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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Political capital: Canberra Liberals clawing out of the grave

Gary Humphries AO.
Photo: Katherine Ross

It’s six months since the October 2020 ACT election and the humiliating defeat handed to the Canberra Liberals. The electorate delivered them their sixth successive election loss, rubbing salt into the wound by throwing in a 3% swing against them after nearly 20 years in opposition.

Right now, the Liberals are taking stock. As they must; with so much ground to make up, the foundations for a win in 2024 must be laid now, not in the weeks leading up to the next election.

The size of the challenge can be measured with a few statistics. The Canberra Liberals are by far the most unsuccessful branch of a major party in the nation. In the last 20 years there have been changes of government in every state and territory and federally – in some cases two – but not in Canberra. Not one government MLA in our Legislative Assembly has spent even a day in opposition, and not one opposition MLA has spent a day in government.

This is desperately sad for the Liberal Party. But it is also sad for everyone interested in an efficiently run territory. Benjamin Disraeli once said that “No government can long be secure without a formidable opposition”. It’s in all our interests that oppositions be able to threaten governments when elections come around, to keep them on their toes.

New opposition leader Elizabeth Lee has allowed the Liberal Party to hit the reset button. Canberrans who associate “Liberal” with middle-aged men in suits are having a double take when they see this young, articulate, Asian-born lawyer. Boosting her chances at the 2024 election will be the “It’s Time” factor (in fact the 23 years the Liberals will have been opposition by then will match, almost to the day, the 23 years of Labor’s opposition that Whitlam ended in 1972).

But an appealing new salesperson taking on a government with cobwebs will not be enough, by itself, to ensure a conservative victory. This is because citizens of Canberra live in the shadow of the House on the Hill; they talk politics in the washroom and the supermarket queue the way other Australians talk about football and the weather. They have highly-attuned political antennae and look for substance and detail when listening to politicians.

And so, Lee will need policies in 2024 that speak convincingly to the values of Canberra citizens, values that are conspicuously more progressive than those found in residents of other states. The Liberal message of 2020 was about the cost of living, but Canberra people also care about other things: government intervention to ensure “fairness”, infrastructure spending, respect for minorities, and action on climate change.

She will also need to contend with an ACT Labor Government with survival skills not matched by its sister branches elsewhere. One device which I predict it will deploy to survive in this term: hitting its own reset button by moving on Andrew Barr and promoting a woman in his place.

Gary Humphries AO is a former ACT MLA (1989-2003) and Chief Minister (2000-2001), and Australian Senator (2003-2013).

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