Amid a backdrop of deep cuts to the public service by conservative governments elsewhere, the looming Australian Capital Territory election gives Labor a strong chance of ending a two-year run of successive state and territory election defeats.

Voters in the ACT go to the polls on October 20 to determine the fate of an 11-year-old Labor government headed by Katy Gallagher, who took over the reins when Jon Stanhope stepped aside in May last year. The electoral system for the 17-member chamber is the Hare-Clark model of proportional representation familiar from Tasmania, with the territory divided into three regions of which two (Brindabella and Ginninderra) return five members and a third (Molonglo) returns seven.

As is the case for Tasmania and the Senate, this system usually delivers a substantial crossbench, making majority government difficult to achieve. The present government came to office after the 2001 election and secured the chamber’s first and so far only parliamentary majority when it was re-elected in 2004, before reverting to minority status when the Greens achieved an electoral breakthrough in 2008.

Self-government for the ACT was established under the Hawke government in 1989, and the unpopularity of the move locally was indicated by an election result in which more than 60% of voters opted for minor groupings who collectively returned eight members, including four who ran on a platform of abolishing self-government. The shifting sympathies of these members produced two changes of government during the first term: Labor’s Rosemary Follett held the reins from May to December 1989 and again after June 1991, with Trevor Kaine leading a Liberal administration in the interim. Three opponents of self-government held the balance of power after the 1992 election, and sustained Follett’s minority government throughout the following term.

The territory had consisted of a single 17-member electorate at the first two elections held under the “modified d’Hondt” system, but an overhaul of the electoral system in 1995 raised the bar for minor party candidates. The territory was broken down into its present three regions, considerably pushing up the quota for election. The introduction of Hare-Clark also entailed the “Robson rotation” system of rotating ballot paper order, which forces party candidates within each region into competition with their colleagues.

The first election under the new system delivered seven seats to the Liberals, whose leader Kate Carnell was able to form a government with support from two independents. Carnell retained office after achieving a status quo result in 1998, before resigning in 2000 to head off a no-confidence motion resulting from an unfavourable auditor’s report into the redevelopment of Bruce Stadium. Her successor Gary Humphries led the government to defeat in 2001, and moved to the Senate a year later where he has remained ever since.

Labor came to office at the 2001 election after gaining two seats at the expense of Liberal-leaning independents, leaving them with eight seats to the Liberals’ seven and one each for the Greens and Democrats. New chief minister Jon Stanhope introduced four-year terms effective from the 2004 election, which was held one week after the federal election on October 9. The election saw Labor win majority government by gaining the requisite extra seat at the expense of the collapsing Democrats.

The 2008 election saw the Greens’ representation grow from one to four on the back of a vote increase from 9.3% to 15.6%, reducing Labor from nine seats to seven and the Liberals from seven seats to six. The four Greens members, all of them new to parliament, declined an offer from the Liberals for a coalition government in which the Greens would take two cabinet positions including the deputy chief ministership, instead agreeing to support a Labor minority government on the basis that more of its agenda would be put into effect. This went against the advice of Bob Brown, who said his “counsel throughout this election was for the Greens to take ministries, to share government”.

Peter Fray

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