14 January 2019

Who will be the next chief minister?

| Genevieve Jacobs
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ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr with cabinet ministers Shane Rattenbury, Rachel Stephen-Smith, Meegan Fitzharris, Yvette Berry, Mick Gentleman and Gordon Ramsay. Photo: Charlotte Harper

Is Labor’s incumbency wearing thin? File photo.

ACT Labor’s lengthy incumbency may be wearing thin with some Canberrans, but as next year’s local election approaches, it’s much harder to say who the next chief minister of the ACT is likely to be.

Will Andrew Barr leave the job in the short term? Is he waiting on a Federal Labor win in 2019 to make his move? Can Labor win an election with Meegan Fitzharris as leader? Or could the Liberals turn the tide with Alistair Coe?

ANU political analyst Andrew Hughes believes there may be fatal flaws in the ALP succession strategy as a result of long years in power. That could mean Mr Barr is last in the line of Labor chief ministers – although it’s far from certain that the Territory has a taste for his political opponents.

“If Labor is going to change leaders, they need to do it now so that it looks not just like a smooth transition, but also a necessary one,” Hughes says. “It’s time for a rebuild inside ACT Labor, but there’s a lesson here from Scott Morrison and friends. If you don’t make the change at the right time, you look desperate and self-serving.”

Who Andrew Barr’s successor should be is an open question, as dependent on factional jostling as it is on the available talent. Deputy chief minister Yvette Berry is understood to be a factional choice in the role and unlikely to inherit the mantle from Mr Barr.

Hughes points out that like everywhere, ACT Labor ministries are usually aligned to factional interests: treasury and finance to the right, environment and social welfare portfolios to the left, although the ACT has been an anomaly with independent Labor MLAs.

Where leadership is concerned, however, this becomes critical: a potential chief minister should have experience in a senior portfolio where meaningful success is possible, something like transport where there’s a stream of positive news about taxpayer dollars going to infrastructure investment.

But Meegan Fitzharris, widely seen as Mr Barr’s likely successor, is also burdened with Health where the government has struggled to make a meaningful difference for years. And that lengthy incumbency also means there’s nobody to blame for the problems except themselves.

Meegan Fitzharris

Meegan Fitzharris’s reputation as Minister for Health may have tarnished her chances of being a credible successor to Barr. File photo.

“Health a huge issue,” Hughes says. “People expect Labor to be strong there. Federally the ALP is making a case that the Coalition can’t run health effectively. But exactly that is true of Labor here in the ACT. In this jurisdiction, you have to be able to run a strong campaign on local, family issues. That’s what works with the voters.”

But if Labor struggles to create a plausible narrative about who should inherit the leadership and why, their great good fortune has been in having a weak opposition also seemingly ruled by internal factional struggles rather than how representative they are of the community.

Hughes says the Liberals have been unable to generate momentum for change in the electorate and are beset with leadership issues of their own. “If Alistair Coe loses the next election, it’s curtains for the hard right,” he says.

If Alistair Coe loses the next election, it’s curtains for the hard right, Hughes says. Photo: Twitter.

“The Liberals have struggled to find a decent moderate progressive who suits the electorate. Jeremy Hanson never looked comfortable in the role. There’s some speculation around Mark Parton or Elizabeth Lee as more popular, market-based figures.”

Hughes says it’s inexplicable that the Opposition under Coe hasn’t been able to do a better job with the political material at hand, particularly former Auditor General Maxine Cooper’s pointed criticism about the government’s land dealings.

“They are one seat away from being in power and they should be able to get in,” he says. “Gungahlin, for example, should be a moderate Liberal heartland. But I suspect some Liberals are quite comfortable in Opposition. There’s no pressure to make decisions or take responsibility with the electorate. The party has not reformed how they choose their candidates as Labor’s done.”

He says a strong Opposition would directly reveal government mistakes rather than commenting on them after the fact. “In a real sense, the Opposition role has been played by the local media, not the Liberal Party.”

Hughes says that conversely, there are some senior Labor figures who privately believe a purge would do the ALP good. “Out of office, you can make real internal changes. Difficult, in-depth policy discussions can happen, people can be sorted out. It’s time for a change for everyone in the ACT.”

Who do you think the next ACT chief minister will be?

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HiddenDragon6:16 pm 18 Jan 19

Whether it’s yet another term of Labor/Green, or a once-in-a-century Liberal majority, Canberra desperately needs a Government which truly understands and governs for the tens of thousands of Canberrans who are not doing so well in our increasingly elitist city.

With the background of a very likely federal Labor government, which will be past its honeymoon period by the time of the next Territory election, ACT Labor would be wise to choose a new leader (should that circumstance arise) who can best speak for and connect with that section of our community. If the Liberals are to have a chance, they likewise need to connect meaningfully with Canberra’s “forgotten people”.

Trouble is that Canberra’s population is too small to support self-government as it is currently conceived. That is, the gene pool is too shallow to throw up many (there are, and have been in the past, some) decent candidates especially in the two major parties. So what you get are political flacks, hacks and ideologues with little in the way of policy smarts, deep principles and/or empathy – looking at you, Meegan Fitzharris, Alistair Coe, Vicki Dunne, Yvette Berry and, oh lord, I could probably name most the far from stellar crew currently warming the seats of the Assembly. Note I said most. There are some exceptions: Elizabeth Lee, Caroline Le Couteur, James Milligan and Chris Steele of whom only Steel and Lee would have what it takes to be a decent leader of their party or Chief Minister – that’s bad odds for Canberra. The Libs need to flush out the old guard and start pre-selecting people with intelligence, education, nous, vision and no desire whatever to push a right-wing religious/conservative agenda or to be a perpetual MLA. Labor needs to break free of the factional bind and do the same – the best person, not the entitled faction, for the job. Until they do that they will continue to get Fitzharris-like people – incompetent and unremoveable; or Berry clones – rusted on dynastic Labor, well meaning but ineffectual; or the likes of Bec Cody – enough said. But that’s not going to happen with either party and Canberra will continue to suffer for it.

justin heywood3:29 pm 16 Jan 19

Barr’s been applying for jobs in Melbourne? (from comments below).
That would surely be newsworthy if true.

Capital Retro10:58 am 16 Jan 19

Some one has posted incorrectly that Andrew Barr was an economist.

He studied political science, economics and economic history at the Australian National University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (Policy Studies).

Educated yes, but “unlearned” also.

They probably confused Andrew Barr with Andrew Leigh. Though Leigh is a professor in economics don’t think he ever worked as an economist.

Capital Retro9:23 am 20 Jan 19

Good call, JC.

I expect Andrew Barr to contest next year’s election and points his track record of achievements, which is probably enough to maintain the status quo. The only impediment I can see is if someone can land some substantive criticism of his stewardship on probity grounds.

From where I sit, the Labor government’s biggest failing has been it’s patchy record on implementation and ongoing failure to bring it’s public service chiefs and local unions onto the same page. Health is an ongoing failure area and contrary to the article so are the buses because the TWU continues to flex it’s muscles – look at the weekend arrangements if you do not believe me.

Oh yes, then there is the special place we should reserve for the way the policing arrangements work. Not only will they escape the integrity scrutiny again, the failure to recognise and deal with emerging crime patterns is disturbing, along with the propensity to not keep the local population informed of what is going on.

Capital Retro10:01 pm 14 Jan 19

Funny how the only comments have been about Labor and the Liberals and of course the current CM Andrew Barr who may be known as the CM but in reality is a puppet of the developers, unions and the alphabet communities.

Has everyone forgotten The Green MLA Shane Rattenbury who has clear power over all major decisions in the ACT? What happens if we have a repeat of the 2012 election when Labor and Liberals had equal seats and Rattenbury sold his vote to Labor for a $2 billion tram and other ideologies?

stubby morrison7:01 pm 14 Jan 19

Maybe I’ve missed something but I don’t really see why Labor really needs to replace Andrew Barr. He’s relatively young and he’s only been the leader for a couple years. I guess that’s a long time by the standards of Australian politics but that’s a very very low standard. It’d be kind of a novelty to actually have a leader last a full term. If voters want to get rid of him, well they can do that in 2020.

I do think replacing Alistair Coe with a more moderate leader like Elizabeth Lee would probably improve the Liberals prospects, but if they do want to form government (and I share the suspicion that they might actually like being in opposition because they basically get paid to do nothing) they really need to focus less on whinging about Labor and more on advocating their alternative vision for Canberra. I disagree with the notion that the key to winning an election is simply “revealing government mistakes” – what’s more important is explaining what you’d do instead.

Tend to agree Stubby re: the opposition. They need to clearly articulate a genuine agenda for what you would do instead in Government.

All there seems to be that I can easily remember is: abolishing payroll tax (with no indication of how they would fund the replacement of that revenue – which is somewhere around $500m a year in revenue?), build a water park or several (good idea but a headliner?) and end the ban on greyhound racing (a peripheral issue for many at most).

Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you anything much more about their agenda – and I have a relatively keen interest in local politics… for the average voter, they have little to no idea about what they would actually do if they won Government.

Get a proper agenda, even if it is too skewed to the conservative right. But provide a genuine alternative government and people might actually take you seriously….

Excellent summary that shows how poorly served Canberrans are by local politicians.

Robert of Braddon1:17 pm 14 Jan 19

We are *blessed* with a chief minister who is so staggeringly arrogant and out of touch, and an opposition leader who’s an idealogical zealot with zero life experience. What a ghastly choice.

Oh for the days of Katy and Jeremy—both decent, thoughtful leaders. I think voters really made a large mistake not electing Hanson last time round.

I just can’t see the current crop of ACT Liberals wresting power from Labor.

ACT Labor has a self confessed, Election winning strategy of focusing funding and commitments into key Canberra electorates in the North. No need to change what works.

The current crop of Liberal right wingers seem unable to be able to grab the middle ground and appeal to voters who want evidence and analysis based policy combined with robust and consistent administration of all areas of government.

Get ready for more of the same in local politics.

The only reason more funding goes to the north is because Gungahlin is still the main growth area of Canberra and the City area just so happens to be on the north. But alas I know the obvious doesn’t cut it with those south of the lake. But fear not Gungahlin is almost full so more of that money will head to Molongolo. But the question is, is Molongolo north or south? My guess being an area that straddles the river it will be considered north or south to suit what ever argument one has.

But do believe you are right. For labor to be outed the Libs need massive change and get away from the looney right.

The current crop of Molonglo residents definitely identify as southsiders. It’ll be interesting to see how this will change with the development of Whitlam and the future stage three suburbs north of the Molonglo river corridor.

I’m just quoting from Labor powerbrokers themselves that they need to focus funding and services in the North of Canberra to win the ACT election. I want more funding for Gunghalin, I don’t want it to be like Tuggeranong and end up without the promised Health, Education, Entertainment, Museums and tourist attractions.

It’s the big funding and focus on the inner North, at the expense of other areas of Canberra in dire need that concerns me.

Here’s a newspaper quote from a Labor MLA about this exact issue that I have also heard from ACT Labor strategists on radio a few times “Mr Hargreaves maintains every time he lobbied for more resources for Brindabella, the counter argument from some of his Assembly colleagues was that “to be electorally successful we had to concentrate on Molonglo and Ginninderra”.


Oh please, the infrastructure spend around north Canberra, has been far in excess of what would be justified from a growth perspective. Just happened to conveniently coincide with the areas of most interest to our leader and the areas where they needed to gather (buy) the most votes at the last election as well.

Indeed the light rail project itself is only barely justified by actually creating a large proportion of the northern growth rather than directing the funding to where the growth was naturally occurring.

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