How the West Was Lost


When the Western Australian State Government visited Broome earlier this year for a Community Cabinet, all was not rosy, but it seemed that Alan Carpenter had overcome the worst of Labor’s internal party division and the Liberals were divided and discredited. What went wrong between then and now? This is a view from the east, tempered by 15 months in Broome and eight years in Northern Territory ALP politics.

Firstly the obvious: calling an early election was a major miscalculation. It isn’t clear whether the Premier received bad advice or it was his own idea. There does not seem to have been much political nous shown on this by either the government advisers or the State ALP apparatchiks. It would have made more sense with Tony Buswell as leader, but trying to pull a swiftie on a retreaded Colin Barnett was courting disaster. He was Mr Clean, all good-humoured innocence fighting the evil manipulators in the Government. The Liberals let the ALP do all the work for them.

As Andrew Bartlett remarked in his analysis of the result:

"[P]erhaps the message for the Liberals federally from the WA election is to go full steam ahead with a leadership brawl or two, don’t worry about developing clear policy distinctions and see if they can have an embarrassing scandal or two, some pre-selection disputes and get some MPs to resign in disgust."

Secondly, West Australians seem to like their politicians as colourless and non-threatening as possible. Carpenter is not a typical West Australian leader. He is very serious and intense. Moreover, despite his journalism background he seems to relate poorly with the voters, perhaps because of an unlikely shyness. He does not come across as a warm, natural character like Peter Beattie, with whom he has been compared by some.

Ironically during his Broome visit, I found him a genuine straight talker, to borrow John McCain’s slogan. He has the capacity to make an important contribution to Australian politics but it seems fate might have it otherwise. He has a vision for WA but it is not one that is understood by the public. Carpenter is certainly different. His comment afterwards that working with the National Party would be exciting sounded genuine. He didn’t seem to be forcing the smile.

The Brian Burke factor was not of Carpenter’s making though he naively ignored it when he took over, to his lasting detriment. His later attempts to clean up the party had considerable success. But this was at the cost of public support that perhaps only a Beattie could have retained. This was worsened by his inability to fully unite the Labor Party behind his leadership.

The WA result was both part of a national trend of punishing under-performing political parties and a unique set of circumstances. The forced exit of my local member Shelley Archer from the ALP, and the departure her husband, union official Kevin Reynolds was something that I had never experienced before as a constituent. Then there were the five ministerial sackings under Carpenter.

The catalyst for many of the Government’s woes came from a creature of its own making: the Corruption and Crime Commission. In May this year I responded to the media reaction to a police raid on the Western Australian Sunday Times in these terms:

"When we moved to WA in January last year I was staggered to learn of both the powers of the CCC and their exercise of those powers: phone taps, bugging, recording of private conversations and surveillance involving people not directly accused of anything. A sort of Star fishing Chamber.

Despite or perhaps because of my long time involvement with the ALP, I would not be surprised if the assertions of dirt on the Government’s hands were true. However, at this stage it is pure speculation. I suggest that someone ask the CCC to investigate whether the ministers have abused their powers.

As a Broome ALP sub-branch member I enjoyed Shelley Archer MLC’s hospitality at Party functions in her home before her forced resignation and regularly visited her electorate office. I have often joked that my political jokes and anecdotes were being recorded and would be taken out of context, or worse in context.

The public seem happy to watch the squirming of politicians and the legion of urgers and suits (and hats in Brian Burke’s case) who inhabit the decision-making lobbies. It is a costly exercise in both financial and civil liberties terms. Lots of unethical behaviour, some bordering on the illegal, has been exposed. I’m not aware of any successful criminal charges."

The old cliché that "oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them" had a strange twist. The official opposition in the guise of the Liberal Party had been worse than dismal before the election was called and used the time-honoured tactic of taking no risks during the campaign.

However, the real opposition came in the form of West Australian Newspapers (WAN) whose traditional antipathy to Labor, as evidenced during the 2007 Federal election, had taken the form of a vendetta against the State ALP. The feud between them and Jim McGinty, Heath Minister and Attorney General, was far more intense than any other government/media stoush I can remember. Carpenter seemed either unwilling or unable to negotiate a truce. He paid the price in a State where WAN own the only daily and nearly all of the weekly regional papers.

Brendon Grylls’s new Nationals may have only increased their primary vote from 3.7 to 5.0 per cent, but it should be noted that this represents an increase of more than a third.

Clearly it was an election for the minor parties and independents. This is hardly surprising given an unpopular government and a weak opposition. The swing to the Liberals was only 2.7 per cent compared with 4.1 per cent to the Greens.

Grylls’ policy of spending a quarter of mining royalties in the regional areas was a simple but effective message. Often the best kind. Let’s hope it doesn’t become just another slush fund for National seats like we have seen at Federal level. The regional electorates of Pilbara and Kimberley, held by the ALP, deserve their fair share of the cake too — especially given that they are the source of much of the mining revenue.

The election of former ALP minister John Bowler as an independent in Kalgoorlie is full of irony. He is now trying to play the same game as Grylls, offering his support to whichever major party will offer the most to the electorate he snatched from the Liberal party on Saturday. He was expelled and then readmitted to the WA Labor Party earlier this year after serving a five-month suspension from parliament for alleged leaks. Carpenter had vigorously opposed his readmittance even after his name had been cleared.

The State ALP head office must also be held accountable for the result. Last year’s Federal campaign was poorly managed with WA being the only state to go backwards for Labor. Let’s hope that state secretary Bill Johnston will be more successful as the member for Carrington. I found it almost impossible to help as a volunteer on central campaigns.

I’ll save any other comments for internal party forums.

There has been a lot of speculation about whether the hegemony of Labor governments was a factor. Certainly it was a bad week to be flying the ALP standard. The ongoing New South Wales fiasco resulting in Premier Morris Iemma’s resignation can’t have helped.

Despite the Rudd Government’s continuing strong opinion poll numbers, a lot of buoyancy has gone out of the national mood, with the controversies over Fuel and Grocery Watch, the Murray-Darling disaster and a retreat by Ross Garnaut on carbon emissions. Paul Henderson’s misreading of the Northern Territory situation certainly gave anti-Labor forces in WA a boost.

Finally, voters across Australia are angry. It is more than just a climate of change in politics. Voters are hurting and they will not tolerate perceived failure, weakness or arrogance from their politicians — especially incumbents. It is not just a case of protest voting. If you’re not delivering or are consumed by internal strife then you’ll be punished. The same lesson has been delivered in the Northern Territory, and in the seats of Mayo and Lyne, which recently faced byelection.

Alan Carpenter may yet form a minority government. Let’s hope that if he gets another chance to fulfil his potential, it is not wasted.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.