The Australian Capital Territory election on Saturday, October 17 will be the tenth held since self-government was established in 1989, and the sixth since Labor came to power in 2001. The electoral system is Tasmanian-style Hare-Clark, a proportional representation system in which ballot papers list party candidates in a randomised order, thereby depriving parties of the power to determine the order in which their candidates are elected. The territory is broken into five five-member electorates, an arrangement instituted at the last election in 2016, which increased the size of parliament from 17 seats to 25. There had previously been three electorates, two with five-members and one with seven.
Self-government for the territory was established under Bob Hawke’s government in 1989, and was an unpopular move locally at the time. This was reflected by the results of the inaugural election in 1989, when various minor groupings scored over 60% of the collective vote and eight out of the 17 seats, with four members having run on a platform of abolishing self-government. The shifting sympathies of the cross-benchers produced two changes of government during the first term, which was followed by a term of Labor minority government under Rosemary Follett from 1992 to 1995, then two terms of minority Liberal government, under Kate Carnell from 1995 to 2000 and Gary Humphries from 2000 to 2001.
Labor came to power with Greens and Democrats support after winning two seats from Liberal-leaning independents in 2001, then secured the only majority in the parliament's history when they gained the Democrats' seat in 2004. They were unable to repeat the feat in 2008, when the Greens went from one seat to four after their vote rose from 9.3% to 15.5%, but remained in government after the Greens rebuffed a coalition offer from the Liberals that included two cabint positions and the deputy chief ministership, against the advice of then federal leader Bob Brown. Jon Stanhope led Labor throughout this period, before handing the reins to Katy Gallagher in 2011. Gallagher led the party to a narrow win in 2012 when the Greens lost three of their four seats, two to the Liberals and one to Labor. This left the sole remaining Green, Shane Rattenbury, holding the balance of power between eight Labor and eight Liberal MPs, which he used to secure a position in another Labor government.
With Gallagher’s departure in December 2014, the Labor leadership passed to Andrew Barr, who became Australia’s first openly gay head of government. Labor again retained government in minority in 2016, with Shane Rattenbury retaining his position in cabinet. The key to Labor's win was its success in winning three seats to the Liberals' two in the northern suburbs electorates of Ginninderra and Yerrabi, balanced only by a reverse result in the southern suburbs electorate of Brindabella. The Greens won seats in the central Canberra electorate of Kurrajong and Murrumbidgee, with the other two evenly dividing between Labor and Liberal. This suggests the Liberals' chances of gaining government are likely to rest on them gaining seats from Labor in Ginninderra and Yerrabi.
The most notable issue in territory politics over the past term has continued to be a two-stage light rail project that was opposed by the Liberals at the 2016 election. After numerous delays, the first stage, from Gungahlin in the northern suburbs to Civic in the inner north, began operation in April 1919. The issue is set to play out again at the coming election, with the Liberals continuing to oppose a second stage that will extend the line south across Lake Burley Griffin and through the southern suburbs to Woden. Another issue has been controversies over government land deals, one of which was deemed by the Auditor-General to have delivered a $2.6 million benefit to a club owned by the CFMEU in a report by the Auditor-General.
The Liberals are led by Alistair Coe, who was chosen as leader without opposition in the wake of the 2016 election defeat at the age of 32. Coe is a social conservative who has opposed same-sex marriage and abortion, a fact that points to a recurring political difficulty for a party whose local membership is far to the right of a Canberra population that has high levels of tertiary education and low levels of religious observance. The Canberra Times reported in November 2019 that “up to four” of the party's 11 MPs were open to replacing Coe with a moderate, Elizabeth Lee, with deputy leader Nicole Lawder conceding there were different “points of view” concerning the leadership issue.