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.
“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.
“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?