What kind of political party goes 19 years and six elections without a win? In an election where some voters weren’t even alive the last time there was a Liberal government, the ACT Liberals not merely failed to dislodge the Labor-Greens coalition under Andrew Barr but went backwards, likely losing a seat in Canberra’s inordinately complex electoral system.
Part of the reason is that during those 19 years, the Canberra Liberals have gone from being a pragmatic centrist party under Kate Carnell and Gary Humphries to a clutch of bitter right-wingers led by the reactionary Alistair Coe, the only political leader in the country to oppose marriage equality, and Senator Zed Seselja, another marriage equality opponent and hardline anti-choice campaigner. Humphries understandably quit the party in disgust in 2014.
In the most progressive electorate in the country, the ACT Liberal Party is riddled with climate denialists, right-to-lifers, euthanasia opponents and even monarchists (a position that is beyond the pale even for Seselja, who is a republican).
It also hasn’t helped that for a majority of the time since 2001, Coalition governments has been in power federally, usually with an agenda of making life difficult for public servants. The current government has fought hard to suppress the wages of average public servants for the last six years.
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Labor and the Greens have also run a competent territory government, including rolling out a major infrastructure project, the first stage of a light rail network — opposed by the Liberals — under budget though nearly a year late, and shifting the ACT to 100% renewable power while reducing power bills for residents.
But they have also gifted the Liberals an issue that, according to every political pundit, should have made the opposition’s job infinitely easier.
The ACT remains the only government in the country committed to the economists’ dream of a land tax system, with the territory part-way through a 20-year transition to replace stamp duty with land tax, which has meant rate rises far ahead of inflation while stamp duty has been cut by, to date, nearly half. The Barr government promised to cap future rate rises at 3.75% in coming years.
The reform has been broadly revenue neutral, according to a study commissioned by the government, and had delivered modest economic benefits. The study’s claim that it had led to a small fall in rents appears hard to square with the experience of many renters in Canberra in recent years, who have faced a tight rental market that has failed to keep pace with population and foreign student growth.
Despite the enthusiasm for the efficiency of land tax among economists and tax reformers, its adoption is regarded as politically toxic. Yet Labor and the Greens have now gone three elections committed to, or implementing, the program, and held office.
And it’s not for want of trying on the part of the Liberals, who have spurned the enthusiasm for land tax of some federal colleagues and campaigned hard against it at every election, even if the issue took a back seat to the light rail project in 2016.
Are the ACT Liberals really that hopeless, are ACT residents uniquely economically literate — or is land tax not as politically poisonous as everyone assumes?