Chief Minister Andrew Barr entered into election mode at the ANU Bar on Wednesday July 27, prioritizing investment for transportation and health infrastructure as key tenets for the upcoming campaign.
With less than 80 days until the October 15 ACT Legislative Assembly vote, Chief Minister Barr’s appearance in front of a hundred mostly supportive attendees also warned against voting for the ‘far-right’ Liberal opposition led by Jeremy Hanson as an imperative to keep Canberra the most liveable city in the world.
“The most successful cities have progressive social policies,” Barr said, “They support all people to reach their full potential.”
Barr’s opening speech was heavy on his Government’s commitment to transportation, and the Chief Minister trumpeted the arrival of international flights next month from Wellington and Singapore as an ‘opportunity for Canberra and the greater region’, anticipating over $100 million in benefits annually from the 2000 international passengers arriving into Canberra weekly.
Barr also promoted his Government’s approach to improve public transport within Canberra, especially the contentious City-to-Gungahlin light rail project. Speaking highly of the Melburnian transport system as a model to follow, the Chief Minister cited projected population pressures for Canberra as one of the main motivators of transportation investment.
He was forced on the defensive when questioned by Woroni’s Alexander Joske about cronyism in his government, after the ACT Government considered accepting Grocon’s proposal for the redevelopment of Manuka Oval without a tender process earlier in the year.
Grocon at the time of the proposal used the services of Pierre Huetter, the spouse of ACT Labor Minister Meegan Fitzharris. Both Huetter and Fitzharris have close ties with Chief Minister Barr – Huetter was Barr’s advisor and a former Labor Right faction leader, while Fitzharris was Barr’s Chief of Staff before entering elected office.
Explaining the non-tender unsolicited proposals framework which the ACT Government uses to respond to private sector led proposals, Barr said, “The question for the government and policy framework is: Is this proposal unique?”
If the government did not deem the proposal “unique” enough, they would inform the company how to conduct the proposal, lest the government put the tender back on the market. However, Barr did not expand on what defined a “unique” project.
Jockeyed by Joske, the Chief Minister then vehemently denied the accusations of cronyism levied against him, citing that the perception of a conflict of interest was avoided with Huetter leaving his job and Fitzharris’ not being part of the decision-making process of the Grocon proposal.
Barr, who spoke of Labor’s progressive broad-based land tax earlier as a “simple and most efficient, stable and predictable way to increase revenue”, was also asked about his commitment to affordable housing while using land taxes, which increase as land valuation increases, to supplement the ACT budget which is currently in deficit.
He reaffirmed his commitment to affordable student housing in the ACT and for the ANU as well, citing the Labor Party’s support for the National Rental Affordability Scheme which facilitated the development of the UniLodges at ANU. This was discontinued during Abbott’s time as Prime Minister.
Barr also asserted that 20% of dwellings of any new development that is built will be affordable housing for private rent or private sale in one of the biggest public housing renewal projects in Canberra’s history. However, he did not mention the fate of Fenner Hall in his reply.