Be Careful What You Wish For


Last week saw WA Premier Colin Barnett announce wistfully that he prayed for a "soulmate", a fellow Liberal premier who would end his tenure as a lone "political curiosity".

Pending the results of the Tasmanian election, Australia still has only one capital-c Conservative government: the Liberal-National alliance in Western Australia. Although much ink has been expended recently on analyses of "rotten" state Labor governments, the ideological inconsistencies of the conservatives are particularly striking out west.

The last WA Coalition government, led by Richard Court from 1993–2001, was unashamedly ideological. Lest we forget, it passed punitive workplace legislation, privatised the gas provider and the public transport system, unsuccessfully attempted to extinguish all native title in the state and continued unsustainable old-growth logging practices.

Following its defeat in 2001, the Liberal party gradually took on a more strategic approach, downplaying its neo-liberal views. This tactic is analogous to the decision of so-called left-wing parties to disavow socialism and to distance themselves from trade unions for electoral reasons. In the absence of a focus on ideals, modern political parties emphasise "values", often becoming embroiled in what American journalist Thomas Frank characterises as the "phony culture war".

The WA Liberals have certainly dabbled in values-speak. The party’s unsuccessful 2005 campaign — marked by a doomed plan to build a canal from the Kimberley to Perth — included a promise  to overturn the Gallop Labor government’s reform of age of consent laws for homosexual sex.

This approach — downplaying ideology while focusing on controversial issues — continues within the present WA Liberal-National alliance and Colin Barnett’s Government is indeed a curious animal. Notwithstanding the Liberals’ faith in the market to provide, it must be seen to spend big on services and infrastructure in rural electorates as it is dependent on Brendon Grylls’ Nationals. 

Whether or not the Royalties for Regions policy translates into tangible outcomes for those who live in remote and rural areas is the subject of some debate, with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry calling for greater scrutiny of its programs. Nevertheless, the policy is born of a belief in big government that is electorally popular in WA — and this big government stretches far out into WA’s remote north, its chilly south and its often-neglected mining towns. Recognising that indulging its ideological preference for limited government would be politically risky, the Liberals instead employ populist tactics to differentiate themselves from the ALP.

One main area of emphasis for Barnett has been law-and-order, an area in which the ALP has its own shameful record. WA governments of both political stripes have a marked fondness for tough legislation. As former Fraser government minister Fred Chaney sagely noted last year, politicians "unfortunately love to out-compete each other by saying they’re tough on crime".

The Liberal-National Government’s recent legislation imposing mandatory detention for anyone convicted of assaulting a police officer and causing bodily harm has been critiqued by a range of commentators including recently retired District Court chief judge Antoinette Kennedy. Proposed stop-and-search laws, which are currently before the Upper House, would allow police to search anyone for drugs or weapons within a prescribed area and timeframe without any need to establish "reasonable suspicion".

This proposal has been the subject of intense debate across the nation, with federal Liberal MP Joe Hockey recently characterising it as an extreme example of the "endless and rarely challenged demand for expansion in police powers".

For Hockey, such laws were contrary to his party’s liberalism. Surely, he argued "the Australian interpretation of liberty extends to the right of an individual to go about their daily business without being subject to a random body search by police". The Shadow Treasurer’s speech was compelling insofar as he was scathing of incursions into liberty like those proposed by his counterparts in WA. That said, Hockey didn’t explain what he considered to be the proper ambit of government power.

In any case, the response from WA police minister Rob Johnson was vintage state’s rights bravado: Johnson observed that it was "very easy for some federal politicians, especially from the leafy suburbs of Sydney, to stand up and espouse their values and their thoughts, but at the end of the day it is the authority of the state to bring in legislation that they believe will care for the safety of their citizens". The message is clear: rack off, Eastern-states toff.

Perth is a long way from Canberra. It is not uncommon to hear the rest of the country referred to simply as "the Eastern states". What matters is "up north" — where all the iron ore comes from — and "down south", the lush wine-producing regions — where, when not in Bali, Perth-dwellers population take their holidays.

Anti-Canberra populism has always been a potent force in WA, particularly for conservative state governments forced to coexist with federal Labor. Note the Premier’s criticism of the Rudd Government’s policy on asylum seekers for insufficient toughness, and his recent sabre-rattling on native title, a legacy of the hated Keating government.

Just like Victorian Labor Premier John Brumby, Barnett is sceptical about the Rudd Government’s proposed takeover of health funding and remains stoutly opposed to its proposal to use 30 per cent of GST revenue to fund the plan. For Barnett, "the suggestion to the states to simply give away the GST" is unrealistic. Australia’s severe vertical fiscal imbalance means that haggling over GST revenue is a pastime of all state premiers, but resentment is particularly strong in the resource-rich states of Queensland and WA. Cuts to WA’s share of GST revenue in 2010 left Barnett outraged that "for every dollar West Australians pay in GST they will only be receiving 68 cents back".

Conventional wisdom says that state Labor governments embarrass the federal party and are fraught with conflict. Indeed, coverage of the Tasmanian and South Australian elections earlier this month focused heavily on what were said to be entrenched problems of Labor spin, mismanagement and factional division. The infighting of the NSW Labor party has provided easy copy for NSW media outlets and has fueled widespread calls to vote out Kristina Keneally’s Government.

There’s generally less attention paid to the conflicts and contradictions which beset state Liberal and National parties. There might not be any Coalition state governments to compare with Colin Barnett’s, but there is no shortage of problems facing him right now and with NSW and Victoria to go to the polls in the next 12 months, voters who can’t imagine anything worse than another raft of Labor governments might be well advised to look to the west.

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