It has been a year of vaudeville in Western Australian state politics, but suddenly things are serious. ALP insiders are confirming privately what the polls are saying publicly, that there is every chance Colin Barnett’s Liberal Party could win power at this weekend’s state election. Just over a month ago, Barnett was on his way out of Parliament, one hand already on the gold watch. Now he stands on the razor’s edge of victory.
What would make Barnett’s win all the more remarkable is that on the issue of our generation – climate change – the WA Liberal Party is nowhere. In contrast, public transport and rewarding the purchase of fuel efficient cars were the centre-piece promises of Labor’s campaign launch.
This is Western Australia’s first election since the publication of the Stern Report, the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the release of An Inconvenient Truth. Indeed, in the same week as Carpenter called the election, a group of experts in London again gave renewed notice that time is running out if we hope to avoid runaway climate change. This is WA’s first election of the one hundred months.
Perhaps their failure on climate change is one of the effects of their continued disarray – it certainly suggests they are well short of being ready to govern. Geoff Gallop’s opposition team was elected in 2001, with a track record of internal stability, discipline and strong policy development. The WA Liberals on the other hand have been the proverbial political basket case right up to the day when the election was called.
But the timing is part of Labor’s electoral problem. Premier Alan Carpenter’s calling of the poll so soon after Barnett was returned to the leader’s chair vacated by Troy Buswell smacked too much of opportunism. Labor also still carries the baggage of five fallen ministers and the looming shadow of the nation’s most famous panama hat. Carpenter has been resolute in dealing with Brian Burke’s influence, but the shenanigans were politically debilitating.
If Labor is to hold on, it will likely be thanks to three factors. First, the introduction of "one vote one value" laws by Attorney General Jim McGinty means that the systemic vote-weighting that used to provide an in-built advantage to the conservative side of politics is no longer an issue.
Secondly, it just remains hard to imagine that such a dysfunctional rag-tag as the WA Liberals – led by the wannabe-retiree Barnett and chair-snuffler Buswell remaining as the shadow treasurer – will actually be elected. Perhaps, at the last minute, pencils will waver over ballot papers.
Third, the WA Liberal Party’s form on gender relations – epitomised by Troy Buswell’s errant nose – is a significant issue which has plagued them in the polls so far. Time and again, it comes out that women just don’t much like the Libs.
Another and more equivocal factor goes to the legacy of WA’s remarkable minerals boom and the way in which the incoming wealth is distributed. Who does the WA public trust to ensure that the good fortune is fairly enjoyed? The state’s economy is undoubtedly doing very well, but as individuals we tend think less about the abstract of financial systems and more about personal and familial wellbeing. There is real concern that the bounty of the good times is not being distributed evenly. But it would be a surprise if people started to see the Liberals – who are identified with smaller government and a wound back role for the state – as being the party of wealth distribution.
Carpenter emphasised in his leader’s debate with Barnett (which the Premier won convincingly that his Government is committed to not wasting the boom, by continuing an impressive program of new infrastructure. However, the lesson of the evening was that most people don’t warm to the word "infrastructure". Only wonks enjoy hearing about infrastructure. The Government needs words that work to better communicate a vision of individual and family wellbeing within communal prosperity.
Meanwhile, on the issue of our generation, the Carpenter Government is way ahead of the Liberals. The climate crisis simply does not appear to feature in the Liberal’s 2008 Election Commitments, even when dealing with "Agriculture and Food" and "Securing the Economic Future of Western Australia". These omissions are not a matter of simple policy insufficiency, but inexcusable blindness.
Whether the people of WA think so too will become clear very soon.
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