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A less than usual election coming up

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 12 September 2016

On October 15th the citizens of the Australian Capital Territory will go to the polls to elect their representatives, and through them their Government. No one much outside the ACT will pay much attention, but I do, since I live there and will be voting. Of course, the result, whatever it is, will be seen as a pointer to the next Federal election, and denied by the other side, dismissing it as simply local. But there are a number of reasons why those interested in politics at all should watch what is happening, because this one is not simply the usual poll.

The ACT has four-year fixed-term parliaments, so the date of the election is not subject to the caprice of the Chief Minister. There is no upper house, so the Legislative Assembly is supreme. The voting system is a form of proportional representation, and candidates are given even chances at the donkey voters through Robson rotation, where ballot papers are printed so that each candidate gets an equal share of each position on the list on the ballot paper.

The most interesting aspect of the election is that the Legislative Assembly has been enlarged to 25 members, so that the three multi-member seats returning, five, five and seven MLAs have been replaced by five new electorates, each returning five MLAs. That means that the whole shooting match has been changed almost completely. The system of proportional representation tends to produce a Legislative Assembly with almost equal representation from the major parties. Indeed the present Assembly, in which the Labor Government of Andrew Barr is now operating in caretaker mode, had eight Liberals, eight from the ALP, and one Green. The Green, who had been Speaker in the previous Assembly, is currently a Minister in a Labor-Green coalition.


If you turn three electorates into five you change all the boundaries, so the new electorates are  different, and have different names as well. Along with these changes has come a flurry of new candidates, as well as those whose names are known to us because they have been sitting MLAs. In our area the Liberals have been quick to advertise their standard-bearers, three of who are young women (I speak as a 79-year-old) with impressive credentials. One is a former RAAF aviator, another is a budget officer in the Federal Department of Finance, and the third is a Korean/Australian woman who teaches law at the ANU. Someone letter-boxing for one of the Labor candidates said clearly and slowly to us that the candidate was not aligned to any faction and was not a union member! The local CFMEU has had some bad publicity in the past year or so.

So the field is wide open in some respects. At least ten of the to-be-elected MLAs will be new. The phrase ‘freedom of choice’ is floating around my mind. I don’t think I’ve had such an opportunity since the first election for the ACT Legislative Assembly back in March 1989, when four of those elected were opposed to self-government anyway. Tough. The Hawke Government had made the decision, and the ACT has had to live with ever since. I should say that most of the MLAs since then have been respectable, sensible people who take their work seriously. Without wishing to make invidious distinctions, I would think the quality of the ACT’s elected representatives has been at least on par with the best of those in the State Assemblies. (As with all jurisdictions, there have been a few lemons.)

What about the issues? Well, the Barr Government has committed itself to light rail (‘tram’) as the beginning of a long-term public transport solution to the large, sprawling city’s love affair with cars — Canberra was, of course, designed and built as cars became the most desired form of transport. The problem is that the first, expensive, line connects very few Canberrans with the city centre. The Barr  Government is also committed to paying for alternative energy (wind and solar, but mostly wind) by 2025 to the level that would equal the ACT’s total electricity consumption. This WILL NOT mean that Canberrans have no carbon footprint, or anything like that. Seventy-three per cent of ACT electricity will still be coming from coal, 13 per cent from natural gas, and nine percent from hydro. The Liberals have decided that they’re not going to contest this absurdity, mostly because a majority of Canberrans ‘believe’ in ‘climate change’.

Moreover, while  the Liberals think that the tram issue is decisive for them, they have added a major hospital building and renovation to show what they would do with the money not spent on the tram. Labor has announced that it will build an even bigger hospital, but not until after 2019 (it would not have the necessary money until then).

The Liberals have something of any image problem, which is the case with most oppositions, most of the time. But the Barr Government has one too. Labor has been in power now since 2001 and, as always happens with long-lived governments, its members have got used to power, and think life should always be like this. Around long-lived governments there grows a web of expectations. You want to talk to Minister So-and-so? Have a chat to X (not a staffer or an MLA), who’ll tell you if the Minister might be interested in what you want. There are brokers and fixers and useful contacts. In a recent case, the government looked as though it was listening too intently to a major developer who had ideas for a new stadium and some new residential development at Manuka Oval. That caused fury.

Then, only a few weeks ago, the Barr Government persuaded a former Liberal leader, Brendan Smyth, that he should leave the Assembly and accept a five-year $300k-a-year job as kind of business ambassador for the ACT. This little offer seems not to have gone through the usual channels, been advertised, or budgeted for, and seems also to have been accepted at once. Now Mr Smyth was a popular MLA, and probably worth a quota and a half at election time. Little moves like that do not smell of roses. I need to make clear that both sides have done that sort of thing in the past in order to reduce the popular vote of the other side. But this government has been in office for fifteen years, and I am beginning to hear again the ‘It’s time!’ whisper of 1972.


The ordinary assumption is that Labor and the Liberals would get twelve seats each, with one going to the Greens: that’s what PR ordains. But with so many new seats, much will depend on how attractive they seem to a somewhat weary electorate. The quota for election is that fraction of the vote which is one over one more than the number of seats to be filled, plus one vote. With five seats, that means a sixth plus one vote, or a quota of 16.67 per cent. I would not be surprised if some candidates other than the major parties and the Greens finally get up. We won’t know who all the candidates are for another week. Nor would I be surprised at any outcome in terms of the Government to be formed, when all the electoral dust has settled.

For my part, I hold to the view that long-lived governments are bad for democracy. I know the Chief Minister, like him, and think he has done a decent job. But it seems to me also that it would be better for everyone if the Labor Party had some time in Opposition. It is a great period in which to work out afresh what you really are for. As for the light rail, it is not an issue of importance for me. Maybe the Barr Government was right about that. None of us will know for twenty years. As I wrote in a piece for the local newspaper, making those decisions is what governments are for. Nor is the hospital proposal central for me. All our health systems, nationwide, are in stress. If the Liberals win and start work on the hospital, will they be able to find the necessary nurses and doctors? Will they be able to pay staff properly? Buildings are fine. But having them work well is much more important.

So, there’s more campaigning ahead for Canberra voters. But this time the outcome will be hard to pick.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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