Is The ACT The Libs' Next Stop?


After the unprecedented wins in New South Wales and Queensland the Liberals are turning their attention to the next potential scalp for their belts, the ACT.

Over at think-tank Menzies House, Timothy Gow is excited about the prospect of leader Zed Seselja’s "painting the town blue" in October this year. Sounding more like a Bolshevik than a Young Liberal, Gow acknowledges "The path to October is long and the political tussle will be tough," but the ACT’s peculiarities mean the Libs’ current momentum may stall at the borders of the nation’s capital.

The 2008 ACT election saw the Labor government of Jon Stanhope (since retired and replaced by his deputy, Katy Gallagher) return to power in coalition with the Greens. Labor’s vote imploded, from 46.8 per cent in 2004 to only 37.4 per cent, but so did the Liberals’, dropping from 34.8 per cent to 31.5 per cent. Under the ACT’s multi-member system, those gains went to the Greens, who picked up four members out of a possible 17. Labor scored seven, and the Libs six.

Because of the 2008 result that gave the Greens the balance of power, the Liberals will need to pick up at least three seats to win an outright majority and govern in their own right. The last Liberal regime in the ACT, the Carnell-Humpries government which lasted from 1995-2001, took power with the support of two independents. So unless the NSW-QLD tidal wave hits the ACT, it’s going to be uphill for Seselja.

Two things are interesting here. Under the Hare-Clark system that distributes votes in the ACT, winning candidates’ surplus proportion of the vote is passed on to candidates further down their list. The winning candidate in each "round" is elected until all positions are filled. This means popular candidates can drag the vote with them and pass it directly down the line.

So it follows that Seselja, who garnered a higher percentage (18 per cent) of the vote in 2008 than current Chief Minister Katy Gallagher is now contesting the election in Brindabella after a swap with MLA Steve Dozspot, who is heading to Molonglo. Along with Brendan Smyth MLA, who had the highest first preference numbers in 2008, the accumulated Lib vote there might be able to chew up Amanda Bresnan or Joy Burch, the Greens and lowest polling ALP candidates.

Second, of the two Greens candidates in super seat Molonglo (seven members compared to Brindabella and Ginninderra’s five) Caroline Le Couteur only got in by a nose. According to internal Greens polling that sees the party’s vote dropping to the mid-teens, she’s probably first up against the wall. The polling also indicated that the Greens’ core issues aren’t polling well in the ACT and some of their trademark initiatives, like the recent-ish plastic bag ban, haven’t exactly been exciting vote winners.

That seat will probably go to the Libs, who on the basis of polls taken in November last year were polling 38 per cent of the primary vote against the government’s 35 per cent. But even with those figures the Canberra times tips the Liberals to pick up only one further seat. Former MLA Michael Moore (one of the independents who formed government with Kate Carnell) believes Molonglo is a "laydown misere" for Labor, who will win at least three members there and perhaps four due to Katy Gallagher’s chief minister’s dividend and increasing popularity.

So on the current figures things are looking up for the Liberals but not to the extent where they could conceivably take government. Nobody predicted wins the size of NSW and Queensland but the same thing is unlikely to happen in the ACT; the ALP in Canberra is still active at a grassroots level. The Commonwealth Public Service and powerful Community and Public Sector Union haven’t forgotten the 1996 Liberal public service cuts and resulting recession. This is enough to keep many career bureaucrats voting ALP.

Although as Gow mentions in his Menzies House piece the ACT ALP has seen its share of bungles and cost blowouts, there hasn’t been a culture of corruption like in NSW or 20 years of government as was the case in Queensland. One also suspects the current "cut the waste" line won’t gel, because without expensive public art and poor public transport Canberrans would be left with nothing to gripe about. After all, the first election in the ACT after self-government did elect three members of the "Abolish self-government party".

Put away the brushes for now, Canberra Liberals. The redecorating might have to wait.

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