It was all going to be so straightforward.
Labor would head into this year’s ACT election promising the largest-ever investment in the Canberra Hospital, and shiny red trams heading south over Lake Burley Griffin.
The Liberals would ask voters to check their wallet and think about how much they were paying for the privilege of living in Canberra — and whether they were getting value for money.
The lines were rehearsed. The corflutes ready to print. The Facebook attack-memes set to fill the newsfeeds of unsuspecting voters.
But, thanks to COVID -19, while that material has not quite been consigned to the dustbin, there is no doubt that the ACT election will be a different contest.
Both major parties now have two tasks ahead of them, one familiar and one unfamiliar.
The first is to try and command the attention of voters, who quite frankly have a bit going on right now.
The second, to convince the electorate that it is the political party to lead the ACT out of a precarious economic position — and find work for the thousands now unemployed or underemployed.
No one was prepared for the scale of that challenge.
Things are bad. They may get worse
Unemployment is shooting up across the country. With so many businesses shuttered for close to two months due to physical distancing restrictions, it is no great surprise.
But that doesn’t soften the blow for those now out of work.
Canberra has been somewhat sheltered, thanks in no small part to the number of people employed by the public sector and universities.
That said, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates 8,700 people lost their jobs in April. Almost all of them were in casual or part-time jobs.
And the number of people now under-employed, working less hours than they would like, has nearly doubled to more than 22,000.
Finding jobs for those people, and those who will sadly, but unavoidably, join them in the months ahead, will quite likely become the central issue of this election campaign.
As wages soften too, the cost of living will also come into sharper focus.
Opposition Leader Alistair Coe has been talking about the high cost of living and doing business in the ACT for years, arguing it risks driving companies and families out of the territory.
“And it’s just not fair that we’re pricing so many Canberra families out of this city.”
Now, the reality could soon start to meet the (occasionally overblown) rhetoric.
The questions are different, but the answers are surprisingly familiar
Labor will argue it has demonstrated its ability to chart a clear path through the rolling disasters of 2020, and should be counted on to keep that up.
From the massive fires of summer that threatened to engulf Canberra’s southern suburbs, to the unfolding economic crisis — it will argue it has the experience, and the results, to be relied upon.
It is seeking to turn a potential line of attack into a strong defence — that rather than a government stale after nearly two decades of continuous power, it has the corporate knowledge required for a crisis.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he would ask the public for its verdict on how his government had handled itself.
“Continuity of policy and ensuring that we are able to recover both economically and socially from these big setbacks this year, will be an important part of our messaging as we go into the election campaign,” he said.
“But that doesn’t start until September.”
Infrastructure was always going to play a big part in Labor’s election campaign — specifically, the half-billion dollar redevelopment of the Canberra Hospital known as the SPIRE project, and stage two of light rail to Woden.
These projects are no longer just about health and public transport. They will also be positioned as critical stimulus for the ACT’s economy, particularly if private construction work slows in the months and years ahead.
And with finance cheap, there is room to borrow more and accelerate that work wherever possible.
Hit them where it hurts — the hip-pocket
The Canberra Liberals largely support the planned investment in the Canberra Hospital, arguing while plans can be tweaked, the upgrades are long overdue.
They are promising no such unity on light rail though, asking to see the business case for stage two, and strongly suggesting contracts for part ‘2B’ (the expensive extension over Lake Burley Griffin, and on to Woden) should not be signed before the election.
Coe said taking the tram south-side had to stack up financially.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re spending the money wisely,” he said.
“There is an opportunity cost for every dollar that is spent.
The Liberals say driving down the cost of living and creating jobs, by reducing the cost of doing business in Canberra, will be their dual priorities.
The ACT has enjoyed solid economic growth, a rapidly growing population and the highest average incomes in the country in recent years.
But in significantly changed economic conditions, those arguments could take on new resonance.
The long-held policy of freezing residential rates remains, and significant action is being promised on commercial rates too.
The ACT Greens will argue a different line altogether — that COVID-19 has changed so much, and exposed so many problems in areas like casualisation and job insecurity, that now is the time for dramatic change.
Arguing if normal is over, it is time to make a better normal.
Walking the campaign tightrope
The Chief Minister does not want to be seen talking politics during a crisis, and rarely brings up the election — or even the Opposition — unless prompted.
He insists his mind will not really turn to the election until September, when the formal campaign period begins.
Of course, it would be folly to think the broader ACT Labor machine is not already actively working on it — including the many candidates and lower-profile MLAs who do not have the luxury of appearing regularly on the nightly news to lift their profile.
A Sydney-based Labor strategist was seen signing herself into the Legislative Assembly just this week.
But it will be tricky for the government to spend the time it wants attacking the Opposition, without the appearance of wasting time that should be spent suppressing COVID-19 and working on the economic recovery.
Much the same can be said for the Canberra Liberals, who need to differentiate and distance themselves from the Government, without being seen as “wreckers” undermining health and economic efforts.
The ACT Government is receiving more attention and more airtime than usual because of the crisis — and the Opposition need to find a way to get a slice of the spotlight.
Coe said they were walking a tightrope, pointing to their role in advocating for the re-opening of public schools as a positive one.
“We’ve got to keep doing what democracy needs, and that is scrutinise the government and provide alternative ideas,” he said.
“We’re very proud of the role that we’ve played.”
Despite the grand plans and campaign intentions of the major parties, this election — like political rhetoric worldwide — has been hijacked by coronavirus and the job losses left in its wake.
Politicians may be grappling with how to reshape their message, and run a campaign they hadn’t planned on.
Voters have bigger problems.