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Canberra has the answers – just not where you might expect them | Ben Oquist

Political commentary from progressives has been grim, and it has only gotten worse since May. We are told that Australians are not ready for a progressive agenda, and Labor lost the federal election because it talked too much about its many policies to increase equality. The new orthodoxy is that Australians are supposedly “naturally conservative” despite the worldwide moral and intellectual collapse engulfing conservative politics.

Commentators already spend too much time on the horse race and not enough on the marketplace of ideas. Unrelenting bleakness undermines ambition for progressive reform, and risks replacing talk of policy with narrow electoral strategising.

Progressivism depends on a certain faith in people and our polity. We do not need collapse or catastrophe before our ideas are palatable to the public. The democratic exercise of power is not inherently corrupting or degrading. Politics can be done well.

But if we are going to do politics better, ensure power is exercised cleanly and convince the public of our ideas, we need to learn from places and moments when politics has been done well.

The Australian Capital Territory is such a place, and now is such a moment. Canberra’s Labor–Greens government under successive chief ministers, most recently Andrew Barr, has implemented a suite of progressive, bold policies, and won re-election after doing so.

In the 2012 budget, the then treasurerBarr announced a 20-year plan to swap stamp duties on insurance and property transactions for a land tax. Long a favourite among economists, the swap is expected to lead to more efficient use of land as it makes it easier for people and businesses to move as their needs change. It also captures some of the improved value of land from public works, so the households that benefit from, for example, the new light rail end up paying higher land tax.

That’s the policy wonk talking. Politically, the policy was seen as a major weakness.

Four months after the policy was announced, the government faced an election. The then Liberal opposition leader, now senator, Zed Seselja’s campaign focused on a twist on the three-word slogan, the five-word formula. “Labor + Greens = triple your rates” appeared on signs, trailers and advertisements. The Labor party’s failure to explain its sweeping, dramatic policy agenda was criticised, as was the “strategy” (or lack thereof) of announcing it in the months before an election. Yet the government was returned.

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Labor’s federal loss in 2019 was attributed to the same style of ambitious, technical policy, but in 2012 ACT Labor gained a seat, continued their minority government with the Greens, and won again in 2016. Now the territory benefits from having the lowest reliance on stamp duty in the nation as a cooling of the housing market forces other states to write down their stamp duty forecasts by billions of dollars.

The 2016 election became a de facto referendum on what became a controversial light rail project, with many political pundits predicting dire political consequences for the ACT government – but they were proven wrong. Two years later, the government is still in power, the light rail has been built on budget and is popular new infrastructure for a growing city.

Good policy can be good politics, and the Labor–Greens government benefits from its policy ambition of seven years ago.

On other policies too, Canberra has taken the lead. Pill-testing at festivals, trialled last year, received a second successful trial earlier in 2019. As multiple festival-goers died from drug-related deaths over the 2018–19 summer in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, the ACT’s pill-testing trial proved that the policy is viable.

The ACT’s carefully designed political system encourages good policy. Multi-member electorates allow for minor-party representation. The “Robson Rotation” method of printing ballots means that candidates compete against members of their own party as well as other parties, removing the machinations that we see in Senate lists, and allowing for the removal of dead wood without rejecting a party altogether.

Labor has been in minority government for 13 of its 17 years in government, but there has been none of the “chaos” or “deadlock” that crossbenches with the balance of power supposedly produce. On the contrary, one can imagine Labor chief ministers breathing a sigh of relief that their cabinet can include the talented and popular Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury – even if he won at the expense of another Labor backbencher.

Sceptics may point to the exceptional nature of Canberra – as a city-state, with a well-off and well-educated population, that benefits from its proximity to larger states. However, our research shows that ACT policies are popular nationwide – not just in Canberra.

We asked Australians if they supported or opposed 11 progressive ACT policies. For 10 of those policies, there was majority support. Often, there was majority support from voters for all political parties. A stamp duty to land tax swap gained 57% support – more than double the share that opposed it. A 100% renewable energy target was the second most popular policy we polled, with 78% support.

We were frankly surprised that the ACT’s justice reinvestment program, which spends money on programs to reduce youth crime and incarceration, was supported by 88% of Australians – making it the ACT’s most popular policy nationwide. Clearly most Australians, however popular law-and-order politicking may seem to be, are open to an alternative.

Politics can be done well, and when it is done well it will produce progressive policies that are also welcomed by the public. The ACT proves that these policies are achievable, and our research shows that they are popular. Governments can implement hard, technical and ambitious policies, and be re-elected. When they are, they reap the benefits of their policy bravery.

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