A year after the ACT election, Andrew Barr governs without inspiration

Here lies the state of ACT politics a year after the 2016 election: an entrenched minority government coasting on victory, an opposition yet to find its feet and more local politicians than ever before.

The big Labor pledges – and the crux of Chief Minister Andrew Barr’s agenda – of light-rail stage one, health investments and “city renewal” are under way. There is no clearer indicator than the trees lost on Northbourne Avenue.

And yet, one year in, the community awaits a wider agenda beyond those promises. Incumbency can breed complacency. Even among the promises made, some will not be completed this term, and others are an experiment in grinding incrementalism.

People want their leaders to inspire them but it seems inspiration – that most intangible of political attributes – is lacking in the ACT.

Put aside the (now nixed) pill-testing trial at the Spilt Milk music festival, which is an obvious exception. The needle-exchange program at the prison is all but cremated, and several other fresh policy ideas are off the agenda for the time being.

From the state of youth detention at Bimberi, throughthe Canberra Hospital’s mental-health ward, the rising number of children in-out-of home care to increased bikie-related shootings – this year has been marked by what Winston Churchill once called “events”, and the government, on each occasion, seems to have been reactive rather than proactive.

Rattled by last year’s tough election campaign and vocal criticism during the last term in office, the Barr government embarked on an unusual year of lengthy consultation. But many business and community leaders worry that such talks are not not genuine and that the government may be using “consultation” as an excuse to kick the can down the road.

In talking to the community – citizen juries and deliberative democracy are the current buzzwords – there seems to be a mismatch between the time given to substantial issues and those some consider of lesser import. Take the three-week public consultation on the substantive election promise of a drug court for the ACT, compared with seven weeks accepting submissions on parks and playground equipment.

While the government maintains it will meet its election pledges, as well those made in Labor’s parliamentary agreement with the Greens, housing policy epitomises how ACT politics has changed.

The 11 separate items under the agreement’s “social housing and housing affordability” measures have morphed into a seven-week consultation, and a lacklustre summit, after which no deadlines seem to apply for when the rubber will hit the road. Indeed, the original promise for a “homelessness summit” morphed from a focussed discussion about people living on Canberra’s streets into one taking in the views of powerful property developers.

Asked repeatedly for an interview for this story, Barr referred the requests to Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris.

Fitzharris says Housing Minister Yvette Berry is passionate and determined to make an impact, including by delivering a second “common ground” housing development before 2020. Berry, for her part, pledged this week a $1 million “innovation fund” for new housing ideas and about 240 extra public housing dwellings, ideas that ignore repeated calls for a substantive $100 million public housing fund.

There is ever-present speculation about Barr’s future.

While the community sector and developers publicly welcome the “engagement”, many privately question the seriousness of the government’s commitment to housing affordability for those who don’t take home a politician’s salary. Some businesspeople also ask whether Barr’s plan to return a budget surplus next year – and controversies surrounding the unsolicited bid to redevelop Manuka, the Land Development Agency and the tax waiver for the Brumbies – have led to an overly cautious approach beyond the prism of specific election commitments.

It remains unclear whether “the chief” – who has been Treasurer since July 2011 – will actually deliver that surplus before the likely handover of the economics portfolio within the year following the 2018 budget. There is ever-present speculation about Barr’s future, though he quickly rejected the idea of nominating for Canberra’s new third federal seat. Yet federal politics must remain an attractive option, even if it challenges his desire to leave a “legacy” of a redeveloped city and and a balanced budget.

Fitzharris says Labor’s 2016 election wins was one of the most “comprehensive” seen in the ACT, but says that, given Barr’s budget agenda, all ministers needed “a pretty sharp focus on prudently managing the budget”. Despite rising concerns about a lack of energy or new ideas emerging from cabinet, she says each minister has “strong ideas” but, one year in, they are still “setting the groundwork” for them.

Fitzharris says the government has built a “strong footing” in the past 12 months to execute its agenda, though it will take time to deliver outcomes. Indeed, in her own portfolio, the $500 million SPIRE health centre is unlikely to be completed until 2022, though she rejects any suggestion it will not be delivered, saying the lengthy time frame is simply a function of budgeting.

Across government, she says the community can expect continued work on “the clear vision the chief and Labor set out for the city as it grows”, and that the government believes “achieving everything would be hugely significant for the city”.

For the opposition, a leadership change and a period of navel-gazing are always expected after an election loss, but some of the Canberra Liberals’ closest stakeholders are waiting for a sign of a genuine vision for the city.

Leader Alistair Coe, for his part, acknowledges the “light-rail debate has been had”. The opposition’s questions now centre on the detail of implementing and integrating it with other transport. But he points to the opposition’s success on “revenge porn”, anti-consorting law proposals and government integrity, with constant concerns that the ACT’s two new land agencies could suffer similar ailments to the now-defunct Land Development Agency.

While Coe notes the opposition does not have a “full suite of policies”, he is focussed on “fighting battles we can win” and promising more on an “economic vision” in coming months. The expectation remains that, next year, his opposition will give the community a better idea of what the party may look like in government.

One indicator, perhaps, of a renewed opposition, and possibly of the enlarged Legislative Assembly, is the 770 questions on notice – many of which are detailed, multi-part questions – posed in the past 12 months. While in the sixth and seventh assemblies, 2441 and 2216 such questions were posed respectively, just 791 such queries were filed in the entirety of the eighth Assembly, when Zed Seselja and then Jeremy Hanson were opposition leaders.

A steady hand has brought some stability to the opposition, though not enough to dispel continued talk of a less-conservative leader returning.

Coe’s focus for the next 12 months will be on three key issues: cost of living, government integrity and “fairness”. He says he is “concentrating on the real issues rather than trying to position ourselves on some philosophical spectrum”.

For the Greens, leader Shane Rattenbury is keen to talk up his party’s power. While he sits in cabinet, the other Greens member, Caroline Le Couteur, has the freedom to loudly voice the party’s wider agenda.

There have been few Greens amendments to government legislation rejected in the Assembly, indicating that agreements are reached well before public debate begins. Indeed, the minor party has backed the government on almost all substantive motions – not just those required under the official agreement to maintain stable government.

It shows either the political reality of the two coalition partners’ interdependence, a lack of independence from the minor party, or perhaps a measure of both.

Both Fitzharris and Rattenbury speak of “a partnership”, though Rattenbury says it is a “two-party government”, despite Labor’s cabinet dominance, that the Greens “bring a different flavour to”. He says there were times when both parties persuaded each other of “a different course of action” but the public doesn’t get to see that happens “in cabinet or informal discussions”.

Rattenbury says many ideas the Greens took to the last election have “come to fruition or are under way”, such as light rail and renewable energy, and that the party’s principles of “sustainability and social justice” are now also felt in the government’s agenda.

Others question whether, now in a third successive term of minority government and given its numbers, the minor party is flexing its muscle or is merely content to continue to ride on Labor’s coat-tails.

Daniel Burdon reports on ACT politics for The Canberra Times.