Australian Capital Territory 2020 election: a quick guide

9 December 2020

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Dr Michael Sloane
Politics and Public Administration


The 2020 Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Legislative Assembly election was held over a three-week period commencing on 28 September and concluding with polling day on 17 October 2020. This quick guide provides a brief overview of the results of the election as well as details of the new ministry appointed following the election. It also includes background information on the composition of the Legislative Assembly and the development of the ACT’s electoral system.

The election saw the Labor-Greens Government returned, with reduced representation in the Assembly for both Labor and the Liberals and significantly increased representation for the ACT Greens. Labor, either alone or with the support of the Greens, has now been in government in the ACT continuously since 2001 (six consecutive terms).


The ACT Legislative Assembly and electoral system

The unicameral ACT Legislative Assembly was made up of 17 members from the commencement of self-government in 1989 until the end of the Eighth Assembly in 2016. Elections for the First and Second Assemblies (1989 and 1992) were conducted using the ‘modified d’Hondt’ electoral system, under which all 17 members were elected from a single Territory-wide electorate. A Hare-Clarke electoral system was used to elect the next six assemblies, with the Territory being divided into three electorates, two of which returned five members, while one returned seven members.

Legislation passed in 2014 during the Eighth Assembly increased the size of the Assembly to 25 members and required the ACT to be divided into five electorates, with five members to be elected from each electorate (see the Australian Capital Territory (Legislative Assembly) Act 2014 (ACT) and the Electoral Amendment Act 2014 (ACT)). These changes came into effect at the 2016 election, making the Ninth Assembly (2016–20) the first with 25 members.

Legislative Assembly terms were originally three years, but under the Electoral Amendment Act 2003 (ACT) these were extended to four years starting from the 2004 election. Polling day is fixed under section 100 of the Electoral Act 1992 (ACT) as the ‘the 3rd Saturday in October in the 4th year after the year when the last ordinary election was held.’ Terms of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) commence on the declaration of their election and expire on the polling day of the next general election (see section 10 of the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 (Cth)).

Party representation in the Legislative Assembly since 2001

ACT Labor has formed government in each assembly since 2001, either in its own right or with the support of the ACT Greens. During the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Assemblies (2008–20), the Labor and Greens parties entered into parliamentary agreements setting out shared policy priorities and guaranteeing confidence and supply. As part of these agreements, Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury served as Speaker during the Seventh Assembly and then as a minister during the Eighth and Ninth Assemblies. Table 1 below provides a summary of the seats won by parties in ACT elections from 2001 to 2020.

Table 1: Party representation in the ACT Legislative Assembly 2001–20

Assembly Labor Liberal Greens Democrats Total seats Government(a)
Fifth (2001–04) 8 7 1 1 17 Labor
Sixth (2004–08) 9 7 1 17 Labor
Seventh (2008–12) 7 6 4 17 Labor
Eighth (2012–16) 8 8 1 17 Labor-Greens
Ninth (2016–20) 12 11 2 25 Labor-Greens

(a) As noted above, while Labor required the support of the Greens to form Government in the Fifth and Seventh Assemblies, Greens MLAs were not included in the ministry until the Eighth and Ninth Assemblies.
Source: ACT Electoral Commission, ‘Past ACT Legislative Assembly Elections’.

Casual vacancies during the Ninth Assembly

Two casual vacancies arose during the Ninth Assembly. Neither vacancy altered party representation in the Assembly. In accordance with Part 13 of the Electoral Act 1992 (ACT), casual vacancies are filled by recounting the ballots that elected the vacating MLA in order to determine which candidate was the next most favoured by the electors who elected the departing MLA. Only candidates who contested the original election and who indicate a willingness to participate in the recount are included in this process. If it is not possible to fill the vacancy by this method, the Assembly may appoint a replacement member.

The first vacancy arose in the electorate of Kurrajong due to the death of Steve Doszpot on 25 November 2017. Mr Doszpot, a Liberal MLA since 2008, had announced on 24 October 2017 his intention to resign at the end of the year due to ill health. Following a recount conducted on 11 December 2017, Ms Candice Burch was formally declared elected on 13 December 2017.

The second vacancy arose in the electorate of Yerrabi due to the resignation of Labor MLA Megan Fitzharris on 8 July 2019. Ms Fitzharris had served in the Assembly since 6 January 2015, when she filled a casual vacancy created by the resignation of Chief Minister Katy Gallagher to seek a position in the Senate. Ms Fitzharris was serving in several ministerial roles at the time of her resignation. Following a recount conducted on 22 July 2019, Mr Deepak Raj Gupta was formally declared elected on 23 July 2019.

Party leadership in the Ninth Assembly

The parliamentary leadership of the three parties represented in the Legislative Assembly remained unchanged throughout the Ninth Assembly. Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Deputy Chief Minister Yvette Berry led the Labor Party throughout the term (Mr Barr has served as Chief Minister since the resignation of Katy Gallagher from the Assembly in December 2014). Leader of the Opposition, Alistair Coe, and Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Nicole Lawder, similarly led the Liberal Party throughout the term. Mr Coe replaced previous Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Hanson, following the 2016 election. Shane Rattenbury served as the Leader of the ACT Greens throughout the term.

Conduct of the 2020 election

COVID-19 measures—early voting

In May 2019 the ACT Electoral Commission prepared a special report under section 10A of the Electoral Act 1992 (ACT), setting out the election delivery model it considered most appropriate to mitigate the ongoing health and safety risks to the ACT community and electoral staff posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The special report canvassed a number of options but recommended to the Legislative Assembly that the most appropriate response would be to amend the Electoral Act 1992 so as to make all electors eligible to vote early. The Electoral Commission also sought additional funding to implement its proposed early voting model. The required amendments to the Electoral Act 1992 were made by the COVID-19 Emergency Response Legislation Amendment Act 2020 (No 2), passed by the Assembly on 2 July 2020. The amendments to the Electoral Act 1992 apply only to the 2020 election and expire six months after the election is held.

The expansion of eligibility for early voting to all electors had been proposed in 2017 by the Electoral Commission in its report on the 2016 Legislative Assembly election. The Commission noted early voting was increasing in popularity (with Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory already allowing any elector to vote early), and that encouraging this trend would provide some operational advantages. This recommendation was supported by the Select Committee on the 2016 ACT Election and the Electoral Act, but not by the government, which expressed concern the reform may limit the effectiveness of campaigning.

The ACT Electoral Commission published a more detailed COVID Safe Election Service Delivery Plan in August 2020. The Plan set out the Commission’s intention to open 15 early voting centres across the ACT and make early voting available from 28 September to 16 October. The normal 82 polling locations would be available on polling day (17 October); however, the Commission expected that the expansion of eligibility for early voting would substantially reduce crowds on polling day. The Commission encouraged early voting, and published hourly data on the number of electors voting at each early voting centre to assist voters in deciding when and where to cast a vote. The Plan also detailed the physical measures that would be taken in early voting centres and polling places to minimise COVID-19 transmission risks.

The Electoral Commission reported on polling day that slightly more than 70 per cent of enrolled voters had cast their votes at an early voting centre or made a postal vote application prior to polling day on 17 October. The Commission also reported that approximately 90 per cent of votes cast at early voting centres were cast electronically, allowing the rapid publication of a significant proportion of first preference results following the close of polls. The ACT’s electronic voting system was first used at the 2001 election and has been available at early voting centres at each subsequent election. Alleged errors in the vote counting software used by the Electoral Commission were criticised after the conclusion of the 2020 election; the Electoral Commissioner stated these criticisms would be carefully examined.

Candidates and parties

Nominations to contest the election closed on 23 September 2020. The candidates were formally declared and their order on the ballot paper established on 24 September 2020. A total of 137 candidates was announced for the 2020 election, a slight decrease from the 141 candidates who contested the 2016 election. Of the 137 candidates, 83 were male (60.6 per cent) and 54 female (39.4 per cent). Sixteen political parties registered to contest the election.

Legislative amendments affecting future elections

In 2020 changes were made to ACT electoral law which did not affect the 2020 election as they will not come into effect until July 2021. The Electoral Amendment Act 2020, among other matters, inserts new offences in the Electoral Act 1992 (ACT) intended to prevent property developers from making donations to political parties and prevent political parties from accepting such donations. A new offence has also been created relating to the inclusion of statements of fact in electoral advertising that are inaccurate and misleading to a material extent.


The results of the election were not formally declared until 28 October 2020, and the contest for the final seats in the electorates of Brindabella and Ginninderra remained in doubt for some time due to the closeness of the results. However, results available shortly after the close of the polls on 17 October 2020 correctly indicated that the Labor and Greens parties had won sufficient seats between them to once again form government. This result has extended Labor’s time in government, either in its own right or with the support of the Greens, to six consecutive terms. Should Labor remain in government until the end of the Tenth Assembly in 2024 this unbroken period in office will extend to 23 years.

As shown in Table 2 below, the Labor and Liberal parties each lost two seats from their levels of representation in the previous Ninth Assembly, with Labor dropping from 12 to 10 seats and the Liberals dropping from 11 to nine seats. The four sitting MLAs defeated at the election were Andrew Wall and Candice Burch (Liberal) and Deepak Raj Gupta and Gordon Ramsay (Labor), with Ramsay having held a number of ministerial appointments. Both major parties experienced negative swings: - 0.6 per cent for Labor and - 2.9 per cent for the Liberals.

The Greens significantly increased their representation to six seats, a gain of four from their two seats in the Ninth Assembly, and experienced a positive swing of 3.2 per cent. As illustrated in Table 2 below, the proportion of seats won by the Greens was significantly higher than their first preference vote share. No other parties or independent candidates gained a seat.

Fourteen of the 25 MLAs elected to the Tenth Assembly are women (56 per cent), an increase of one from the 13 women elected to the Ninth Assembly.

Table 2: Seats won and first preference vote percentages by party

Party Seats won Change from 2016 election First preference vote (%) First preference vote change from 2016 election (%) Proportion of Assembly seats won (%)
ACT Labor 10 - 2 37.8 - 0.6 40
Canberra Liberals 9 - 2 33.8 - 2.9 36
ACT Greens 6 + 4 13.5 + 3.2 24
Others 0 14.9 + 0.3

Source: ACT Electoral Commission, ‘2020 Results by Electorate and by Party’.

Leadership changes

Following its election defeat, the parliamentary leadership positions of the Liberal Party were vacated. Alistair Coe did not contest the subsequent leadership ballot and Elizabeth Lee was elected as the party’s new leader on 27 October 2020, with Giulia Jones elected as deputy leader. Reportedly this is the first time an ACT party has been led by an all-female leadership team since the commencement of self-government.

The parliamentary leadership of the Labor Party remained unchanged following the election, with Andrew Barr and Yvette Berry retaining the Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister positions respectively. Shane Rattenbury retained the parliamentary leadership of the Greens.

Parliamentary Agreement and New Ministry

As no party gained a majority in its own right, the Labor and Greens parties again negotiated a Parliamentary and Governing Agreement guaranteeing Greens support of Andrew Barr as Chief Minister (except in specified exceptional circumstances), Greens support of appropriation bills for the ordinary annual services of government, and the appointment of three Greens ministers. The agreement also sets out the shared policy priorities of the two parties and decision-making processes within Cabinet. The agreement was finalised on 2 November 2020.

The first meeting of the Tenth Assembly occurred on 3 November 2020. Following the swearing-in of members and the re-election of Labor MLA Joy Burch as Speaker, Andrew Barr was elected as Chief Minister. In contrast with other Australian jurisdictions, the ACT Chief Minister is elected by the Legislative Assembly as the ACT does not have an office equivalent to state Governors or the Administrator of the Northern Territory. Once elected by the Legislative Assembly, the Chief Minister then appoints a ministry. Under the Australian Capital Territory (Ministers) Act 2013 (ACT) no more than nine ministers in total may be appointed.

Chief Minister Barr appointed the new ministry on 3 November 2020, which commenced the following day. The full list of ministers and portfolios is provided in Table 3 below. As required under the Parliamentary Agreement, the ministry contains three Greens ministers—Shane Rattenbury, who had previously served as a minister, and newly elected members Rebecca Vassarotti and Emma Davidson. Of the six Labor ministers, five had served in the previous ministry—Andrew Barr, Yvette Berry, Mick Gentleman, Rachel Stephen-Smith and Chris Steel—while second-term MLA Tara Cheyne was appointed to the ministry for the first time. The ministry is majority female, comprising five women and four men. The Liberal Opposition announced its shadow ministry (also majority female) on 5 November 2020.

Table 3: Ministry appointed 3 November 2020 (effective from 4 November 2020)

Minister  Ministerial titles
Andrew Barr (ALP) Treasurer
Minister for Climate Action
Minister for Economic Development
Minister for Tourism
Yvette Berry (ALP) Minister for Early Childhood Development
Minister for Education and Youth Affairs
Minister for Housing and Suburban Development
Minister for Women
Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence
Minister for Sport and Recreation
Mick Gentleman (ALP) Minister for Planning and Land Management
Minister for Police and Emergency Services
Minister for Corrections
Minister for Industrial Relations and Workplace Safety
Shane Rattenbury (GRN) Attorney-General
Minister for Consumer Affairs
Minister for Water, Energy and Emissions Reduction
Minister for Gaming
Rachel Stephen-Smith (ALP) Minister for Health
Minister for Families and Community Services
Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs
Chris Steel (ALP) Minister for Transport and City Services
Minister for Skills
Special Minister of State
Tara Cheyne (ALP) Assistant Minister for Economic Development
Minister for the Arts
Minister for Business and Better Regulation
Minister for Human Rights
Minister for Multicultural Affairs
Rebecca Vassarotti (GRN) Minister for the Environment
Minister for Heritage
Minister for Homelessness and Housing Services
Minister for Sustainable Building and Construction
Emma Davidson (GRN) Assistant Minister for Families and Community Services
Minister for Disability
Minister for Justice Health
Minister for Mental Health

Source: Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Ministerial Appointment 2020 (No 2).


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