CM Andrew Barr pledges free buses for seniors

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Seniors and concession card holders would ride buses free during non-peak hours under a re-elected ACT Labor government. Chief Minister Andrew Barr made the announcement at ACT Labor’s conference in Civic on Saturday, while also revealing a new program to better rehabilitate injured government workers to help them get back to work sooner.

The ACT Labor conference was boosted by the presence of federal Labor leader Bill Shorten, who delivered a rallying cry to the local branch ahead of October’s election, praising Mr Barr’s team as a “great Labor government”.

“Canberra is a modern, inclusive, and progressive destination because of your modern, inclusive, and progressive government,” Mr Shorten said.

Mr Barr made two significant, but already announced, election pledges in his speech to the conference – a bulky waste collection trial for Canberra and two new nurse walk-in centres. Both promises were met with applause from the more than 100 Labor delegates who gathered at QT hotel.

A section of the party was expected to use the conference to voice anger at the ACT government’s controversial plans for anti-consorting laws targeting outlaw bikies.

But it was revealed on Saturday morning that the government has shelved the plans,  meaning some Labor delegates dropped a planned resolution against the anti-bikie laws.

After his speech, Mr Barr said the anti-consorting laws appeared incompatible with ACT’s human rights law, and the policy was too complex to achieve in the current term. He said the issue would be reconsidered next term, should Labor be re-elected.

“We recognise the challenge here in trying to balance the competing priorities,” Mr Barr said.

“Many in the party had a view, and we understand and acknowledge that,” he said.

“It was always our intent to try and find a balance that would address the concerns that police have raised but also ensure that we remained compliant with our Human Rights Act obligations.”

Mr Shorten’s speech to the conference’s ACT Labor faithful was the first by a federal party leader since 1997.

“I have found out there’s not a good track record of federal leaders attending this conference,” Mr Shorten said.

“I’m pleased to change that.”

Earlier, Mr Barr entered to a standing ovation from delegates, spruiking his government’s policies, economic management, and vision for the city.

“Every election we have a choice, and every election is, of course, important,” he said.

“But this 2016 ACT election will define our city for a generation. The choice could not be more stark.”

“It will be a choice between a progressive, forward-looking, confident and engaged city – or a retreat to a conservative, inward-looking country town of last century.”

Mr Barr announced that a re-elected Labor government would try out a free bus service for seniors and concession card holders between 10am and 4pm on weekdays.

The trial would last 12 months. The announcement comes after this year’s ACT budget pushed out the eligibility age for senior cards to 65, a change that will occur gradually over 10 years.

He also announced a return to work and retraining program, which would provide early intervention and support for injured ACT public servants.

It would help all injured government employees, including firefighters and nurses, gain access to high-quality rehabilitation support.

Unions ACT welcomed the plan.

“This program will provide targeted support for injured public sector workers and their families when they need it most,” secretary Alex White said.

Before Mr Barr’s speech, there was heated debate over a bid to reform Labor party membership fees, with concerns lower-income members were leaving the party because they could not afford the flat $30 annual fee.

Rule changes to introduce a more progressive fee failed to get the required support.

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