Western Australia is generally regarded as a conservative stronghold — only four of the state’s 15 federal lower house seats are held by Labor. Historically, the ALP has done rather better at the state level — but that trend seems to have changed with their 2008 election defeat, the loss of the seat of Fremantle to Greens member Adele Carles in the May 2009 by-election, and the recent defection of North West MP Vince Catania to the National Party.
Now WA Labor is set to lose another member.
On 9 August, Alannah MacTiernan ended months of speculation about her political future when she announced she would resign from state parliament to contest the federal seat of Canning at the next election. Canning is currently held by Liberal backbencher Don Randall and she will need a five per cent swing in her favour to win it.
MacTiernan, who was minister for planning and infrastructure in the Gallop and Carpenter Labor Governments, has long been viewed as one of the WA Labor Party’s biggest assets. Initially pilloried for having lost her licence twice for drink driving (subsequent to which she rarely appeared in an Alston cartoon without a glass of wine in her hand), and described both unflatteringly as "strident" and euphemistically as "a colourful character", MacTiernan gained respect for the success of major infrastructure projects she oversaw when in government, including the 72 kilometre railway that runs from Perth to Mandurah.
In 2007, she launched the construction of a rail line between Fortescue Metals Group’s Cloudbreak iron ore mine and Port Hedland. Just over a year later, FMG transported its first load of ore to the port. The company named the first train that carried the ore along the rail the "Alannah MacTiernan Express".
Somewhat paradoxically, she also places strong emphasis on the need to address climate change.
Environmental concerns can sit uneasily with the dominant West Australian impetus — both practical and ideological — to nurture the mining industry. WA is a mining state where the "quarry vision" discerned by Guy Pearse in his Quarterly Essay dominates. A fact sheet on the website of the Department of Mines and Petroleum asks rhetorically "where would we be without the mining and petroleum industry?" Governments of both political stripes can be expected to support the industry on which the state is largely reliant; most recently, the Liberal-National Government has called for the federal emissions trading scheme to be delayed for fear that resource giants will quit the state.
Yet MacTiernan has been vocal in her criticism of the Barnett Government’s stance on climate change, characterising its pledge to refurbish two coal-fired power stations in the south west of the state as "a failure to adapt to the realities of the 21st century" and expressing disappointment at its rejection of a biomass plant in Ravensthorpe. MacTiernan, as the shadow spokesperson for climate change, has also noted caustically that WA is currently the only state without a designated minister to tackle the issue.
Uranium is another big issue out west and one that WA Labor has traditionally taken a strong stand against. Last week in parliament Premier Colin Barnett noted that MacTiernan had "signed an anti-uranium plea" in 2007, and asked whether this viewpoint would continue should she become a member of the (pro-uranium mining) Rudd Government.
One can only speculate as to how outspoken MacTiernan might be as a federal Labor MP should her views ever fail to coincide with her party’s. Asked whether she intended to "tone down her attitude for federal politics", MacTiernan said that although she did not envisage becoming "quite a Wilson Tuckey" — the WA Liberal "wild uncle" who has lately been enjoying notoriety for his attacks on both the Rudd Government’s emissions trading scheme and his own party leader — she did not intend to "dramatically change [her]personality".
MacTiernan is often described as tough — Don Randall has predicted that when she contests his seat, it "will be a bare-knuckles contest", and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith echoed that it would "be a tough fight … One thing you know about Alannah is she’s not afraid to take a fight on."
MacTiernan herself contributes to this "iron lady" image, stating of her upcoming electoral contest: "It’s going to be a battle royale, but I’ve had a few of those in my time so I’m happy to have a shot at it."
This battle-scarred and ballsy narrative may reflect a perceived need to counter residual sexism, both within the ALP and in Western Australia more generally. The occasional tendency of politicians and commentators to belittle the career aspirations of women in parliament was demonstrated in Randall’s recent suggestion that MacTiernan had been "seduced" by Federal ALP strategists.
In fact MacTiernan, while notionally aligned to the ALP’s Centre faction, has previously dissociated herself from factionally aligned strategists in an attempt to democratise the party’s state branch. The factional system has previously worked to her detriment; at the ALP state conference in June, MacTiernan failed in her bid for membership of the 10-person Administrative Committee, receiving 13 votes from the 300 delegates present.
MacTiernan’s unsuccessful attempts to reduce the power of unions within the ALP State Executive (with a corresponding increase in participation by members) have also angered sections of the union movement. MacTiernan has indicated that she will continue to push for these reforms — which she characterises as "not a threat to the unions" but only to "the level of personal power exercised by some union secretaries" — if she enters federal parliament.
MacTiernan has been criticised for leaving the state Opposition in what is increasingly being described as its hour of need. There has also been much speculation by local commentators about whether MacTiernan’s move to federal politics was motivated simply by her failure to win leadership at a state level following the 2008 election defeat.
There is, however, another and less prosaic possibility. Although Western Australia is a vast state, politics is played out on a small scale. The isolated coastal city of Perth has only one daily paper, The West Australian, and major political debates have included deregulated trading hours and daylight saving (both of which were put to the electorate as plebiscites in 2005 and 2009 respectively).
Larger issues such as climate change are relegated to the federal sphere. The truncated horizons available to state governments may be too limiting for politicians who seek to be involved in addressing issues as far-reaching as this.
The MacTiernan Express to Canberra promises to be an interesting ride.
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