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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Time for a change: Former Opposition leader Alistair Coe reflects on his resignation

The former Opposition and Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe says he is at peace with the decision to leave politics, and has no plans to return to the political sphere in future.

“To be a member of the Assembly is a massive commitment, and it’s not something that can be done half-heartedly. In light of that, it’s time to move on to something else.”

Mr Coe, who had been a member of the Legislative Assembly for a dozen years, announced last weekend that he would resign in March. He had stepped down as leader of the Canberra Liberals after October’s election, in which the party suffered their sixth consecutive defeat, lost two seats, and experienced a 2.9% swing against them.

Some thought that Mr Coe’s election campaign, focused on lower taxes and better services, was too light on detail; others that Mr Coe (the only party leader in Australia to vote against gay marriage) was too conservative for the ACT.

But many across the political spectrum admired Mr Coe’s service to the community. Tributes on his Facebook page and from his erstwhile political opponents alike spoke of his honesty, decency, integrity, courage, commitment, hard work, and dedication to keeping government accountable.

Some Facebook posters said that although they disagreed with Mr Coe’s politics, they respected his genuineness and his desire to make a difference; his departure would, they thought, be a great loss to the Assembly.

“Being in the Assembly has been a big part of my life,” Mr Coe said. He entered politics in 2008, at the age of 24, representing Ginninderra (2008 to 2016) and then Yerrabi.

“I am proud to have been elected to the Assembly on four occasions … I am grateful for the opportunity to have had the voice that I have been afforded as a member of the Assembly.

“I have enjoyed it immensely, but it’s time for a change. Over the few months since the election, I have had the opportunity to think about what I have contributed and the future, and I am at peace with the decision that it is time for a new chapter.”

What that next chapter would hold, Mr Coe was unsure. “I love Canberra; it’s a great place. So I very much hope that whatever I do will keep me here in the capital.”

Mr Coe said he would remain a member of the Canberra Liberals, a branch he joined in his late teens. He would help behind the scenes, but he would not take a front-of-house role, nor did he intend to stand again for election.

“There are certainly no plans for a return to politics.”

Alistair Coe

Mr Coe said he would miss the dynamism of local government. “No two days were ever the same in the Assembly. One of the advantages of being in a small parliament is that you often wear many different hats, and you never know what issue is going to come up on any given day.”

He has been Shadow Treasurer and Opposition Whip, while his Shadow portfolios have included Innovation, Economic Development, Transport, Planning and Infrastructure, Urban Services, and Heritage.

“I’m pleased with the scrutiny that I’ve been able to apply over the last 12 years,” Mr Coe said.

It was also respected by his colleagues across the Assembly floor; Greens leader Shane Rattenbury appreciated Mr Coe’s “attention to detail and willingness to find a way through contested discussions” while working together on committees and legislation – “something important in politics when you are trying to get the best outcomes for the community”.

“There are many different policy and legislative issues on which I’ve been able to make a contribution,” Mr Coe continued, “but really it’s for other people to determine what my legacy might be.”

Elizabeth Lee, his successor as Opposition leader, said she had learnt much from Mr Coe’s leadership; he would be missed as a colleague, confidant, and friend. Chief Minister and ACT Labor leader Andrew Barr said he respected Mr Coe as a formidable political opponent and strong advocate for conservative politics.

Over his dozen years in politics, Mr Coe said he was pleased to have helped hundreds, even thousands of people.

“Being a local representative and being contactable by your constituents really is the primary job of an elected member,” he said.

“Some of those issues are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, but they have a big impact for that household. Contacting a politician is not usually someone’s first step. Usually, they have exhausted every other option. They have gone through every government channel, and their last resort often is contacting an MLA. So, when a Member receives that call or that email, we have to be mindful that this is an important issue for that person.”

Mr Coe had been a steadfast advocate for vulnerable Canberrans, the working poor, and Canberrans struggling to afford their own home, Ms Lee said.

“The cost of living is still a massive issue for many Canberrans,” Mr Coe said. “Whilst lots of Canberrans can manage the increasing rates, taxes, fees and charges … there is a growing working poor in the ACT that simply can’t keep pace with average costs. These people are often below the radar, and there needs to be a renewed focus on making sure the city is working for them.

“Tens of thousands of Canberrans are struggling with the cost of rent in this city. They struggle with ever increasing social and financial pressures to keep up with the Joneses. That is tough in Canberra for people who are not two income public servant families; it can be a prohibitive place.”

Mr Coe had also been a friend to Canberra’s multicultural and faith communities, Ms Lee said, with a long history of outreach, advocacy, and representation on their behalf. Indian, Chinese, Ghanaian, and Chilean Canberrans posted messages of thanks on Facebook, as well as Catholic teachers and other Christians. (Mr Coe himself is an Anglican.)

“Canberra is blessed to have people from all walks of life and all parts of the world here in this global city,” Mr Coe said. “I think Liberal values are consistent with many people in the multicultural and faith communities. It has been a privilege to attend different events, to share stories, and to spend time with many of Canberra’s diverse residents.”

Alistair Coe with his wife Yasmin, daughter Annabel and son Angus

In their election campaign, the Liberals presented themselves as Canberra’s multicultural, diverse party, while Mr Coe announced plans to create a multicultural office for economic development under the chief minister’s purview, and to build a multicultural centre in Gungahlin.

Mr Coe said he was convinced that Ms Lee would win the ACT election in 2024.

“Elizabeth is a great representative. She is very articulate, very intelligent. She is well supported by Giulia Jones and the rest of the team. Elizabeth has been in the Assembly for four years, and has a good amount of experience in the role. I think she will do a great job at holding the government to account, as she and the team work towards a Liberal government in 2024.”

Mr Coe said he was very grateful to his wife Yasmin and to his children, Angus and Annabel, for the tremendous sacrifices they had made on his political journey.

“Politics is a big commitment not just for the politician, but also for those who are supporting that politician.”

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