The ACT elections: Labor's to lose

By Dr Chris Aulich
Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra

On October 17th, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) goes to the polls to elect its 10th Legislative Council.

Labor has held government since 2001, often in coalition with the Greens.

Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, faces the Canberra Liberals under Alastair Coe in what is likely to be a very close-run election.

The ACT's unusual system

The ACT government system is unique in Australia.

It gained self-government in 1989 managing both state-government functions (health, education, police, power generation) and local government activities such as provision of water and sewerage services, roads, parks and gardens and local planning.

Being a ‘late-starter’, the ACT was able to cherry-pick its system of government from the experiences of other jurisdictions.

The ACT Legislative Assembly is unicameral as in Queensland and New Zealand, removing both further scrutiny on legislative proposals and also needless delays in passing critical legislation.

The Assembly has 25 members, drawn from five multi-member electorates. There is a fixed term for government with elections held every four years.

The ACT adopted Tasmania’s Hare-Clark voting system which best translates votes most accurately into seats, certainly more so than in systems with single member electorates.

Proportional representation coupled with preferential voting gives more voice to minor parties and interest groups. To be elected, a candidate needs a quota of roughly 16% of votes giving opportunities for the emergence of minor parties or outstanding independent candidates.

The ACT also adopted Tasmania’s Robson rotation of candidates on the ballot paper to ensure that no candidate can be advantaged by their position on the paper, removing the capacity of party headquarters to determine the order of candidates on their party list.

The current Assembly

At the 2016 election Labor won 12 seats, the Liberals 11 and the Greens two.

As Labor was unable govern in its own right it signed a Parliamentary Agreement with the Greens to form government.

The election was very much a referendum on the development of a light rail service and the campaign had been dominated by debates about the costs and benefits of the light rail network.

The Greens have worked with Labor to deliver the first phase of the network and plan for the second stage.

However, the network remains a polarising issue in the Territory and is set to again be an election issue.

Light rail vehicle pulls into terminus in Canberra
Canberra's light rail services began in April 2019. Pic: Wiki Commons

The policies

The ACT is historically a Labor Territory, with all three federal electorates returning Labor candidates. Labor has dominated the Territory Government for nearly 20 years. It is then, an election for Labor to lose.

The advantages of incumbency have been clear in this campaign. Labor claims that it is the most progressive government in the country, one which reflects the preferences and values of ACT residents.

Chief Minister Barr has been widely praised for his handling of the bushfire emergency and the covid pandemic. However, his government has also been accused of favouring developers over the needs of locals and his economic credentials have been challenged by the Opposition with support from former Labor chief minister Jon Stanhope.

The leaders’ debate, held on 30 September, reflected the advantages of incumbency. Labor is standing on its record of economic stewardship. It argues that it has already undertaken significant investment in infrastructure in the areas of health, education and transport and Chief Minister Barr assured electors that funds had already been set aside for the extension of the light rail network and plans were in place to enhance hospital services.

Opposition Leader, Alastair Coe, promises that a Liberal government would address the cost of living for ACT residents by improving the quality of public services and at the same time reduce indirect taxes, specifically residential and commercial rates and vehicle registration.

He would fund the revenue shortfall, calculated at about $47 million, by encouraging greater population growth. Part of this plan is to release more land for housing. Critics have noted that any population increases would require further investment in the provision of public services and that Coe’s economics are just a ‘magic pudding’.

There is a wide gap between the parties in relation to environment and climate change. Labor refers to its success in establishing renewal energy for the Territory and plans to establish a huge solar battery storage unit to provide both renewable energy to the ACT and surpluses to the national grid. The Liberals aim to plant more than a million trees to provide carbon offsets.

Coe has focused his campaign on providing funding for particular interests such as the horse racing industry, Catholic schools, bus transport (primarily to advantage children attending private schools), reducing costs of doctor visits by ‘incentavising’ doctors to increase the rate of bulk billing. The Liberals have promised to focus school curricula on basics but add ‘wellness’ into school programs.

The light rail debate continues. The Labor Coalition is currently in negotiations with potential developers for stage 2 of the network and though releasing a summary of the costs and benefits will not release full details while the project is under commercial discussion.

The Liberals are still conflicted about the project  – they say that they are supportive in principle but cannot give their unconditional approval until costing details are supplied. Liberal candidates have not always been consistent with this policy with one senior member arguing for major route changes at this very late stage, a proposal that was slapped down by Alistair Coe.

A possible outcome?

With electorates having between 55,000 and 62,000 voters, a candidate can be elected with a quota of about 9,000 votes. It might be expected that this small quota might enable strong local, even unaligned candidates, to seek seats in the Assembly.

However, there have been surprising few high-profile independent candidates who have taken advantage of this leaving the contest largely between Labor and the Liberals with the Greens playing a crucial role as possible coalition partners with Labor.

With proportional representation, ‘excess’ votes above the quota for the most popular candidates in any electorate filter down to other candidates in their parties through preferences. The primary votes of key candidates, then, is critical to the final outcome in each electorate.

In 2016, votes for well-known candidates such as Barr, Fitzharris and Berry (Labor) and Hanson and Wall (Liberal) were significant in assisting the election of fellow party members especially the last of the five members to be elected. With Coe enjoying a higher profile as Opposition Leader, and Fitzharris having resigned, it is likely that the electorate of Yerrabi will return three Liberals, buttressed by Coe’s primary vote.

The retirement of prominent Greens member, Caroline Le Couteur, means that the fifth seat in the electorate of Murrumbidgee might well hold the key to who takes government on 17th October. This may depend on the capacity of Green’s leader Shane Rattenbury to lift the overall Green’s vote in the Territory to ensure that Le Couteur is replaced by a Green.

If the Greens cannot retain that vital fifth seat, the seat will be fought out by Labor and the Liberals perhaps handing government to the winner.

In short, the election result seems to depend on the extent to which the three party leaders are able to garner sufficient votes to elect the fifth member in Yerrabi and Murrumbidgee, a matter of just several thousand votes among a total voting population of nearly 300,000.

Banner image: Aerial photograph of the Legislative Council building in Canberra. Source: ACT Legislative Council


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