Welcome to 2016. An interview with Chief Minister Andrew Barr
One year down, and one to go. It’s a mantra that might be running through the mind of Chief Minister Andrew Barr. After being promoted by his party to the top job late in 2014, it was a frenetic 12-month period for the high-profile politician.
With 2015 drawing to a close and the new year on the horizon, it was the perfect time to quiz the Chief Minister on what he learned during the first year of his government, and what Canberra can (and should) be.
Settling in as Chief Minister
Looking over the highs and lows of last year – and across the challenges of 2016 – Barr is reflective regarding the role he has assumed and the pressures it has brought to bear. “What I wasn’t really ready for was having to step into the de-facto roles of Mayor and Governor – neither of which Canberra has – that require a large ceremonial commitment. It required a bit of adjustment and put a lot of pressure on my time while I was adjusting to the complexities this office brings.”
Having done ten years as Tourism Minister, and given the demands of the top job, there must have been a temptation to pass the portfolio on to someone else.
“Look, for me it always made sense to hold the other two portfolios as part of my Chief Ministership. Despite the fact that in other jurisdictions there might be three… four… or even five people that hold manage the responsibilities I do, it allows for a great strategic viewpoint to take the economic opportunities that are available to Canberra.
“I still see my role as chief spruiker for Canberra – both nationally and internationally. The portfolio is still a great fit. It’s great to be able to align the interests of tourism industries with the broader economic priorities of the city.”
Tourism certainly benefitted from having Barr hold this role, and there is more to be done. “Well, there is one I’m definitely determined to land – if you pardon the pun. Being able to visit Singapore five times as part of government delegations has increased the opportunity for international flights into Canberra. A direct link into Asia remains a key aim for me and the ACT Government.”
Avi Hasson at Canberra Innovation Network (via Facebook)
Fostering a culture of innovation
A closer relationship with Asia is that ties nicely into the Chief Minister’s focus on innovation. Over the last three or four years (and particularly in the last 12 months) institutions such as the Canberra Innovation Network (CBR IN) have leveraged the expertise with Canberra’s tertiary institutions through the creation of products with global appeal.
“When various levels of Government are facing in the same direction, things happen much quicker. CBR IN has grown more quickly than we expected, and perhaps even more quickly than they expected. Managing that growth is a wonderful problem to have.”
A recent visit by Israeli Chief Minister, Avi Hasson, highlighted the opportunities available in the innovation space. However, it’s important to recognise that Israel set down the path of becoming a centre for entrepreneurs and investment way back in 1975.
“That’s true, but to some extent, this is Canberra’s challenge more broadly. Until very recently, we never really had an economic strategy for the city. We’re barely 103 years old, and for the first 75 years we were essentially a function of the Federal Government. Since becoming self-governed in 1987, we’ve been trying to find our feet as a city-state with diminishing resources. Now, we’re really stepping up by targeting key areas where we have a competitive advantage and we’re throwing a lot at it.”
For a city that sometimes punches below its weight, it’s interesting to know where our opportunities might lie. Barr sees five key areas – most of which are interdependent, but together create the foundations of what envisages as a national centre for innovation. “1. Skills: We’re the most educated population in Australia – twice as many people have degrees and post-grad qualifications than the national average.
“2. People: We’ve got 10% of Australia’s public research capacity. One in nine people study or work with a tertiary institution. One in ten people are involved in ICT. That’s an amazing pool to draw from.
“3. Government: We are the home of the biggest single purchaser in Australia – The Federal Government. For multi-nationals where government procurement, many have their headquarters here so they can be right on the doorstep of the Commonwealth. These businesses are looking for new solutions that can be implemented through their global operations.
“4. Being the National Capital: This is actually really important. If we were just a regional capital of 400,000 people, it would be much harder to bring the best and the brightest here… and to keep them.
“5. Diplomatic missions: These are vital to Canberra being seen on the world map. The exposure of Canberra via the embassies and High Commissions is huge, and no Australian city can compete.”
“Internationally-traded services are going to be a massive driver for growth in Canberra, but it’s certainly not the be-all-and-end-all for what we can achieve as a city. It’s important to realise that innovation isn’t just cutting edge software. It’s more of a cultural shift that means across government and industry we need to constantly examine the way we do business."
It was in this week that the Canberra Liberals delivered their response to Capital Metro – Canberra’s planned light rail network that arose out of the tied result of the 2012 ACT election. Needless to say, Barr isn’t overly impressed by the proposal, which removes the tram line in exchange for a range of options for expanded bike and bus lanes along Northbourne Avenue.
“The Prime Minister is really focussed on a new plan for cities, and sees our light rail project as a great test case for using transport investment to increase land values along the corridor, and deliver revenue to the government (or council) through increased land values.
“In Canberra, some of the beneficiaries will be the Commonwealth – especially as we begin to expand the network through the Parliamentary Triangle. Plus, we're looking to expand the transport mix across the city to ensure there are many options to suit a diverse range of needs. You saw us act on that through the successful introduction Uber.”
Uber was indeed an interesting test case. One we were keen to explore with Barr to understand the level of importance for being the first jurisdiction in Australia to officially welcome the ride-sharing serivce.