11 October 2020

The trials and tribulations of a first-time ACT election

| Dominic Giannini
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Mr Smiggle

Mr Smiggle takes a look at Region Media’s election coverage strategy. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Bright-eyed and Bushnell-tailed, I prepared to tackle my first ACT election – covering all the daily announcements and policy commitments.

Coming onto the campaign trail under the wings of two highly experienced Canberra reporters – RiotACT senior journalist Ian Bushnell and Region Media Group Editor Genevieve Jacobs – I was all optimism and enthusiasm.

I, for one, was excited about the election. Hi-vis vests, photo ops at coffee shops and a Chief Minister who outs your “fishing question” on livestream, what more could you want?

And then I realised, most people in Canberra are about as keen on a local government election as they are on a mid-winter swim in Lake Burley Griffin.

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“There’s an election this year?” commented one Canberra resident of almost a decade. Another asked for a rundown once the corflutes started popping up.

“Do we even have big issues in Canberra?”

Her eyes only lit up when the carp-fishing contest and return of the Birdman Rally were promised by the newly formed Belco Party.

As it turns out, unlike the politicians and punters on the hill, as long as the bins are collected, many Canberrans don’t really care who’s in government locally.

Many don’t even know the Chief Minister’s name (Andrew Barr) or how many people are in their Territory’s Legislative Assembly (25).

In fairness, the ACT has electorates a quarter the size of the City of Sydney Council and I could name the number of times I have engaged with my local councillors as a young person on one hand (zero).

Most Sydneysiders wouldn’t know how many councillors they had, and don’t pay much attention to their state government either – well, at least right up until the point that koalas threatened to implode the sitting government.

Most people from Sydney also didn’t know Canberra has a local government until a state of emergency forced the cancellation of the Castaway music festival during the bushfires.

But I digress.

Coming from Sydney, the trail has been an odd one for me. The ACT has electoral issues covering everything from school signs and buses to National Cabinet deliberations and COVID-19 restrictions and recovery.

The confluence of council and state government responsibilities has made this election interesting, to say the least. Who knew there could be so much debate surrounding school zone lights and buses?

There have been the usual education and health funding promises with the odd resurgence of firework policy sprinkled here and there to keep you on your toes.

To my mind, the biggest casualty of a drawn-out campaign is the off-camera authenticity politicians can display.

Each candidate is pigeon-holed into their policy positions with a rigid on-camera demeanour. Voters don’t get to see an affable and cordial Alistair Coe, an amiable Andrew Barr or a mental health minister who genuinely cares about making change.

It is these sides of politicians that often come to light after a press conference that go unnoticed by the public, who switch off election coverage after weeks of what appears to be much of the same.

Mr Coe even made apple pies this week.

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