On a bleak winter morning, the picture of Canberra that Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee painted was bleaker still.
Some of the worst hospital waiting times in Australia. Overcrowded, crumbling schools and declining academic standards. Deplorable, unliveable public housing. The highest rental costs in the country. Thousands waiting for public housing while hundreds of properties sat empty. Skyrocketing electricity prices and rates. A failing prison with the highest Indigenous incarceration rates in the country. The lowest police per capita in Australia. Broken and neglected footpaths, roads, and streetlights. And nearly 40,000 Canberrans living in poverty. (Do these claims check out? See our other story.)
These, Ms Lee argued on Thursday, were the result of a complacent Labor Party that had been in power for too long, and had forgotten about the people it was there to serve.
“This is a government that is not governing for the best interests of Canberrans,” Ms Lee said. “This is a government that has the wrong priorities, and this is a government that is letting down thousands and thousands of Canberrans, especially some of the most vulnerable members of our community.
“This government has been given an almost unprecedented privilege of being in power for 20 years – and it is clear, if you look at their record, that they have stopped caring, and that they have lost their heart.”
This image of destitution and heartlessness certainly does not fit the rosy view of Canberra that the government promotes.
Their Canberra is a progressive town. The nation’s renewable energy capital. Australia’s most inclusive city. The country’s second strongest economy, with the lowest unemployment rate. Australia’s most liveable city, the world’s fifth healthiest city, the world’s most sustainable city. A clean, green, modern city of light rail and electric vehicles, of national parks and rainbow roundabouts, home to an educated, urbane, prosperous citizenry.
“We’re focused on jobs, economic recovery, ensuring that we remain a COVID -safe jurisdiction, that we deliver on our side of the vaccination bargain,” Chief Minister Andrew Barr said.
“So look, really, Opposition [are] scratching for something to say at the moment. I’ve remained focused on the job I was elected to do, and the delivery of the election commitments that we took to last October’s election.”
Mr Barr was speaking at the announcement that Jetstar would make its first flights out of Canberra. “This is real and tangible. It translates into jobs for Canberrans, money flowing into our tourism industry. I’ll take this over a private member’s motion in the Legislative Assembly any day.”
Ms Lee’s remarks may be political grandstanding, as Mr Barr implies. The Canberra Liberals are determined to win the election in 2024, and believe that under Ms Lee – young, a woman, Asian, dynamic – they can take power for the first time since 2001.
The Liberals under former leader Alistair Coe were perceived as too conservative; under Ms Lee, they want to present the image of a modern and diverse party speaking for the forgotten Canberrans, and holding Mr Barr’s government to account. And having been defeated at the polls six times in a row, their election campaign needs to begin early to convince Canberrans they are a viable alternative.
“The Canberra Liberals will continue to stand up for Canberrans against an out-of-touch government that is leaving so many behind,” Ms Lee said. “We will hold Labor and the Greens to account on their failures, and look forward to sharing our positive, fresh vision for the future of Canberra.”
But the Liberals may well have a point. While the ACT under Mr Barr is perhaps the most forward-thinking jurisdiction in the country, some Canberrans do feel left behind.
The poor families struggling to pay rent in Australia’s most expensive city. The Indigenous people appalled by the alleged racist ‘bloodbath’ of the Alexander Maconochie Centre. The patients waiting up to seven hours in hospital corridors, or a year and a half for a bowel cancer check. The public housing tenants condemned to flats full of mould, that leak whenever it rains, that lack electricity. The frightened residents in flats without locks, fearing police (overworked and under resourced) will arrive an hour too late. The small businesses feeling the government won’t listen, doesn’t care. Stories this magazine and other Canberra publications have reported on this year.
“We are genuinely moved by the stories that we hear from individuals who are absolutely fed up,” Ms Lee said. “These are people who have tried and tried and gotten nowhere with this government.”
True, the government does have policies to fix some of these problems, such as the biggest investment in public housing in the ACT’s history, or the expansion of the Canberra Hospital.
The Canberra Liberals, Ms Lee claimed, had advocated for issues that affected vulnerable Canberrans, such as hospitals and education, liveable public housing, funding certainty for free legal services, and law reform on domestic and family violence and on sexual assault (“stealthing”). Both sides of the Assembly have been able to work together on some of those issues, or on a sexual assault working group or Territory rights to vote on voluntary assisted dying.
But sometimes, too, the government has rejected motions put forward by the Liberals on behalf of those Canberrans most concerned: an investigation into racism at the AMC; a poverty taskforce; housing stress relief; a small business ministerial advisory council. Whether because they believe their approach is working, or because (as the Liberals suggest) they want to deprive their political opponents of a win.
“I’m more than happy to work with anybody in the best interests of Canberrans [but] this government doesn’t think the same,” Ms Lee said.
Ms Lee claimed that the government wasted the time of the Legislative Assembly, last week talking about “divorcing Parliament House” (a Labor motion to make Canberra into a park city), or “backflipping” on a debate about land sales in the Gungahlin town centre. The Liberals also claimed that a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty was the government pretending it was the UN.
The Canberra Liberals did not vote against these motions, Ms Lee said; there was nothing wrong with them, but they were not a priority compared to reducing hospital times, improving educational standards, or public housing.
“The Government needs to get back to basics and ensure they are addressing significant problems affecting the community,” Ms Lee said.
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