.
“We are advocating for a reasonable, evidence-based approach to managing the COVID crisis,” he said.
“We will do what you [Labor] did not do and consult and make sure the CHO had all the information at her disposal from on the ground.
“If you were on the ground and you were hearing what I was hearing, you would know that there were some improvements that could be made on those restrictions.”
Overall, the debate remained quite measured and composed, with neither leader coming out clearly on top. But with the polls already opened the question remains, have the Liberals done enough to unseat Labor after almost two decades?