The Interview: ACT Senator Zed Seselja - Part I
Things have moved quickly for Senator Zed Seselja, since being elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly in 2008. After a tilt at the Chief Ministership in 2012, he jumped to federal politics and secured the top spot on the ballot sheet for the Upper House in the 2013 election.
Since then, the Senator has succeeded in picking up a role as Assistant Minister for Social Services and Multicultural Affairs as a result of the election on 2 July.
With a fresh three-year term ahead of him, the Shaker was keen to hear his vision for Canberra, and how he will balance his time as an Assistant Minister and a local representative.
Congratulations on the new portfolio. How did it feel to be sworn in at Government House?
Look, to be honest, it was an absolute honour… and very exciting. I’m really looking forward to the new challenge…and it will be a challenge. There’s a lot to do in the new portfolio.
Give us the quick overview of your aim for Canberra over the next three years.
I’ll be continuing to pursue the agenda I established in the first term which is really about extending and opening up opportunities for Canberra. We’ll be looking at things such as our planning laws – particularly to open up new opportunities for housing.
Housing is really critical to employment opportunities and to creating vibrant town centres. Development opportunities are looking really great with West Belconnen and West Tuggeranong on the horizon, as well as the old CSIRO site at Giralang.
This is a real passion of mine. If we can provide affordable housing, then people have the incentive to move, live and buy a house here, then the city will continue to grow.
Chatting with Nick Georgalis recently, it was interesting to discover that an apartment in the Wayfarer development were sold for as little as $250,000.
That’s a really good outcome for making it easier for developers to add affordable housing stock. I worked really hard to ensure that the Department of Immigration remained in Belconnen, and that has meant that there is a large employment hub which creates demand for the accommodation in those towers.
It’s a critical strategy for town centres, and the Department of Social Services in Tuggeranong is equally important. A lot of the new development down there comes off the back of that commitment.
Gungahlin is in our sites. We’re hoping to move a smaller department into its town centre to create a similar environment. Those discussions are ongoing with the Department of Finance as to which agency is appropriate, and it’s a very important part of this second-term agenda.
Regarding your role as an ACT senator…
The Government has made a commitment to tourism spending, how do you plan to ensure a fair proportion of those funds are spent in/on Canberra?
Well, obviously I’m lobbying really hard around the national institutions. That’s still one of the great levers that the Commonwealth can pull in relation to tourism, and there’s no doubt that when those blockbuster events occur that there is a broad economic benefit to Canberra.
One of things I’ve done with the institutions is to encourage them to better coordinate their timelines. One-off events shouldn’t conflict, and we need to spread event launches to ensure they receive maximum exposure. This is now starting to happen, which really helps the city as a whole.
The other area of focus is a new convention centre. There is little doubt that a modern, world class facility would be a huge asset to the nation’s capital, but I get the impression that the ACT Government has gone cold on the idea.
To get a project like that up-and-running, we really need the commitment of local government. Without it, it is very difficult to lobby for funding at a Federal level.
Canberra is on a roll. There’s a real energy around the place. What Federal initiatives are you keen to support that will help the ACT continue its transition towards an economy based on private-sector?
It’s true. The ACT’s economy is doing really well. There was a lot of concern – especially politically – that Canberra would struggle under a Coalition government. There were certainly job cuts in the later stage of the Labor government and in the early days of the Coalition, but I think we’re really starting to see that turn around.
Of vital importance to us with huge potential will be the defence industry. Canberra is a highly skilled city and some of the most important advanced-technology companies in the world have offices here. Sure, there’s a lot of focus on South Australia and the manufacturing side of defence, but in Canberra we have the talent and the infrastructure to build software solutions that are truly world class.
We’ve got a large defence population here – both military and non-military personnel – but the industry’s multinationals are certainly looking to grow their presence.
Are you sure Canberra can wrest some of those funds from Minister Pyne in South Australia?
Look, we’re never going to be building submarines, but the government is looking at Canberra for high-tech products. In the election we promised $12 million funding for a cyber security centre at ANU. This is the sort of expertise that Canberra possesses.
Aspen medical is a great example. That’s a company that arose from the defence industry, has had great success in the private sector, and now does a lot of work with governments around the world. Glenn Keys insists on keeping his headquarters here because he believes that Canberra is a great place to do business.
ICT and education are other key sectors where Canberra’s economy can grow, and we’ll be working to ensure their potential is realised in the best way possible.
Back to the election…
You attracted some criticism for linking the ACT’s light rail to a Federal campaign. Is this something you’ll continue to do – link your Federal position to territory domestic politics? Canberrans might quite like that.
There’s always going to be a cross-over. I guess because of my jump from leader of the Liberal party in the ACT through to the Federal Senate, I’m going to be linked to ACT politics regardless.
What’s certainly interesting is that my opponent in the last ACT election Katy Gallagher, is the other ACT Senator.
You can never – and should never – be removed from the community you serve, but now I certainly look at the ACT from a Commonwealth point of view in regard to the levers that I can pull to deliver a better outcome for the territory.
As for the tram, I don’t support it. Sure, you can always mount an argument that if we spend X billion over here it will deliver some benefit. The key question is whether this is enough of a benefit for the spend, and what else could be done with that money to deliver a better outcome?
For a government with limited finances, investing so much money into the tram means there is less left for roads or health or any of the countless other demands on the territory’s budget.
Is construction of a tram line preventing investment in a new stadium or a convention centre? If so, that’s a bad outcome. We want to see the City-to-the-Lake happen… that’s a great initiative. If the tram prevents that investment, well, that would be a great shame for Canberra.
An argument can be made that, with a cash rate of 1.5%, that there is no better time to invest than right now. These things don’t get any cheaper to build.
True, but they still come at a cost, and any borrowings have to be paid back at whatever the going rate.
As I said, it takes away spending on other key areas. If you could afford to do the tram and still build the stadium and the convention centre then there might be an argument for it, but currently that’s not the case.
Households will pay for it, business will pay for it. So what is the broader economic impact for a single project? Certainly, I believe that we should be investing in infrastructure, but certainly consider other projects of a much higher priority than light rail.
Going back to the convention centre, that’s the sort of thing that the Commonwealth could definitely look at funding given that it would not only be of great benefit for Canberra, but has the potential to become a national asset – and a venue like that sitting right next to the City-to-the-Lake project could be utterly transformative for Canberra.
To read Part II of our interview with Senator Zed Seselja, click here.