ACT Chief Minister of four years Katy Gallagher has announced she will resign in coming days to pursue one of the ACT’s two Senate seats, to become vacant when incumbent Kate Lundy resigns next year. That Gallagher would run for the Senate was almost a given. A strong performer for the Labor Party in the ACT belonging to the left faction, she is personable, media savvy and has a compelling backstory, and is the only clear contender for the seat being vacated by Lundy after almost two decades.
Whereas Lundy entered the Senate with a union background, as the youngest women at the time to be elected to the Australian Parliament, Gallagher will enter with the years of political and administrative experience she has amassed in ACT politics, the last four of which she has served as Jon Stanhope’s successor in the top job. Some are tipping in light of this she will be fast-tracked to the shadow ministry, something that is likely before the next election, but it is unlikely she will receive more than a junior portfolio in the short term. With experience comes baggage, and while endorsements of her ascension to federal politics have, and will continue to be strong, there may be caution about what role she serves in federal Labor at least in the short term.
To Gallagher’s credit she has built a strong and stable minority government and has negotiated with the Commonwealth for an agreement to address the toxic legacy of loose-fill asbestos in the ACT. Some recent developments though leave her open to criticism, something her soon to be Senate ‘colleague’ and one time foe in ACT politics Zed Seselja has already done today. Scandals involving bullying, falling standards and manufactured statistics in the ACT’s health system while Health Minister and now Chief Minister are the most potent example, with Canberra’s main hospital facing the risk of losing its teaching accreditation as the problems continue unresolved. On infrastructure, Gallagher has prompted political and public division over the decision to build a light rail link between the Canberra CBD and the northern suburbs. The link, which would be the largest capital works project in ACT history, will be a necessary and welcome development at some point in Canberra’s evolution, but is easily criticised in the present as a rushed and politically driven project. The issues may prompt caution for what role she serves in federal Labor near term, but on the positive side her departure may dull some criticisms that the ACT opposition would have been relying on come 2016, depending on how the new Chief Minister performs.
The effect on ACT politics of Gallagher’s departure will be interesting. She accounts for a significant 2.1 quotas in the Molonglo electorate, the next nearest Labor candidate being Andrew Barr who is on 0.3 quotas. When Gallagher took the poll position from previous senior candidate Ted Quinlan after 2004, she was only a couple of hundred primary votes behind him already. Her vote then and since suggests that Katy Gallagher enjoys a very strong personal vote in Molonglo.
It is certain that Andrew Barr will takeover as Chief Minister, becoming the first openly gay leader of an Australian government, the first right faction leader of an ACT Labor government and bringing with him a self-assuredness, albeit with a touch of arrogance, and common touch that could serve Labor well come 2016 against an opposition led by Jeremy Hanson. He can also expect a significant increase in his own primary vote by assuming the leadership and becoming Labor’s lead candidate in Molonglo. But when Jon Stanhope retired after 2008 leaving his seat in Ginninderra, some of the primary vote support Stanhope earned left Labor with him, as it seemed to do when Ted Quinlan left after 2004. Add to this the age of the Labor government and that over the past 14 years Simon Corbell, a senior minister, has gone from being for two terms the most successful Labor candidate in Molonglo to now barely retaining his seat (losing thousands of personal primary votes and in my opinion likely retiring before the 2016 poll) and the situation becomes even murkier for Labor. Whether the bulk of Gallagher’s primary vote is retained by Labor and divided among the candidates with a skew to Barr, or whether a not insignificant proportion leaks to other parties so as to threaten the current balance between the major parties in Molonglo will be the question. Labor may be taking some comfort that the Greens vote appears to be resurgent while federal issues are doing harm to the Liberal brand, a brand that already struggles in the ACT.
With economic conditions paving a perilous road ahead for the ACT, Gallagher has chosen a smart time to make her move. She leaves with an overall strong record in ACT politics and some of the strongest support enjoyed by any territory politician. To her successor Andrew Barr she leaves an unenviable task, guiding the ACT through deteriorating economic conditions, a hostile federal government and the costly resolution to the loose-fill asbestos crisis. Barr is no slouch, he has been a confident treasurer and knows how to spar with the opposition. With Gallagher’s popularity and the coalition brand suffering, Labor retaining government in 2016 seemed more likely than not with Gallagher at the helm. Now Andrew Barr has two years to cement his leadership, build his own brand and earn that victory.