Returning Chief Minister Andrew Barr, opening the Tenth Session of the ACT Legislative Assembly on Tuesday after Labor’s narrow victory last month, said he was proud and humbled to lead the most progressive jurisdiction in Australia.
“This year has been a year like no other – from bushfires to toxic smoke to devastating hailstorms, and then a global pandemic,” Mr Barr said. “Throughout all of this, protecting the health and livelihoods of Canberrans has been our top priority, and that will remain so as we continue to focus on our economic recovery.
“In these most difficult of times, the people of the ACT have voted for a progressive government and an ambitious vision for the future. They also voted for a clear and comprehensive economic plan as we emerge from the greatest economic challenge of our self-governing era.
“We will remain focused on this. We know the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and there is a lot more work to do. Our community will need continued support as we respond to the ongoing threat of coronavirus.”
Employment – protecting and creating jobs – was central to the Territory’s economic recovery, Mr Barr said.
“Significant investment across a range of areas – including health, education, and renewable energy – will continue to create jobs and keep people in work.”
The ACT has the second strongest economy in Australia after Tasmania, according to the October 2020 State of the States report, the Chief Minister pointed out; it has maintained the lowest unemployment rate in the country, and was the only jurisdiction to see unemployment fall in the past quarter to 3.8%.
Mr Barr said the government was committed to growing Canberra’s employment base (of nearly 248,000 people, according to the November 2020 Economic Indicator Summary) to more than 250,000 jobs by 2025. Extending the contentious Light Rail Project south was expected to create 6,000 jobs.
The Government would also invest in quality healthcare, Mr Barr said. “2020 has clearly highlighted the incredible work of our health professionals … Our effective response to the pandemic would not have been possible without them.”
The Government said it would expand the Canberra Hospital, and hire at least 400 new nurses, doctors, and healthcare professionals across the Territory’s health system. They would also start a new network of walk-in health centres across Canberra; build a new elective surgery centre at the University of Canberra Hospital Precinct, expected to deliver 60,000 elective surgeries over the next four years; establish a centre for excellence in caring for older people at Calvary Hospital; and increase investment in mental health funding.
Mr Barr also paid tribute to the Canberra teachers who “were there when we needed them most, ensuring children continued to learn even at the peak, the first wave of the pandemic”.
The Government would ensure that ACT public school teachers remained the best paid in Australia, Mr Barr said, while 400 new teachers, support staff, and teacher librarians would be employed. They would invest in digital learning for public schools; provide laptops to every public high school and college student; provide 300 vulnerable households with internet access; and establish a $12 million Future of Education equity fund to help disadvantaged families meet educational expenses.
The ACT is also leading the way nationally in green energy and inclusiveness, Mr Barr argued. The Territory was the renewable energy capital of Australia: already the first jurisdiction to be entirely powered by renewable electricity, Mr Barr intends to build the biggest renewable battery storage system in the country.
“We will continue to reduce emissions without placing financial pressure on households,” Mr Barr said.
Canberra, Mr Barr said with pride, was also Australia’s most inclusive city.
“The Government is committed to ensuring Canberra remains an inclusive and welcoming place to live.”
It is also the most LGBTIQ+ welcoming city in the country.
Building on the government’s Capital of Equality Strategy and Action Plan (2019–23), Mr Barr intends to modernise the Territory’s Discrimination Act.
Mr Barr himself is openly gay, and commented that it was nice to be able to thank his husband, Anthony; four years ago, at the start of the Ninth Session, gay marriage was still not legal.
“We’re committed to understanding and responding to the needs of everyone in the community as we face the impacts of COVID-19 together,” Mr Barr said.
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