The ACT Government has not had a great year.
It can’t find enough teachers to staff schools, the Calwell High closure damaged the public system, the public housing renewal program is faltering, the hospitals are overflowing and sick people are being told to avoid the ED, and now the corruption watchdog will investigate the Canberra Institute of Technology’s contracts scandal.
In previous years, Chief Minister Andrew Barr would be front and centre putting out fires, taking action and defending the government.
But this year, he has hardly been visible, instead delegating responsibility to the relevant Ministers to sort their own messes out.
Speculation is growing that Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith has been anointed to succeed Mr Barr as Chief Minister.*
That would set up an intriguing contest with Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee in 2024.
The three most visible Labor Ministers – Ms Stephen-Smith, Deputy Chief Minister Yvette Berry, and the “minister for everything” Chris Steel – have been in the crucible.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – there are now more people in hospital with the virus than ever – and the bed block and ED troubles have kept Ms Stephen-Smith on the defensive, overshadowing the good news of construction starting on the Canberra Hospital expansion.
Last year during pandemic restrictions, Mr Barr attended press conference after press conference with Ms Stephen-Smith but has quietly slipped from view to leave her to find her own way, and is possibly part of a strategy to groom her for the leadership.
A sometimes besieged Ms Berry has had to deal with both schools and the ongoing attempt to relocate public housing tenants as part of Housing ACT’s plans to finance and build new dwellings.
The latter, despite its good intentions to provide new public housing, has been handled poorly and attracted bad headlines and alienated the peak social services body.
Mr Steel, used to announcing infrastructure projects such as light rail and the Woden CIT, has found himself unable to defend an institution that should be the leading provider of skills training in the ACT.
He is also desperately distancing himself from the CIT Board and its CEO Leanne Cover, who has been forced to take leave and whose future looks bleak.
The Opposition, already sensing that the government is vulnerable on the way millions of dollars worth of contracts are awarded after an unfavourable audit report on the Campbell Primary upgrade, wants to know just how much Mr Steel knew and when about the $8.5 million in contracts awarded to a “systems and complexity thinker” over four years.
The issue is now with the ACT Integrity Commission, which will give him some respite, but in the end, the outcome remains unpredictable.
Mr Barr has remained aloof from the government’s troubles, and recently, no doubt, he has been hunkered down with Treasury officials working on the ACT Budget, to be delivered in a little more than a month on 2 August.
He has turned out for minor press events such as a Truffle Festival launch and welcomed the election result, but there have been no interventions to rescue his ministers or bolster them in front of the camera, suggesting that he is preparing them for a time when they will be completely on their own.
Either that, or he is intentionally keeping his distance to avoid being dragged into any mess.
Mr Barr has had his moments with the media, infamously being caught saying he hated journalists, and while he managed to move on from that, he can sometimes give journalists who ask questions he doesn’t like very short shrift.
At times, he can also appear a little bored with public engagement after so long in the job.
Mr Barr has already said that he will be handing over the Budget to a new Treasurer during the term, that means 2023 or 2024.
Might he next be announcing his departure from the Legislative Assembly closer to the election after dominating ACT politics since he became Chief Minister in 2014?
His absence is being noted, although, of course, he attended the recent National Cabinet meeting.
And while there is no doubt he keeps busy, the ACT needs a Chief Minister to be seen and leading, especially in these tumultuous times. Even if there is an exit plan.
His ministers could also do with a bit of help.
*This article originally said Ms Stephen-Smith represented the ACT at the NZ High Commission’s recent function. This was incorrect. Both Mr Barr and Ms Stephen-Smith attended.