Voters in the Australian Capital Territory go to the polls on October 18 for the seventh time since self-government was established in 1989, delivering a verdict on a majority government for the first time. Labor won nine of the 17 seats at the October 2004 election against seven for the Liberals and one for the Greens. Such was the unpopularity of self-government when it was first introduced that eight of the 17 members elected in 1989 represented minor groupings committed to its abolition. Their shifting sympathies produced two changes of government in the course of the first term: Labor’s Rosemary Follett held the reins from May to December 1989 and again from June 1991, with Trevor Kaine heading a Liberal administration in the interim. Three opponents of self-government held the balance of power after the 1992 election, sustaining Follett’s minority government throughout the ensuing term.
At the 1995 election the bar for minor party candidates was raised with the abolition of the shambolic modified d’Hondt system of Territory-wide proportional representation. It was replaced with the present Tasmanian-style Hare-Clark system based on three multi-member regions, two of five members (Brindabella and Ginninderra) and one of seven (Molonglo). As in Tasmania, the Robson system of rotating ballot paper order means candidates are forced to compete against their party colleagues. The first such election produced a Liberal minority government of seven members, headed by Kate Carnell, which was sustained with the support of two independents. Carnell achieved a status quo result at the 1998 election, before resigning in 2000 to head off a no-confidence motion resulting from an unfavourable auditor’s report into the revamp of Bruce Stadium. Her successor Gary Humphries led the government to defeat in 2001, moving a year later to the Senate where he has remained ever since.
The change of government after the 2001 election followed Labor’s gain of two seats at the expense of Liberal-leaning independents, with the Liberals retaining their existing seven seats. Re-elected Greens member Kerrie Tucker had ruled out supporting the Liberals, meaning Labor’s eight seats were enough to ensure a comfortable hold on government without having to rely on the one Democrats member. New Chief Minister Jon Stanhope introduced four-year terms effective from the 2004 election (held one week after the October 9 federal election), at which Labor gained the one extra seat required for majority government at the expense of the collapsing Democrats. The vote for both major parties increased, Labor from 41.7 per cent to 46.8 per cent and Liberal from 31.6 per cent to 34.8 per cent, but the Liberals remained on seven seats with the Greens on one.
There are several reasons to think Labor will struggle to match that feat on October 18, most notably an electoral cycle that has lately shown its force in Northern Territory, Western Australia and various state Newspoll surveys. Stanhope’s government has accumulated a heavy burden of baggage in the last four years, the low-point coming with a horror 2006/07 budget that sought to balance the Territory’s tottering finances by closing 39 schools (nearly a quarter of the total). The ACT edition of the Daily Telegraph reacted by describing the Chief Minister as an economic vandal who headed a disgraced government, beneath the front-page headline: STANHOPE-LESS. A large part of Stanhope’s political strategy consisted of needling the Howard government over terrorism laws and civil unions for same-sex couples, which lost much of its utility after Kevin Rudd came to power.
However, Labor’s woes have been matched by an eerily familiar story of leadership disarray among the Liberals. There have been two leadership changes in the current term: from Brendan Smyth to Bill Stefaniak in May 2006, and from Stefaniak to the 31-year-old incumbent Zed Seselja in December 2007. Both Stefaniak and Seselja were compromise leaders of a kind, Stefaniak taking the reins because Smyth and rival Richard Mulcahy each mustered three party room votes out of seven. Stefaniak’s departure followed a dramatic week that began with Mulcahy being stood down from his portfolios pending a federal tribunal inquiry into his past activities as executive director of the Australian Hotels Association. Mulcahy did not take this lying down, claiming to know of unspecified allegations against Stefaniak and Smyth and calling on them to join him on the back bench. The party room reacted by unanimously voting to expel Mulcahy, who will run in Molonglo at the head of his own grouping. Shortly afterwards Stefaniak and his deputy Jacqui Burke announced they would clear the air by standing aside, and Seselja and Smyth were elected in their place without opposition.
Posts on each of three electorates will follow over the coming weeks. Antony Green offers plenty to keep you going on with in the interim.