The Political Fight For Australia's 'Cool Little Capital'

Will light rail sink the progressive ship in the ACT?

13/10/2016 8:05 AM AEDT | Updated 13/10/2016 7:35 PM AEDT
Jamila Toderas, Fairfax
Chief Minister Andrew Barr is appealing to the "progressive heart of Canberra."

CANBERRA – It may not have car crash magnetism of the Trump v Clinton Presidential race in the United States, but fight for the national capital is on. And after 15 years in power Labor looks in trouble.

And it is pretty much down to a yet to be built $930 million light rail project, the sort of public transport infrastructure project you would think the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would embrace.

The ACT election is on this Saturday. It is a unique jurisdiction taking in state and local government responsibilities, so roads, rates and rubbish are taken very, very seriously. It is the territory with the bold plan to completely (100 per cent) power itself by renewable energy by 2020 and the one which tried to beat the feds into bringing in same sex marriage (before it was struck down by the High Court).

Karleen Minney, Fairfax
Chief Minister Andrew Barr at the opening of the Mount Majura Solar Farm

In the lead up to the vote The Huffington Post Australia spoke to the Chief Minister Andrew Barr about Labor's chances and how he's fighting the resurgent ACT Liberals, a branch he is warning are packed by "hard line" conservatives.

"They are cut from the mold of Eric Abetz, Tony Abbott, Cory Bernardi and George Christensen," Mr Barr told HuffPost AU.

"It is THAT sort of Liberal Party we have here in Canberra," Mr Barr warned.

"Their members speak at ultra conservative, anti-same sex marriage, anti-gay, anti-abortion and even anti-no fault divorce forums.

"I am appealing to the progressive heart of Canberra to not risk having two Liberal Governments in this city."

In 2012, under then leader and now Senator Zed Seselja, the Liberal Party got very close to seizing power with both major parties receiving 39 percent of the popular vote. A minority Labor government was formed with the sole Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury.

The light rail project -- which is a public, private partnership -- is proving a problem for Labor.

image supplied
Artist's impression of the proposed Canberra light rail.

"It is motivating some people either to vote for us or against us that is true, it is a polarising issue, but it is by no means the only issue," Barr said.

And even if there is another minority government, Andrew Barr claims there is no certainty there either, "Labor Governments have tended to be supported, but not always".

The Greens support the light right, but the main issue is the light rail's first stage will only service the rapidly expanding population growth in the north of Canberra, so the south misses out, but southern rate payers must still help pay for the project.

"It is an important city building project for Canberra," Barr told HuffPost Australia, adding it will help Canberra avoid gridlock, provide certainly for investors and service transport needs in the north.

"A growing city needs to make that investment. Canberra needs more options than just private motor vehicle transport."

Jamila Toderas, Fairfax
Work appears to have commenced on Northbourne Avenue for the light rail.

The cost of the project has been spread over two decades so the cost to ACT ratepayers is estimated to be less than one percent of the territory budget.

The Chief Minister wants to claim the Prime Minister as a supporter. Malcolm Turnbull is a light rail fan.

"The stage two that we are taking to this election extends the route from the CBD into the parliamentary triangle around Parliament House and would go very close to the Lodge," Barr laughed.

"So yes the Prime Minister may even able to catch light rail to work, if he wanted to."

HuffPost Australia checked with Malcolm Turnbull's office. While he is, of course, a light rail aficionado, it has to be the "right light rail" project.

Jeffrey Chan, Fairfax
A model of a CAF Light Rail Vehicle

The ACT Liberals are campaigning to tear up the contract for the light rail project and build a hospital, while the proposed light rail route down Northbourne Avenue would instead take extra bicycle lanes.

"They would be forking out around $300 million for nothing," Mr Barr warned.

"The contract would see them have to burn effectively of taxpayer's money for no income other than a big traffic jam."

It is a figure the Liberals dispute. The Huffington Post Australia has spoken to the ACT Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson and you can read that story on Friday.

Rohan Thomson, Fairfax
News ACT Ministers Simon Corbell, Meegan Fitzharris, Andrew Barr, and Shane Rattenbury turn the first sods of the Light Rail project.

As for the extra bike and road lanes, the Chief Minister has scoffed.

"We would have an eight-lane highway, sort of Los Angeles or China style, at the main gateway to Canberra with this ineffective bike lane in the middle that even the cycling lobby don't think will function effectively. So entirely a road-based, car-based solution."

"We know if you just add more lanes to roads you just induce more car-based traffic and get more congestion."

Jay Cronan, Fairfax
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr spends some time with his family

Canberra is also striving to be more a bush capital where diplomats hang out. It wants to be a "cool little capital".

"It is an exciting time for Canberra," Barr said "The city is into its second century. We have the fastest growing economy in Australia at the moment, the strongest labour market, amongst the lowest unemployment.

"And we are striving to be Australia's cool little capital."

"We're seeing record tourism numbers both domestic and international and perceptions of Canberra are changing dramatically."

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