Will Labor's ACT election win presage the fall of the Turnbull Government?

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ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr was victorious (Screenshot via abc.net.au)

The ACT election result should worry the Turnbull Government, since swings against parties have traditionally presaged the fall of the party federally, says John Passant.

THE AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY (ACT) election result was a bit of a thunderbolt  to me at least.

According to the ABC, with 81% of the vote counted, there will be 12 Labor members, ten Liberals and two Greens, with one seat in doubt.

At this stage there is a swing of 0.4% against the Greens, leaving them on 10.3% of the vote. Labor’s vote was down 0.2% to 38.7% and the Liberals down 2.6% to 36.3%.

In the last Assembly, split 8-all between Labor and the Liberals, Labor cemented that support for a ministry with Shane Rattenbury, the one Green member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). As the ABC analysis above shows, it looks as if the election on Saturday has retained the status quo of a minority Labor Government supported by two Greens, with Rattenbury again a minister.

On the surface, all the portents suggested the Liberals would do well in this election.

Labor had been in power for 15 years and the election result extends that to 19 years. The proposed light rail from Civic to Gungahlin, which is valued at – by the Barr Government’s estimate – $970 million, is costly and will service, at best, only 10% of the population and will force public tenants out of their homes in the main entrance thoroughfare of Northbourne Avenue. It will benefit developers and real estate agents, without much impact on congestion or on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Liberals ran strongly against the light rail, saying they would tear up the contracts (signed by the Barr Government not too long before the election) and use the money for improved bus services, and better health and education. In effect, they ran on a Labor type public services programme. Labor was forced to respond with health and education promises to match – and slightly surpass – the Liberals.

The Liberals being "Labor-lite" on health and education did not work. The reactionaries have the numbers in the ACT Liberal Party. They will replace current moderate leader Jeremy Hanson with their candidate, the very conservative Alistair Coe.

On Sunday, the day after the election, Turnbull Government Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos praised light rail in Canberra as an example of the Turnbull Government’s search for balance between road and rail transport, and innovation and nation building. That is the problem. Light rail can be painted as another neoliberal building project aimed at providing benefits to capital and the already rich.

The Liberals also ran hard against rate increases. The ACT is the only jurisdiction that has adopted the Henry Tax Review recommendations to replace stamp duty with rates as an efficiency move. And if the stamp duty cuts are passed on as lower housing prices, then first home owners can benefit.

In theory, the change makes sense. However, many people like me paid full stamp duty on their home purchase and are now being hit with higher rates as well. People are upset about this double taxation and rate increases on houses as a result of the reforms of around 9% annually since 2011/12. This year, the Barr Government limited the increase to 4.5%, but next year, it will be 7%.  

Cynically, the Liberals opposed what is, for the elite and most new home buyers, a sensible tax base shift. They even sank to linking higher rates to the light rail.

So with the issues of light rail and rates seemingly running in their favour and the Liberals trying to mimic Labor on spending on public education and public health and promising improved bus services, why did they not do better?

The swing in Yerrabi, the electorate with the proposed "first stage" of light rail, was 6.3% to Labor and 5.2% against the Liberals. That swing to Labor in Yerrabi pretty much cancelled out the swing against them in three of the other four seats. On the other hand, there was also a swing against the Liberals in the non-light rail seats — except for Murrumbidgee, where the Liberal leader ran. Labor’s vote there fell 5.4%, with no well-known Labor candidates (for example, current members) standing. 

Why the swing against the Liberals?

Traditionally, the city has been a pro-Labour haunt. It did elect a Liberal Government supported by independents in 1995 — perhaps in part a response to Keating in Federal power. Back then, there was only one electorate, the ACT, with 17 members, making it much easier for smaller parties and independents to get elected.

This helps explain the move of the two major parties to three electorates and then five electorates. This increases the quota needed to get elected from just under 6% with one electorate to 16.7% for each of the five MLAs elected in each of this year's five electorates.

The other thing about this election compared to 2012 was at the edges. Clearly, some people were looking for an outlet to the left of the so-called progressive alliance of Labor and the Greens. With 85% of the vote counted in the seat of Brindabella, for example, Steve Bailey, the Sex Party candidate, has won 8.1% of the vote. And "others" picked up 12.2% of the vote across the Territory, up 2.2% on 2012. 

There was no Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders on offer. There was no clear left wing candidate to attract substantial votes, after many years of Labor and Green managerialism and slightly softer, but more effective, neoliberalism. This lack of an electoral radical or socialist left is an expression of the massive decline in class and social struggle in Australia and the ACT over the last 33 years.

I think, too, there is something else in the results that should be worrying the Turnbull Government. Despite what appeared a fertile environment for the Liberals, there was a swing against them. That has been a consistent pattern in Territory politics. There has generally been a swing against the party in government federally in Territory elections — and that can presage the fall of that government. 

And let’s not get swept up in the hype of the re-election of the Labor Green Government. Remember that they will do very little to address the major problems of capitalism in the Territory. To do so would require a radicalisation that is not yet apparent in Australian society or its major political parties.

Recently, ACOSS released a report which showed 13.3% of the Australian population lives below the poverty line. This includes 731,000 kids, especially in single families — those devastated by Gillard Government cuts to the single parent payment in 2013.

In 2013, the Canberra Times reported:

'The Disadvantage in the ACT report, issued by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling ... found that 21,528 Canberrans were living in poverty.' 

More than 1,700 Canberrans were homeless in 2011.

Where are the plans and the actions of this so-called progressive alliance government to do anything substantial about poverty and homelessness? Nowhere. I’ll keep my celebratory drink on ice until the Labor Green Government in the ACT eradicates poverty and homelessness.

Read more by John Passant on his website En PassantYou can also follow John on Twitter @JohnPassant.

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