The Disconnected State


The dust has yet to settle after the State election in Western Australia. With the result so tight, are we really looking at a hung parliament, or Labor holding on by an improbable partnership with four Nationals? (It happened briefly in Victoria a long time ago, and lasted only a few weeks.) Or is this just coy game-playing by the Nats’ Brendon Grylls, squeezing the best deal he can out of the Liberals in the hours before they sign up for the customary coalition?

The storm behind all the dust in the air was triggered a few weeks ago, on what looked like a very clear day. It was set off by a piece of typical major party pollwatching when telegenic Labor Premier Alan Carpenter called the election early. WA doesn’t really do early elections, but, faced with an Opposition led by recycled Liberal leader Colin Barnett, almost retired, who’d just replaced the very questionable Buswell, Labor figured they would be a shoo-in for a third term. With a cruisey Olympics season on the telly and a short campaign time, most people expected no threat to the ALP’s grip on the whole country.

Then came the shock opinion poll, a day before the election. Barnett and Carpenter were neck and neck, with the marginals looking like going to the Liberals. You can imagine what it was like at ALP campaign quarters on Friday. There could be no explanation, and no time to fix it. Then Saturday, polling day itself. "Come back Colin" was plastered on the front of the State’s main newspaper, the West Australian, and, in contrast to weeks of anti-Carpenter headlines and stories, the strange offering of a curious editorial, kind of in favour of Labor. It may be editor Paul Armstrong’s idea of balance — or insurance.

Out at the polling booths, the Libs had a bit more spring in their step than during the federal election 10 months earlier. For a start, they had volunteers this time. (And pale blue t-shirts. I was told it was so the party looked organised.) Labor was out in the cold easterly with the party faithful who have done it for 30 years, the youngsters who come from political families, staffers worrying about their jobs.

There was not really any particular political issue that mattered in their hearts, as they set up the predictable posters on the school fences about stability and leadership. Oh, and a Labor poster warning us about Libs’ genetically modified experimental food, perhaps inspired by a focus-group facilitator’s desperate attempt at differentiation.

Meanwhile, citizens filed past, more than a few unsure which way they were going to vote, seconds away from the decision. A couple more than last time went over to the Greens to take the thin slip.

Saturday night, the votes were coming in and they were not behaving themselves. There were recounts as a frustrated Antony Green and Kerry O’Brien found themselves in unfamiliar territory.

But we were always headed here. Many people have stopped believing. The posters and slogans speak to another time. In part, their messages lack sophistication. Few wanted Barnett, and some were unconvinced by Carpenter, and the shenanigans of the ministers dismissed for their contacts with the formerly popular Brian Burke. Even if the arrogance can’t be pinned down, voters still feel it’s there.

But there’s something else. It isn’t just because it’s an early election, and it’s not all about daylight saving.

As if to win back the green vote, Labor promised to legislate against uranium mining, but for the true believers it’s years too late: when Greens MLC Giz Watson has tried to do exactly this through the Upper House over the years, Labor has rejected it.

In some areas, the housing issue is critical in a way which outsiders simply can’t grasp. Former Greens MLC Robin Chapple (who has a chance of returning for Mining and Pastoral, acording to the ABC computer) recently said it was costing families $3600 a week to rent a house in a north-west town. Booms leave pockets of poverty, too.

Meanwhile, Carpenter has never understood sustainability the way Geoff Gallop did. Labor only discovered a few weeks ago that the wind that brought the Dutch to New Holland could be the wind that renews the west, through windfarms, and that the sun that bakes the desert could power an economy, and create jobs. But all the moves seem contrived, last minute, very election mode. Even the Mandurah railway, a step forward in a car dependent city, is not being followed up properly. The Greens’ plan to spend half the federal transport money on a light rail system, networking a city not yet awake to peak oil, has been ignored.

But perhaps public disenchantment is not about policy specifics, but the quality of the debate, the realness of the message, the hope that is — or rather is not — being engendered. Labor has slipped by what could be a fatal 6 per cent, losing in the marginals where it matters most, yet winning with the greatest number of seats. The Nationals are no longer saying they’ll be compliant, and so could offer what Carpenter needs — a working majority.

The Greens, as ever, remain under the media radar, but are edging towards a surprise or two. At one point on Saturday night, the Greens looked like snatching two Lower House seats from Labor, one in trendy Fremantle, the other in aspirational Joondalup. In South Australia it almost happened in Mayo — but that was without Labor running. It may still happen for Fremantle, with the Attorney General in peril. That’s how close the vote is. It is how much the electorate is shifting.

Counting over the next days, and the outcome of today’s meeting between Grylls and Barnett, will clarify a great deal. But one thing is already clear: the old, reliable ways of conducting politics just don’t work the way they used to. Maybe voters want something better. Something real, even.

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