With Canberrans already heading to the polls in droves due to a push to vote early, Canberra Weekly has dissected the battle lines upon which ACT election 2020 is being fought leading up to election day, Saturday 17 October.
Without a key issue like 2016’s light rail to debate, incumbent Chief Minister, ACT Labor leader Andrew Barr, and Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe have made their respective point of differences clear early in the three-week campaign.
For the Canberra Liberals, the crux of their proposition is Mr Coe’s often-heard catch cry, to make Canberra “the best place to live, work and raise a family”.
Mr Coe has said the Liberals will bring a “fresh vision” for Canberra after 19 years of an “old and tired” Labor government – promising to cut taxes and improve services.
The Liberals have called the Barr government stale, arrogant and too focused on their inner-north stronghold at the expense of Canberra’s suburban fringes.
Conversely, ACT Labor’s sell for another four years in government has centred on the stability they’ve brought over the last six years with Barr at the helm, and their plans to rebuild Canberra’s economy out of the pandemic with job promises and big-ticket infrastructure projects.
“ACT Labor is progressive, experienced and has a strong track record of delivering on our promises,” Mr Barr said.
Labor’s criticism of the Canberra Liberals is that Mr Coe would be an incompetent “L-plate” leader, even letterboxing L-plate flyers across Canberra to drive that message home.
ACT Labor’s key promises
ACT Labor’s argument to retain government from the ACT election 2020 is that they have the “right plan” for Canberra’s economic recovery as the city emerges out of the pandemic, ambitiously promising to have 250,000 people employed locally by 2025.
Prior to the pandemic, employment in the ACT was sitting at 238,300 but has reduced to 233,400 amid COVID-19.
“Despite the bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic, the ACT still has the strongest labour market and lowest unemployment rate in the nation,” Mr Barr said.
Labor has promised to continue creating jobs and continue rolling out their $4 billion infrastructure investment program which includes Light Rail Stage 2, the Canberra Hospital expansion, a new CIT campus and transport interchange in Woden, and three new schools dotted across the city.
They said they will add thousands of new jobs to the ACT public service with 400 new jobs for health professionals to staff the hospital expansion and additional nurse-led walk-in health centres, over 400 additional teachers to staff their new schools, and 2,000 new jobs in the environmental sector in the next four-year term of government.
They will also look to incentivise private sector investment and aid small and medium-sized enterprises by maintaining their $2m payroll tax-free threshold and exploring “new ways to give further opportunities to local SMEs to do business with government”.
The Canberra Liberals’ key promises
In response to their main criticism of Labor making Canberra too expensive, the Canberra Liberals have, in turn, promised to freeze rates for four years and release more land should they win ACT election 2020.
“Too many people are being priced out of Canberra. We don’t think it’s fair that so many Canberrans are finding it so hard to live in this city,” Mr Coe said.
Their slate of improved services and infrastructure includes an expansion of bus services, $40 million worth of road maintenance works, $50 million spent creating new parking spaces across Canberra, and at least five new multi-purpose indoor sports centres across Canberra.
The Liberals’ central promise to lower taxes and fees while simultaneously upgrading and improving services has been reiterated without a detailed explanation to date for how it will be paid for.
Mr Coe has said he will pay for his promises by obtaining more revenue from growing Canberra’s population.
Mr Barr has countered that by saying a bigger population means a greater demand for government services.
ACT Labor has been singled out by their opposition for an increase in emergency department waiting times and elective surgery waiting lists under their watch.
Mr Barr has responded by pointing to the five nurse-led walk-in centres they’ve established, the 2018 opening of Belconnen’s UC Hospital – a specialist rehabilitation centre – and their expansion of Calvary Hospital’s emergency department.
Labor has also promised to complete the long-awaited $500 million Canberra Hospital expansion in the next term and build a northside elective surgery centre at UC Hospital.
“We’re not providing a waitlist guarantee; what we’re providing is a commitment to deliver more elective surgeries,” Mr Barr said.
The Canberra Liberals have promised to halve elective surgery waiting times and emergency department waiting times in addition to more gap-free and after-hours GP services across Canberra through a targeted business assistance program for local GPs.
Having been criticised for the ACT’s education standards going backwards under their watch, Labor’s education policy focuses on creating “equal opportunities for all children”.
“The ACT education system is world class. It’s well resourced, that we must maintain a focus on ensuring funding according to need, and we must address equity within our system,” Mr Barr said.
“Public education caters for the vast majority of students in this city, including the most disadvantaged; public education must come first.”
In contrast, the Liberals have promised “fairer funding” for schools, with $16.8 million going to Canberra Catholic schools and no reductions in funding for government schools.
“Regardless of whether you’re in a Catholic school, or a non-government, independent school, or in a public school, I want all Canberrans to get the world class education that they deserve,” Mr Coe said.
The Canberra Liberals have also promised to spend $12.5 million on school safety upgrades across town, to establish a specialised trade school for student in years nine-12, and to offer families with primary school aged children access to free before and after school care.
ACT Labor and the Canberra Liberals have a fundamental philosophical difference when it comes to transport that’s become clear in their respective policies ahead of ACT election 2020.
ACT Labor have for some time openly stated their strategy to subtly discourage private transport use in favour of public and active modes of transportation to lower emissions, while the Canberra Liberals say they want to make the daily commute for Canberrans “less stressful and more affordable”.
The Liberals have promised a $50 million “Local Parking Fund” that will create 2,500 new parking spaces concentrated around local shops and town centres.
They will also make parking across Canberra free after 5.30pm and lower the cost of private car registration to NSW levels, creating a saving of almost $100 per vehicle per annum.
On public transport, the Canberra Liberals have promised to re-establish school buses “where necessary”, and briefly even considered rerouting Light Rail Stage 2 to Belconnen before quickly reverting, having now confirmed they will bring light rail stage 2 to Woden.
ACT Labor’s promises have primarily focused on public and active transport and include a pledge to build light rail to Woden, the purchase of 90 electric buses over the next parliamentary term, and a new Woden transport interchange integrated into the new CIT campus.
Labor has also promised a few road duplications, while both parties have pledged several major road upgrades including the partially Commonwealth-funded final stages of John Gorton Drive including a new Molonglo River Bridge at Coppins Crossing, and a Monaro Highway upgrade.
The Canberra Liberals have made two major environmental pledges, which include their plan to plant and care for one million trees across Canberra over the next decade – with $5.8 million confirmed funding over the next four years for 400,000 trees – and their “green space guarantee” that every Canberran would live just a 10-minute walk from green space.
The Liberals have also promised to renew the ACT’s commitment to 100% renewable energy and maintain the ACT’s budgeted commitment to transition to a zero-emission bus fleet by 2040.
In turn, ACT Labor have promised to plant and care for the 450,000 trees necessary to reach their 30% tree canopy target.
Labor’s headline environment pledges home in on their long-term goal to achieve zero net emissions by 2045; with a $150 million zero-interest loans scheme for households to purchase solar panels, batteries and high efficiency heat pumps, and move away from gas.
They’ve also promised to install a $100 million “Big Canberra Battery”, a city-wide network of renewable energy batteries to be built over five years if they win ACT election 2020.
It would become the nation’s largest battery storage system, holding up to 250MW – significantly more than South Australia’s 150MW battery.
Labor have also reiterated their 2045 target to transition households away from gas appliances to electric after a push from the ACT Greens to bring their target forward five years.
“Our approach is going to be in partnership with households when they are ready to make that shift,” Mr Barr said.