Two key factors framed the 2020 ACT election campaign. A long-term incumbent ACT Labor Government and the global COVID pandemic. What had been the major weakness of Labor, its many years in power, became a huge strength in the face of a global pandemic. The Labor campaign highlighted the Government as experienced and progressive, a perfect contrast to the ultra-conservative and inexperienced Opposition. Ultimately, this saw ACT Labor return for a sixth consecutive term.
There are no certainties when it comes to elections and even fewer in a Hare-Clark electoral system. While the context of a global pandemic enhances the benefits of incumbency, it is a folly to conclude that electoral success for incumbents is a certainty.
The real electoral and political opportunity presented is to turn the tide on small government, neo-liberal policies. The impact of the pandemic and the global response has further exposed social and economic structural weaknesses and outright failings our movement has sought to combat. And while many of us have been isolated and alone at times through the pandemic we have seen people become more aware of the difficulties faced by those around us.
As these impacts became apparent, Governments domestically and internationally, even our own federal government, implemented dramatic interventions to support families, workers, businesses and communities. As Lynton Crosby put it “[t]he state is back".
We saw this in action as the ACT Government stepped in through the Jobs for Canberrans program, seeking to directly engage workers in surge areas, prioritising those who had fallen through the gaps of the Commonwealth Government’s assistance and those who had lost work as a result of the pandemic. But this shift is something we know we cannot take for granted. If these changes are to stay, it requires progressives to make the case and campaign for permanent change. Here in lies the important lesson from the ACT election. Field or digital, socially distanced, masked or any other way, campaigning remains critical.
But the key isn’t large numbers and huge step counts or even polished narrative but genuine human connection and relationships. Our people have powerful stories and we can use these in powerful and genuine ways – because now more than ever it seems that people are listening to each other.
Mel James was the ACT ALP Secretary and Campaign Director during the 2020 ACT election