With the ACT Election coming up, Woroni sat down with Chief Minister of the ACT Andrew Barr to find out more about his experience at ANU, his connection to Malcolm Turnbull, his plans for the ACT and his favourite fruit. 

Woroni: So, we’ve seen your column ‘Look to the Left’ and we did want to hear about it. We also heard that it caused such outrage that they had to do ‘Look to the Right’. So do you want to give us a little bit of background on ‘Look to the Left’?

Andrew Barr:  Yes. So that would have been probably 1993, I think. So I’ve either been a third or second year student. I was a Canberra boy.

Well, I came here when I was four. Coming to ANU in 1992, was when Australia was last in recession. So, there weren’t many jobs around. Students really struggled to get any sort of part time work. So we all had, let’s be frank, quite a little bit of time on our hands.

And aside from studying,  I got involved in student politics. I joined the student Labor club in 1992. And then at the end of that year, Woroni. Back when editors were elected. Are they still?

W:  Yeah.

AB: The election at the end of that year and the team that won was different from the administration that won the Students’ Association elections. They ran as an independent Woroni team, which is fair enough. But then I think they probably felt that in order to have some balance with the administration, they should allow, yeah, they had the association pages and then they had a few guest columnists.

And so it was, I think like the combination of force of personality and, you know, a willingness to actually write something every two weeks. Yes.‘Look to the Left’. Yes, it did cause a degree of controversy, because there were some who thought I didn’t look far enough to the left.

Then there was the right who were not so happy about it as well. There’s been a very strong history of student liberal activity here. Labor was in government federally then. So they were a bit more active, around that time. Paul Keating was the Prime Minister, and the then liberal opposition leader was John Hewson. Who’s, whether his politics has moved or not,, is now saying he’s a little bit more progressive, but at the time was the devil. It really was the campaigns that were run. Very very tough. So that’s how it started. I think I was a columnist for a few years for Woroni.

And I then had the Association pages when I was the Treasurer. You have to write stuff for that as well.

W: Do you have a favorite article that you can remember writing for look to the left?

AB: No…

W: Maybe we should print one next to it. I’m pretty sure they’re all just over there [gestures to the Woroni office]

AB: Have to be very careful about that one, but yeah. Yeah. Suffice to say things you say when you’re 20 years old, it’s…

W: Probably not the best thing to come out just before an election!

Speaking of your time as ANUSA treasurer, can you tell us a little bit about how you found that experience?

AB: Well, we didn’t have much money and  around that time there was a lot of debate about compulsory student unionism. There was a student levy that everyone had to pay that went to ANUSA and to the student union. So there were always fights over who would get what share of money. In that period, there was one very significant debate that occurred around whether there should be not only a students annual contribution, but a collection of money for a student amenities fund.

And then there was a big fight over whether, if we should start doing that, which we did. I think it started at about 20 bucks a year for every student. Then the fight turned to what that money would be spent on and they went, well it should be for a pool.

W: Well, that took a long time.

AB: Exactly! No seriously. Would it be to refurb the union building? Or do the uni bar? Those sorts. Those debates were very topical at the time. There were a couple of stand out things from that year. So we were the first administration. I was the first treasurer to fund the ANU Queer department as it was known then. Before they didn’t have a budget and had no way of operating or doing anything. So we gave them some money, which was a sort of a starting point for that.

So that’s the origin. So that’s how I, but I’m sure if you go back into the Woroni’s of 1994,  perhaps, would they have the budget? You’ll see the sexuality department having some money, possibly for the first time it was either 93 or 94, around that year or so. Yeah, a bit of history there. We used to operate out of, or what was, the old Union. We were above the Uni Bar. This again shows how old I’m getting. Labor guys used to love going to see the Whitlams play  before they were famous. And whilst there probably were about 20, 30, 40,000 people who claim to have been at the Nirvana concert. I wasn’t one of them. I was at the Uni at the time, but I didn’t go.

W: What are your views on student unionism generally?

AB: Okay. Well, one of the other big issues at that time was an affiliation campaign that was run to get the ANU to join the National Union of Students.

W: Yeah. It’s still a very big debate.

AB So we spent six months campaigning for it and we lost. One of the other casualties of that was that I failed a unit and had to come back and do it again the next year. So it was just sort of a lesson that while some things are very, very important. Even if it meant I spent an extra year here. So I was four years at ANU because I had to finish another unit at the end, but, yes, that, that experience was well, one of the few campaigns, we’ve sort of been actively involved in that we got thumped. Then there’s the other famous one. It was a little bit later, but again was something I was involved in here was the1999 Republic referendum. So in 1992, one of the clubs I joined and sort of was one of the founding members of was the ANU Australian Republican movement, which is where I first met Malcolm Turnbull.

AB:  I’ll show you this. (Editors Note: he showed us a photo of a letter he sent to Malcolm Turnbull in 1992 inviting him to come to the ANU to speak about the Republican movement). So, Turnbull was writing his book, and out of the blue, got this message from him, where he had dug up his old records. So from January, 1993 as letter to Mr. Turnbull, inviting him to speak on the campus. He said in his message to me it was ‘it’s a blast from the past.’

W: Definitely. It’s amazing that he’s still got that.

AB: Honestly, it was in his file somewhere at home.

W: Yeah. Just keep so much stuff there.

AB: So that was the era! We were trying to make Australia a Republic. That one hasn’t gone so well. I tried to affiliate to NUS. Didn’t go so well then. And then the other big big arguments at the time, were around the university-imposed a fee of, an upfront fee, for the legal workshop course over in the law faculty. And that led to a bit of an uprising on campus and the student occupation of the Chancellery Building.

So my job as treasurer was to finance the food supply into the, into the occupation. We kept them going with pizzas. I think they were in there for three days or something. It was quite a thing.

W: Was Socialist Alternative around at that time?.

AB: Yeah. Oh definitely. Yeah. In fact, does Dr Rick Kuhn still lecture here in the arts and political science?

W:  The name doesn’t sound familiar. 

AB: Yes. He probably wouldn’t be, he might have retired. Yes he was. He lectured in Australian political economy from a Marxist perspective. I think l took one of his classes to, you know, get a broader balance. Well, I studied arts and economics. So I spent half of my time in the arts political science faculty with a bit of philosophy and sociology thrown in, and then economics and economic history. So I got plenty of right-wing theory from the economics area.

W: So you might as well do the far left.

AB: Yeah, that’s right. Benefits of a broad education is being able to consider things from many different perspectives. So they were probably the main highlights of that time. Probably the only other sort of interesting. And you’ll see that in the, in the editions and the election editions in all honesty, is that the, the banner under which, we ran for the election was ‘Green Alliance’.

Yes, and if you look carefully, I think the candidate for either the Commerce or Law faculty on that ticket with me. I was running for treasurer, was Shane Rattenbury. That’s where Shane and I first met, in the early 1990s. So this is something that I say to all the young Labor youngsters is that the people you meet in student politics,  it’s quite possible that you will see them around the traps later on. Then a couple of other examples. The president of the Liberal club in 1992, in my first year here, Stephen Byron, now runs Canberra Airport. And the guy who replaced Stephen  used to work for Bronwyn Bishop. The public affairs manager for Huawei, the Chinese telco, that’s been Jeremy Mitchell. Some people you end up seeing in very odd places down the track. It’s one of the great things about ANU is the people come from all over the country and you are likely to run into them again. 10, 20, 30 years later. In many different places. So yep. Liberal club presidents end up working for Chinese telcos.

W: So next question, because it’s the Depravity edition, we were wondering if you could tell us a bit of a spicy story from your time at uni?

AB: Way back in the olden days, there wasn’t anything really between where we are here, probably just one block up and the city. So all of these, the ANU exchange and all that student accommodation and those buildings were just surface carparks. But there was Dolly’s Late Night takeaway, which is where all the taxi drivers and drunk uni students would  go because it was between all of the clubs in civic and the campus. So yes, many a night would have been spent trying to sober up, by I guess, burgers and chips at 5:00 AM in that part of the world. Ah, I’m trying to think of some others. I mean there were some great nights at the Uni Bar watching the Whitlams, because they didn’t draw massive crowds there. And you know, like it was a pretty hardcore couple of, hundred of us who would go to their shows. I have vague memories of around Oktoberfest, with my ANU Uni Bar Stein. This is like a pint, on the dance floor, possibly not holding my drink so well. So I guess that would be, Bush Week and O-Week. And again, back in the olden days, before responsible service of alcohol and various, limits were put on things, there used to be venues that would do 10 cent beers for students. And then there was a place which is not far from where I work now called Montezuma’s, which was a Mexican place and they used to have happy hour on margarita jugs, two for $8 or something, like massive. We were experts at making our meagre money go as far as you possibly could on alcohol. My final story is probably from my last year. We used to go over to Uni House, the bar over there. This is when we had graduated from drinking cask wine and jugs, all those. And you used to be able to buy University House, non vintage champagne in the bottle for $4.95. We were very sophisticated by our fourth year! We would go and everyone would buy a bottle and sit in the sun there before exams or after exams, more to the point, getting a little smashed on University House, non vintage. 

W: Fantastic.  We thought we’d also discuss general things about the ACT and policy. We were looking at the a hundred percent renewable thing. Has that been achieved yet? 

AB: It has. 

W: Amazing. So what comes next? 

AB: Well, as a little exclusive (editor’s note: this was announced two weeks ago), tomorrow we’re making a further announcement of a further large scale renewable energy project that has a big battery attached to it. So some of the initial work that we’ve done, has been to generate, through what I call reverse auctions, where we say, go out to the renewable energy market and say, bid us the lowest price to supply renewable energy for a 20 year period. And we will guarantee that we will buy it at that price, that fixed price for 20 years. And so that has seen about $2 billion worth of new, renewable energy generation. That’s contracted to the ACT, but it’s in a diverse range of locations and a diverse range of renewable energy types. So we’ve got a lot of solar in and around Canberra because it’s very sunny. But most of our wind farms are in places that are a bit, windier so in Victoria, in South Australia, New South Wales. But it’s all contracted to come into us through the national electricity market. But one of the criticisms and this, you see this a bit around renewable energies, that ‘oh, but what happens when necessity it’s not shining or the wind’s not blowing? Do you have a guarantee of energy supply?’ Now we’ve partly addressed that by having our wind farms in different locations. So even if it’s not windy in South Australia, it might be in Victoria and New South Wales, but then the other way to address that is to then store the energy in batteries. And so tomorrow’s announcement sees a massive battery for Canberra, as part of another big wind farm.

So that will allow us to store the surplus renewable energy when it’s being generated. And then it’s available to dispatch  for when the sun’s not shining and the wind isn’t blowing! So part of the next step for Canberra, is going to be having more of those batteries.

Now the advantage here is that we can then sell the power when we’re not using it. We can sell it into the national electricity market and sometimes the price is very high. So it’ll pay for itself. It’s actually a revenue generating thing and a practical example of renewable energy policy and sort of market economics at play, sort of weaving the two together that delivers the environmental outcome and makes money, not costs money.

So we’re going well there, and then the other thing we’re thinking about now is at the moment, particularly in winter, and something we get a lot of our energy usage from, is gas. Also a lot of our energy usage comes from vehicles and so we need to have more electric capability, so we need more generation and more storage so that we can transition away from gas and fossil fuels vehicles. so part of the next step also is what we do with our electric vehicles, our charging capability and all the rest. But then the cars themselves all have batteries and they are also places that you can store power and sell back into the grid when you need to. So it’s quite clever, and so this is where the technology comes in around virtual power plants as well. In short, we’re generating a lot more renewable energy and the challenge now is storing it and then being able to use it when you need it. When, as I say, maybe at night when the sun’s not shining or on not windy days. 

W: Yeah. We also wanted to ask about general policies surrounding support for uni students, especially during the pandemic. 

AB: Yes. So we recognised pretty early that the Commonwealth were going to be excluding a whole lot of people from  JobKeeper and JobSeeker. Casuals, who hadn’t been with their employer for 12 months, international students, lots of people who weren’t eligible.

So we then did a couple of things. Firstly, we established our ‘Jobs for Canberrans’ program, which we basically said was targeted at those people who didn’t get any other form of support. So we’ve now employed more than 500 people. A lot of them are students and they are working in a diverse range of areas, some were helping with the bushfire recovery in the national park.

Others have been in our call centres, on our COVID hotline and some of our other support areas. There’s been administration, and a whole range of other projects. Some have been gardening and doing maintenance,  it’s a whole range of stuff. Because we’ve got doctors, nurses, accountants, lawyers, but we’ve got bus drivers and maintenance, you know, there’s a very wide range of jobs within the ACT government, so we stepped in there. And then we also have provided a range of assistance for low income households with their energy bills. We extended that to asylum seekers So we’ve looked at  all of this matrix of who’s getting extra support and who isn’t and tried to get some money and support to them. Fantastic.

W: One more question about that. What are your thoughts on the Federal Government’s announcements of fee hikes for university students and the whole thing about first years failing subjects? 

AB: So both of these announcements are neither well intentioned nor well directed and I think they’ll achieve the exact opposite of the stated objectives. Speaking as an ANU arts public policy graduate, in my own working life, I’ve benefited greatly from having a broad education.I mean, when I graduated in 1995, we were just recovering from the last recession.

So I think it is my generation who were the last ones to experience what your generation is going to, in terms of what the market will look like. The happy news I can tell you is that things do rebound, but now is a good time to be at uni whilst the worst of it is happening. But my experience was that people graduating in the mid nineties, we’d have four or five careers in different areas. It used to be whatever you’d studied at uni would be your job for life. By the time it got to the mid nineties in my generation, it was ‘no, you should think about having four or five different careers’ so you need a skill base and for you guys, it is even broader. So that says to me that the value of thinking skills, the capacity to analyse problems and resolve is fundamental. And then you’ll do sort of shorter, sharper bits of training on specific areas that you specialise in, but you wouldn’t necessarily have to study that for four years.

And so  the big advantage of having a good general education now is fundamental. We shouldn’t be steering people down a really narrow path. And de-valuing all of those other courses. Yes, we do need more people with STEM qualifications and there will be a need for more people with health qualifications and all the rest. But, you can do that, you know, in either a postgraduate context or one or two years of study. Not four years. And then just say that the rest is not as valued by society. That’s just not true. So many jobs will require that level of education and general understanding, as I say, problem solving, being able to analyse. And it’s one of the better descriptions, almost learning how to think, to critically analyse. Read, absorb, analyse, and then come up with something.

W: Okay. Last question, which is a little quick fire round. Whatever comes to mind. The first question is one that we ask everyone. What’s your favorite fruit?

AB: Raspberries. Well, they’re a berry do they count as a fruit?

W: Yes. I think they do. Favorite kebab shop? 

AB: Okay. The one in Dickson on Cape Street, is where I would go. It’s called Alara’s. 

W: Favorite nightclub?

AB: (Laughs) Well, when I was able to go out in Canberra. I used to go to Cube a lot, so yes, but that was a little while ago.

W: Last one, if you had to have a song that would describe your time at uni, what would it be? 

AB: Ah okay, so this is going back a long way, and do you want something contemporary from my time at uni or just a song?

W: A song that describes it.

AB: Okay, it’s a 50 year old song from my favorite band, the Rolling Stones and the song is

‘You can’t always get what you want’.  Well, then, the lyric goes on, ‘but if you try some time, you just might find you’ll get what you need.’

Grace Sixsmith is the ACT Young Labor Women’s Officer.

Woroni reached out to Alistair Coe’s office but did not receive a response.