What Country People Want

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As inheritors of the relatively stable Westminster parliamentary system, Australians can only marvel at the level of chaos and intrigue present in, say, Italian politics. There are moments, however, when the solid predictability of the two-party political system is briefly shaken. One such instance occurred in the wake of the last WA state election which ended the "wall-to-wall-Labor" ushered in by Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election victory.

Former Premier Alan Carpenter’s decision to call one of the earliest elections in the state’s history backfired in spectacular fashion: no party gained a majority of seats in the lower house. Following a cleverly managed and popular campaign which argued that "country people" were neglected by government, the National Party won the balance of power.

The West Australian National Party had last governed as part of the coalition with the Liberal Party under former premier Richard Court from 1993–2001, with the partnership lapsing during the Gallop and Carpenter Labor governments. After the results of the 2008 election came in, there was a brief, tantalising period when it seemed possible that the Nationals, now led by Brendon Grylls, might support a minority ALP government rather than returning to their traditional allies. In an interview during the Nationals’ negotiations with both the Labor and Liberal parties, Kerry O’Brien suggested to Grylls "that a significant number of your supporters in the bush … would be horrified at the prospect of you forming an alliance with Labor". Grylls took a neutral stance, stating simply that he would "decide on the merits of the deal, not on Labor or Liberal". West Australians spent a rather interesting week wondering what a government composed of agrarian socialists and social democrats might look like.

However, Grylls’s flirtation with Labor did not last. In return for Liberal adoption of the "Royalties for Regions" policy, the Nationals agreed to support a minority Liberal government. The policy, which has been criticised for its misleading simplicity (beware of policies that double as slogans), designates the equivalent of 25 per cent of the state’s annual mining and offshore petroleum royalties for re-investment in regional communities.

The defection of the newly elected MP Vince Catania from Labor to the National Party has been viewed by some commentators as reflecting his own problems rather than those of his former party. Catania has been linked with discredited ex-premier Brian Burke, and emails have been released which demonstrate the ALP’s pursuit of Catania for a campaign account deficit.

Nevertheless, the defection must also be seen in the context of popular resentment at the paucity of government services in regional and rural WA and the continuing tensions between Perth and the rest of the vast state that contributed to the 2008 election result. Catania represents the new electorate known simply as "North West" which covers the Pilbara, Gascoyne and Murchison regions, an expanse of over 400,000 square kilometres. In his maiden speech on 13 November 2008, Catania celebrated the "diverse bunch" of people in his electorate before noting that "North West residents accept the lack of government services rather than complain, but when pushed too far we will hear from them."

Parenthetically, one can discern a fairly obvious double standard in the narrative of neglect used to describe regional WA. Concerns about conditions in remote Indigenous living areas are often greeted with remarks about the impracticability and lack of cost-effectiveness of financing small communities. By contrast meanwhile, non-indigenous miners and pastoralists — "country folk" — are viewed as salt-of-the-earth types, the authentic voices of the Australian heartland, and as such are entitled to far greater support. In the words of former prime minister John Howard, farmers not only contributed "massively to our wealth" but also "greatly to our identity". The Liberal Party has long exploited this nostalgia-driven rhetoric to electoral advantage at state and federal levels, only to focus on the "big end of town" once safely in office. As Kim Beazley summarised the situation, the Nationals "owed the Liberals nothing and for 30 years have had much to fear from them".

There is more to this resentment felt in regional WA for the city folk in Perth than mere knee-jerk anti-urban sentiment. It reflects the weariness of a group applauded for driving Australia’s economic growth, yet long provided with inadequate government services. Some residents harbour half-serious secessionist tendencies — the regions of WA already boast the "Principality of Hutt River", why not the Duchy of Karratha or, on a broader scale, the People’s Republic of Pilbara?

Horror stories about the deficiency of services are rife in the Pilbara: there is the scandalous shortage of dialysis machines, couples who spend more than a year on the waiting list for childcare, and the man with a blood clot in his leg who was turned away from one hospital with the advice that he drive two hours to the next one. These anecdotes, often accompanied by a rueful smile, are shared between people who might have little else in common: upwardly mobile fluorescent-jacketed mining workers, long-time residents of Aboriginal communities and employees of locally based NGOs. The triumphal capitalism that reigns in the Pilbara — where Rio Tinto and BHP seem to function as de facto local governments — has clearly not been sufficient to provide for its residents.

Opposition Leader Eric Ripper has labelled Catania "an opportunist, lacking in both character and principle". Following the explicitly anti-ideological line formerly taken by Grylls, Labor’s newest rat has responded that he is simply "putting his electorate first". Having initially argued that Labor policy already called for "the reallocation of resources to those most in need", rendering Royalties for Regions unnecessary, Catania now says that Labor has become "city-centric", has "lost touch with regional WA", and has erred in failing to throw its support behind Royalties for Regions.

Notwithstanding Catania’s new-found faith in this "fantastic policy", Royalties for Regions has copped some strong criticism, with former minister for planning and infrastructure Alannah MacTiernan arguing that the scheme is mere window-dressing, whereby the Government is simply cutting funds from pre-existing regional projects and re-directing them. The Royal Automobile Club has also criticised Grylls, now the Minister for Regional Development, for failing to improve country roads.

The question of whether or not Catania is sincere in his arguments, or whether he will better serve his electorate as a National member is open to speculation, but better service delivery does seem fairly unlikely given the track record of the WA Coalition in that department — the Court Government was arguably more preoccupied with the privatisation of state-owned entities, attempts to extinguish native title and restrictions on the power of trade unions than with the infrastructure needs of its regional constituents.

But at base the issue is not about whether Royalties for Regions "works". The deeper question here — despite comments from Grylls and Catania to the contrary — is one of ideology.

No longer are mining towns dominated by blue-collar Labor supporters — voters in the regions are now generally classed among the "aspirationals" courted unsuccessfully by Mark Latham. During the last federal election much was made of the traditional conservatism of the West Australian electorate and of the desire of the beneficiaries of the mining boom to remain on individual agreements rather than jettisoning WorkChoices. Yet the demand in these areas for improved government services, as articulated by Grylls and Catania, indicates a belief in a broad role for government, rather than a blind faith in the untrammelled free market. That belief is part of a fundamental attitude to government which the Nationals have, but which their neoliberal Coalition partners do not share.

One might wonder anew whether Labor and the Nationals would have been such odd bedfellows after all.

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