Will the WA Libs Distribute Boom Wealth More Evenly?


The political burlesque continues in Western Australia as the result of Saturday’s state election still remains unknown.

Possible outcomes include Alan Carpenter’s Labor Government just holding on in minority, relying on two independents to guarantee supply, or the Liberals winning the Nationals back into the traditional alliance to form government — or even the ALP managing to forge an agreement with the Nationals.

The tension caps off the remarkable political turnaround that has seen Colin Barnett postpone retirement to lead the Liberals from electoral oblivion to the verge of power. Indeed if Barnett becomes Premier, he will be the most senior elected Liberal figure in the entire country.

Meanwhile the Nationals under the ambitious Brendon Grylls — which seemed headed for extinction under the new "one vote one value laws" — are instead at the centre of the political wrangling, looking to guarantee supply to whichever of the two major parties will do the most for the regions. Grylls wants 25 per cent of the State’s mineral royalties to be quarantined for the regions — a figure of around $675 million. He is actively negotiating with both major parties.

There’s no doubt Labor has taken an electoral pounding. Two disaffected former Labor members turned independent have won in the seats of Kalgoorlie and Kwinana, while the preferences from a third saw a Liberal candidate elected in Morley. A number of high profile Carpenter recruits, including journalists Reece Whitby and Karen Brown, suffered dramatic defeats.

Perth’s single daily paper, The West Australian, staunchly anti-government for some time, has delighted in reporting the Labor recriminations that have followed the poll.

Labor was outcampaigned by a Liberal outfit with less money to spend, less time to prepare and a steady focus on knifing each other in the back. The weaknesses of the ALP campaign have become a matter of open public debate. One senior former Labor figure, John Halden, described the ALP’s campaign advertising as "negative, childish and off-message". Other current and former insiders have admitted to being mystified by elements of the campaign and frustrated by elementary errors.

Almost regardless of the final result though, there are things to worry about in Western Australian public and political life.

This was an election in which a government that had lost five ministers to scandal in one term was up against an opposition that has had five leaders since the 2005 state election. The government called a snap poll opportunistically, in an effort to capitalise on perceived political advantage and the smokescreen of the Olympic Games. The opposition had no time or resources to respond with anything but wafer thin policy development, released in the form of nothing more than elongated press releases. The single daily newspaper remained resolutely partisan in its coverage, and alarmingly, climate change — the biggest issue for now and far into the future — rarely featured in the contest.

None of this is good for democracy in Australia’s biggest state.

The WA poll reinforces two lessons from the last Federal election. The first is that incumbents can lose even during economic boom times. The second is that abstracts like "the economy" and "infrastructure" don’t play well in the electorate if they are not reinforced by lived perception and experience.

Indeed, if, as citizens we are being told by a political leader that the economy is going gangbusters and the Government is spending up big on infrastructure, but our perception is that personally we are under economic stress or are missing out on the good times, then the big picture good news can actually have a negative impact on voting intentions.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the campaign was that the Liberal Party managed to appeal to many as the political force that could be more trusted with economic redistribution in good times. Somewhere along the line, the social democratic narrative became lost to Labor. Polling by one paper before the election indicated that 60 per cent of those asked felt that a Liberal government would improve performance in traditional areas of Labor policy strength, including health, hospitals and education.

At base, the ALP failed to sufficiently articulate what it stood for and what it had achieved. Instead, the Liberals seized the initiative with clever ads asking the watcher to remember "three good things Alan Carpenter’s Labor has done in eight years of boom". An unprecedented school building program, new metropolitan rail lines, saving old growth forests, constitutional reform, climate change commitments and other achievements were not effectively communicated by the Government.

Regardless of who ends up forming government, the ALP in Western Australia has been left with some hard thinking to do. The Liberals have reason for internal rapprochement and the Nationals have managed to regain a position in which they can’t be ignored.

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