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 Australian Capital Territory go to the polls on October 20 to determine the fact 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 cross-bench, 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 over 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.
Katy Gallagher came to the chief ministership following Jon Stanhope’s unforced departure in May 2011, having been anointed as his preferred successor. Gallagher entered parliament in 2001 after earlier working as an organiser for the Left faction Community and Public Sector Union. She served as Education Minister from December 2002 until April 2006, when she moved to health and assumed the deputy chief ministership in place of the retiring Ted Quinlan. Further indication of her future leader status came when she replaced Stanhope as Treasurer after the 2008 election. Her opposite number, Zed Seselja, has been leader of the Liberals since December 2007, at which time he was 31. Despite a mediocre showing for the Liberals at the 2008 election, he has survived the ensuing term without facing serious leadership speculation.
Published polling for the election is yet to emerge, but Peter Jean of the Canberra Times reported in August that Liberal internal polling had them hopeful of gains at the expense of a declining Greens, said to be in danger of losing 4% of the vote and as many as three of their four seats. Emma Macdonald of the Canberra Times reported a fortnight ago that a poll of 400 voters conducted by Qdos Research for the Australian Education Union found 28% support for Labor, 27% for the Liberals, and 10% for the Greens, with a full third of the sample undecided indicating there was no follow-up question as to which way undecided respondents were leaning, as public pollsters conventionally do to shake them off the fence.
Profiles of the three regions will be posted over the coming weeks. If that’s too long to wait, Antony Green does his typically comprehensive job here. The charts below respectively show the parties’ seat and vote shares going back to the inception of self-government.