From pies to sledgehammers: why the rest of Australia should care about the stunt-heavy ACT election

The ACT is the guinea pig of Australia – where it goes, the rest of the country often follows

ACT chief minister Andrew Barr and opposition leader Alistair Coe

ACT chief minister Andrew Barr and opposition leader Alistair Coe after their debate last month.
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

In the shadows of the national spotlight, one of Australia’s most important elections is playing out.

No. Not that one. The other one. The Australian Capital Territory. Home to Australia’s most progressive electors, where, on Saturday, a mostly politically engaged population will learn who will lead them until 2024.

At 37 days, it’s been a long campaign. By the time its final hours rolled around, close to 60% of voters had already cast their vote. Another 10% opted for a postal vote. The result of the election may already have been decided by the time the major players made their final push on the hustings.

ACT chief minister Andrew Barr celebrates the result of the same-sex marriage postal vote in 2017/

ACT chief minister Andrew Barr celebrates the result of the same-sex marriage postal vote in 2017. Photograph: Michael Masters/Getty Images

The ACT, it seems, knows what it wants. Voting before polling day is a growing trend across the country, and it’s one the ACT’s 302,630 or so enrolled voters have picked up with gusto.

It’s meant every one of the 888 hours the 137 candidates vying for one of the territory’s 25 unicameral parliament seats have had in this campaign has been vitally important.

But the campaign is important for other reasons. While the Northern Territory went first, the result there was never truly in doubt. Queensland’s campaign is important and has federal implications, but it’s still got some way to run.

But in the ACT the outcome is a harbinger of where progressive politics is likely to head in Australia. How important is climate policy or social infrastructure when weighed against the rising cost of living, particularly amid a once-in-a-century (hopefully) pandemic and the economic crisis that follows?

Where the ACT leads, policy tends to follow. Think of it as the guinea pig for the nation. The ACT election may never get that much attention outside the local press but, in terms of policies, it’s usually an augury for where things are heading across the entire political spectrum.

The system

First, a quick catch-up. Labor has led the ACT since 2001 but, for all but one of those terms, it has done so as a minority government. Those who tell you the Greens have never been in power forget the capital, where the party has held the balance of power for the last decade in a sometimes uneasy alliance. Labor holds 12 seats, the Liberals 11 and the Greens two.

The ACT has five electorates, with five representatives elected for each one through the Hare-Clark system, a little like the proportional voting system for the multi-member electorates (states) in the Australian Senate.

Candidates’ vote tallies are translated into quotas. Those that reach quota have their extra votes distributed according to preferences and, when no remaining candidates have a full quota, the candidates with the lowest tallies are eliminated.

Unlike the Australian Senate, the ACT uses Robson rotation, meaning candidates’ names appear in a different order on each ballot, even if they’re from the same party. So, as well as aiming to get more votes than other parties, candidates vie to win the most within their party group. Depending on the order of elimination, the result for the fifth seat in every electorate can be volatile.

What are the election issues?

While the territory has been ahead of the curve on environmental issues and the climate crisis – the ACT has been effectively powered by renewable energy since 2019 – and on social issues such as same-sex unions, its residents struggle with the rising cost of living and services. Healthcare and the ageing Canberra hospital have dominated local media coverage.

The pandemic and the recession have also had differing impacts on ACT voters. There are those who are now reflecting on the world at large and what they want the future to look like. For those, climate and environmental policies hit hard. As do social policies, such as increasing the amount of community housing. But for others, particularly those feeling economic pressure, lives have become a little more insular. Living costs matter. Jobs and budgets matter. The ACT may have a higher than average median wage but not everyone is on it. And that’s those who still have a job.

Voters’ biggest bugbear

Rates are a particular bugbear. Canberra has the highest rates in the nation, where, depending on your suburb and whether or not you rent out your house, you could be paying up to $10,000 a year. The territory is almost halfway through a 20-year tax reform program which has led to rate increases in the double digits. This year Labor has said rates would be limited to an average 3.75% increase, while the Liberals have vowed to freeze rates for four years, with the $160m in lost revenue to be made up by population growth.

Liberal leader Alistair Coe holds a frozen rates bill during a press conference on Friday

Liberal leader Alistair Coe holds a rates bill encased in ice during a press conference on Friday. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

Canberra operates on a leasehold rather than freehold land system. Even if you own a house, you don’t own the land – it belongs to the ACT government, which leases it to you for 99 years. The leases roll over, so no one is in danger of the government selling the land out from under them, but it also means that the government has almost complete control over land prices.

But if the government brings down land prices, it also brings down its revenue. Other taxes have been reduced in an attempt to offset the rising rates cost but they haven’t kept pace. The issue has formed the basis of the Liberal campaign, this time led by Alistair Coe. It’s not the first time the ACT Liberals have based an election platform on cutting the cost of living, but this year the party has been particularly focused on it.

The election stunts

Coe has fronted stunt after stunt. Making pies to demonstrate “growing the ACT’s pie”. Attempting to literally freeze a rates bill. Taking the media up a hill to point out where Canberrans have moved across the border to live in regional New South Wales, and promising to bring more of them back. Knocking down a wall of cardboard boxes with a mallet to show he’s serious about “smashing” the cost of living.

Dan Jervis-Bardy

Today’s #ACTvotes2020 stunt.

Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe “smashing” the cost of living in the ACT @canberratimes

October 15, 2020

The slogan has been cut down to just four words: “Lower taxes. Better Services.” The party hasn’t costed a lot of its plans but then neither has anyone else. This year after bushfires, a hail storm that caused almost $2bn worth of damage and the pandemic, the ACT recorded a $900m budget deficit.

Who are the major players?

The Liberals argue that after almost two decades, Labor has had enough time in charge. That has been a recurring campaign platform and one that, four years ago, came close to winning government. This time around it could be helped by a newcomer, the Belco party – named after the suburb Belconnen – headed by the former Liberal leader Bill Stefaniak.

The Belco party’s entry in the Ginninderra race, where Labor holds three seats and the Liberals two, has caught the eye of election watchers. One of the Liberal members is retiring, potentially clearing the way for a Belco party MP to make the decision on which major party forms government if the Liberals manage to pick up one more seat. Thirteen is the lucky number for the ACT parliament. It’s not out of the realms of possibility the numbers fall in their favour.

Andrew Barr, in his third campaign as leader of the government, has based Labor’s campaign on experience. He has focused on keeping the ACT “Coe free”, as a nod to its so-far-successful Covid response, while highlighting his Coe’s inexperience.

But there is a fine line between experienced and fatigued, and Barr has attempted to walk it all campaign.

“There is no one in the current government who was part of the first government,” Barr says of criticisms Labor has been in power too long. “It’s actually a very new team.”

Barr adds that being mostly in minority government means that not everything Labor wants, Labor gets. Legislation is defeated and issues are shelved.

The ACT election is always a strange beast but this one has been stranger still. The 24-hour media cycle means that the campaign has come down to winning the hour, not just the day. The pandemic has meant phone calls instead of doorknocks and what seems like more lawn corflutes than people.

“Clearly the issues that have defined the campaign have been around the government response to what’s been a pretty extraordinary year that we all forget started with the bushfires, and then the smoke all around Canberra, and then a pretty significant and devastating hailstorm that did about $1.6bn damage to the city, including taking out about one in 10 cars,” Barr says. “And then the pandemic hit.

“So there’s been a lot of discussion, you know, in the community around pandemic response around the economic recovery and protecting public health. So those issues have been more pertinent in the campaign.”

Coe is banking on his stunts getting the attention of those who were already furrowing their brows at their quarterly bills. “Obviously, we’ve got significant increases to rates, taxes, fees and charges,” he says, in a well-practised delivery of the party line.

“In addition to that we’ve got unemployment and underemployment as a result of Covid, so a lot of Canberra families are doing it tough. So, now, more than ever, it’s so important that governments do what they can to ease the cost of living and take the pressure off Canberra families.

Shane Rattenbury (left) in discussion with the federal minister for energy and emissions reduction, Angus Taylor

Shane Rattenbury, left, in discussion with the federal minister for energy and emissions reduction, Angus Taylor. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

“We’re not campaigning about Labor’s 19 years. We’re campaigning on our fresh vision for Canberra. We think it is so important that we empower Canberra families, that we take the pressure off the cost of living, and do what we can to make the ACT the best place to live, work and raise a family.”

That last line has been a favourite of Liberal campaigns Australia over. Campbell Newman used to trot it out in Queensland during the 2015 election.

Coe says he means it and that he is seeking to govern in his own right, deflecting questions about what a Liberal-Belco alliance would look like.

The Greens leader and the ACT minister for climate change and sustainability, Shane Rattenbury, has heard it all before. He thinks the “partnership” between Labor and his party has been working well, with both parties keeping each other in check. Rattenbury says he’s watching what impact the Belco party has on the election but his message has been focused on not sacrificing the gains already made when there is so much more still to do.

“Now is not the time to wind the clock back, to be on picking things that have been put in place,” he says. “And, particularly with the the economic downturn, now is a critically important time for government to play a role.

“The things we invest in need to deliver social dividends and things like investing in social housing, diversity, investing in our community services, and building better public transport. They’re the sort of things that will stimulate the economy, but make us better off as a society overall.”