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Sunday, June 20, 2021

Does the Liberals’ attack on the government hold water?

On Thursday, Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee said two decades of Labor government had let down thousands of Canberrans, particularly the most vulnerable. (See our story.)

“This is a government that has been in power for 20 years,” Ms Lee said. “This government has had more than enough time to demonstrate to the Canberra public that No. 1, they care; and No. 2, that they actually can do something about it. And they have failed each and every time.”


“We have some of the worst waiting times in our hospitals … the longest Emergency Department wait times in the country, and patients are treated in hallways at the Canberra Hospital,” Ms Lee said.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare revealed last year that Canberra had the longest waiting times in the country. The ACT Public Health Services quarterly performance report confirmed that in May: median wait times for patients needing urgent treatment were 75 minutes – more than double the national benchmark of 30 minutes, commented Shadow Health Minister Giulia Jones.

This week, one woman wrote on Facebook, her 87-year-old father with dementia was taken by ambulance to ER and left on a bed in a corridor for seven hours. Last month, patients were treated in corridors or paediatric wards due to a shortage of beds. In November and December last year, the Canberra Hospital, unable to cope with a record number of patients, sent patients to Calvary. Mrs Jones had spoken to hundreds of Canberrans increasingly frustrated by their experiences at the hospital, Ms Lee said.

The main problem, Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith has said, is patient flow, whether from NSW or people coming to emergency departments unnecessarily. The expanded Canberra Hospital’s emergency department will be more efficient; its 72 emergency department spaces designed to treat and discharge patients quickly, Ms Stephen-Smith said in May.

More than 7,000 people were on a waiting list for endoscopy (digestive tract examination), with a median wait time of 519 days, it was revealed last month. Two people had developed cancer while waiting more than a year to be seen.

Ms Stephen-Smith said the problem is that more people are being screened for bowel cancer. The ACT Government will audit the waiting list and report to the Assembly in September.


“We have overcrowding and crumbling school infrastructure and declining academic standards,” Ms Lee said.

Submissions to the ACT Government’s Standing Committee on Education and Community Inclusion complain of overcrowded classes, rundown buildings, and unusable bathrooms that reek of urine. Other schools contain lead dust and asbestos (low risk, and being managed, the government says).

The ACT Government has committed more than $114 million to upgrade public schools over the next four years, on top of funding for regular repairs and maintenance, said Yvette Berry, Minister for Education and Early Childhood. This follows a $99 million investment over the last four years.

Former (Liberal) Chief Minister Gary Humphries’ column this week discusses some of the problems in the ACT education system. Margaret Hendry School, Taylor, adopts student-centred learning; in practice, some parents have complained, this unstructured approach means bullying, anxiety, and suspensions, and children falling behind in literacy and maths. On the most recent NAPLAN test, the ACT performed below NSW and Victoria, and below the national average for numeracy in several classes. This follows scathing reviews of the ACT education system by Victoria University, the Grattan Institute, and the ACT’s own Auditor-General over the past four years.

But the ACT must be doing something right: in December, an OECD test showed that Canberra students performed significantly better on average than students across Australia in maths, science, and reading.

Housing and poverty

“We have some deplorable public housing conditions that are unliveable,” Ms Lee said. “We have the highest rental costs of any city in Australia. Thousands of Canberrans are on the public housing waiting list while hundreds of properties sit empty.”

Canberra is the most expensive city in Australia to rent; houses and units are beyond the reach of some on lower incomes. At the same time, the ACT has a shortfall of 3,000 public housing dwellings; more than 2,700 people wait on average 3 ½ years for social housing.

Liberal MLA Mark Parton, Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness, proposed measures to ease housing stress. Although they were based on methods tried successfully in other states, and welcomed by community housing organisations, the Labor-Greens government voted against them, arguing the ACT Housing Strategy worked on similar lines.

More than 400 properties remained unoccupied – including a $2.6 million Braddon public housing complex that had been empty for five years, the Liberals said in April.

According to the ACT Government, however, 96% of public housing dwellings were occupied. The 406 empty ones were an expected part of ebb and flow due to renewal; they would be sold or redeveloped, maintained or repaired, or allocated to new tenants.

The ACT has also embarked on what Chief Minister Andrew Barr called the largest-ever investment in public housing renewal, repair, and expansion in its history, spending a billion dollars over a decade.

This week, the Liberals have advocated for public housing tenants living in Braddon flats full of mould, dead birds, and maggots. Some had complained three years ago, Ms Lee said; the government had done nothing. Housing ACT said it encouraged tenants to raise maintenance issues.

Earlier this year, the Liberals called for an investigation into ACT poverty – a triparty task force, backed by ACTCOSS. That too was rejected. Ms Lee stated that almost 38,000 people live in poverty (including 8,000 children); more than 2,500 people in low-income households had trouble providing food; and 9,500 low-income households struggled to pay the rent. Twenty years of ACT Labor government were responsible for the higher cost of living and for thousands of Canberrans living in poverty, Ms Lee argued.

Government ministers responded that a taskforce would be unnecessary and delay action; causes were known – including the Federal Liberals’ inadequate welfare payments.


“We have a failing prison with the highest rate of Indigenous incarceration in Australia,” Ms Lee said.

Indigenous people were 19 times more likely to be imprisoned than other Canberrans, according to the Productivity Commission, and the incarceration rate had quadrupled over the last decade.

“It is a disgraceful legacy of this government and their failures in protecting and supporting our Indigenous Canberrans,” Ms Lee said.

The Alexander Maconochie Centre, Canberra’s prison, was “a bloodbath” for Indigenous people, Aboriginal advocate Julie Tongs said: alleged strip-searches of rape victims, bashings, and black deaths in custody.

The Liberals had called for an investigation into systemic racism at the prison, put forward on behalf of the Indigenous community; the government rejected that motion. Instead, they would proceed with their review into overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system (a different matter, experts say).

The government does, however, recognise that the prison needs reform. There have been two riots there since November – one apparently mismanaged by the former commissioner (since moved to a new role) – and prison officers have been attacked by inmates. Christine Nixon, former police commissioner, will chair a corrections oversight committee – and be paid $2,000 a day, to do a job the Liberals say the government should do.


The ACT had the lowest number of police per capita in Australia, Ms Lee said (206 per 100,000 people in 2020–21 compared to an average of 281, down from 231 in 2012–13). It also has fewer operational staff than a decade before (696 sworn officers in 2020–21, compared to 706 in 2012–13); and spent least per capita on police in Australia ($433 compared to a national average of $518, down from $459 in 2012–13), according to the Productivity Commission. Liberal MLA Jeremy Hanson, Shadow Minister for Police, blames the ACT Government’s cutting $15 million from the ACT Policing budget in 2013.

In April, Mr Hanson called on the ACT Government to increase police numbers per capita to NSW levels by 2024, and to establish a police station in Molonglo by the end of 2022.

The Australian Federal Police Association had said that its ACT members were “burnt out”: “Police officers are constantly asked to do more with less, and police officers are breaking as a result.” Locals said there was no meaningful police presence in areas like Weston Creek or Molonglo; some had to wait more than an hour for police callouts, and residents were terrified.

The Labor government responded that Mr Hanson’s claims were political rhetoric, and that he ignored government investment. Crime rates in the ACT were on average lower than a decade before, and the $33.9 million Police Service Model would deliver more than 60 police in its first four years. The government will build a new traffic operational centre (announced this week), and was considering upgrades to other facilities.


“We have skyrocketing electricity prices and rates,” Ms Lee said.

Electricity prices will increase from 1 July, the ACT’s economic regulator announced this week; the average household’s yearly electricity bill will increase by $195, and small businesses’ electricity costs will increase by $751.

The ACT Government has introduced measures to help 31,000 lower income households.

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