Published in the Canberra Times as: ACT Liberals cannot ignore light rail mandate
Making sure that a city can grow in a sensible fashion is a difficult task. As much as people love cars and the ease of use they deliver, the reality of road congestion, lengthening car travel times and decreasing and expensive parking, mean that the age of the car dominating Canberra is over. While Canberra families may always need a car, they may not always need two cars (or more) if a reliable, frequent and attractive backbone of light rail supported by a better bus system are in place.
Urban planning and public transport planning are complex and expensive areas that have many competing goals. Aside from the NCA having final say and planning control over some areas, Canberra is an unusual city state where the territory government is the local and state planning authority in one. The ACT Government can plan, pay for and implement ideas without navigating multiple council agendas, or by having to compulsorily acquire people’s homes for major projects to occur. Largely.
The East West road tunnel contract debacle in Victoria has been closely observed by those interested in both politics and public transport. In short the Liberal Victorian government signed a contract to build a road tunnel months before the election. The Labor opposition said if elected it would cancel the contract. They then formed government and set about cancelling the contract.
Today they announced that they had – at a cost of 339 million dollars. The now Labor government has settled with the consortium that won the contract, and will refocus state investment on a combination of rail and road projects.
The ripples in the ACT have been fairly immediate. Canberra Liberal transport spokesman Alistair Coe has predictably seized upon the announcement as a justification for a Liberal government (if elected in 2016) to cancel any light rail contract that would be signed by the Barr government ahead of the October 2016 Assembly election.
Complicating this attempt to link the two dissimilar projects is a small matter that unlike the Victorian East West project; by the time of the 2016 ACT election, construction on the Capital Metro project will have been underway for some months. Local jobs will have been created and significant investment already made locally by the successful consortium.
That is a far harder situation to reverse, and may make any election focussed rhetoric made by the Canberra Liberals quite difficult to walk away from if they do win the 2016 election.
A further complication for the Canberra Liberals contract cancelling aspirations is that the Victorian government had the ability to pass an act of parliament to nullify the contract. Capital Metro Minister Simon Corbell points out that the ACT does not have that constitutional power. It is specifically prohibited from passing a law that voids a contract.
This means that even if the Canberra Liberals won the 2016 Assembly election, they may not be able to cancel any contract in place between the ACT Government and the successful consortium, to build Capital Metro Stage One.
As much as the Canberra Liberals dislike the light rail project, by October 2016 they must have a light rail policy to put to the electorate. They have only two choices – offer an alternative public transport policy that incorporates light rail, or explain how they can cancel a contract signed by the ACT Government while lacking the legal authority to do so. This second option is electorally weak, and difficult to sell.
Public transport policy and planning is a tough area. Many people with only a passing interest in politics think that the light rail idea came out of nowhere. It did not, a decade of bus-only public transport plans that continued to deliver declining patronage and increased public subsidies led to the ALP and the Greens going to the 2012 Assembly election with light rail as the core of their public transport policies.
That mandate should be respected. How many elections need to be won before the Canberra Liberals will accept the will of the people?
ACT Light Rail is the Capital Regions peak public transport lobby group.
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