There's No Simple Conservatism In The West


The results of the Western Australian state election have been extensively parsed and analysed, with pundits generally coming to one of two conclusions: that the troubles of federal Labor cruelled the state party’s chances; or that the buoyant WA economy renders any change of government inherently unlikely.

One line which resonates over and over in both narratives, stamped on the printed page, echoing down St George’s Terrace on a bustling weekday and murmured sagely in crowded cafes is this: West Australians are simply conservative.

This received wisdom merits some unpicking.

Firstly, our political discourse is plagued by a lack of precision in the use of the term “conservative”, and a persistent confusion of economic and social conservatism. Relevantly, consider the division in the 1980s between traditional conservative attitudes and the embrace of radical neo-liberal approaches by Thatcher and Reagan in the United Kingdom and the United States respectively, and their partial adoption in Australia by the Hawke and Keating governments.

To simplify: traditional conservatives are wary of an unrestrained free market, a denuded welfare state and privatisation (recall that Harold MacMillan famously accused Thatcher of “selling the family silver”); neoliberals regard these as necessary for a functioning economy. The UK Cameron Government’s “big society” focus is an attempt to marry traditional conservatism and free market fundamentalism; one that, as Guy Rundle noted recently, is failing dismally on all fronts.

Secondly, despite the need to remain sceptical of Western Australian exceptionalism, it is arguable that, as historian Geoffrey Bolton wrote in the early 1980s, “writers on Australia’s political economy have largely neglected regional variations on the national theme”.

WA has been shaped by its history as a peripheral state, and one dependent on the pastoral and mining industries. The Swan River colony in the state’s south-west was initially founded (in 1829) as a “free settlement”, later becoming a penal colony in 1850. Historians John Host and Chris Owen argued that the colony began as “a capitalist venture that sent the weakest to the wall and allowed the strongest — those with stamina and adaptability but more importantly, assets, connections and a certain ruthlessness — to flourish”.

There are nuances in this picture, and it is instructive to look at the kind of capitalism that subsequently developed. Bolton has argued persuasively that the state has a strong tradition which held that “it was for the state government to provide the infrastructure for the development of industry. The state should keep a very close monitoring eye on the directions which industry should take and should be at all times in control of the guidelines of developmental policy. There was not much precedent for the development in Western Australia of a completely laissez-faire type of capitalism”.

More broadly, Bolton posited that “[a]nalysts of Western Australian history have to look at two different modes of perception. One is what actually happened and the other consists of what might be called the mythic factors in Western Australian history”, the idea that “the growth of Western Australia is to be seen essentially as a chronicle of pioneer achievement”.

WA has also been shaped by its governments, and one predecessor which is particularly relevant to contemporary times is that of Sir Charles Court, who was a Liberal Premier from 1974-1982 and is known variously for his support for the resource industry and for "states’ rights" and his fierce opposition to Aboriginal land rights and trade unions.

In a speech extolling the benefits of mining activity in 1970, when he was Minister for North West and Industrial Development in the Brand government, Court argued that “minimal government interference” was needed, and he opposed “the luxury of so-called nationalism which tries to block the vigorous development of a resource simply for the satisfaction of protest or for the aggrandisement of pseudo-national pride”.

This free-market rhetoric must not however be taken at face value, for Court obtained benefits for his State from the multinationals that mined it: major projects were responsible for their own infrastructure development, with Western Australia thereby gaining many new towns, ports and railways. Several towns were born of the 1960s-1970s boom, with Karratha, for instance, built in 1968 to accommodate workers mining iron ore in the Hamersley Ranges and subsequently being known colloquially as “Charlie’s town”.

Following Court’s death in 2007, there were many tributes to a man regarded as the “architect of the state's resources development”; a statue commemorating the former premier was later erected in the central business district.

There is, then, some nostalgia for a big-vision approach to government which harnesses mineral developments to drive state-building efforts. Let’s take a fresh look at the WA election through this particular lens.

Echoes of the tradition explored above can be discerned in the Royalties for Regions program, under which 25 per cent of mining and offshore petroleum royalties are reinvested in regional WA. The demand for Royalties for Regions was successfully proposed by Brendon Grylls’ Nationals at the 2008 election, in the course of which they gained the balance of power. The program, which has been subject to some critical analysis, is relatively popular and was singled out for praise in the recent report into fly-in-fly-out work practices, with the report itself, as noted in New Matilda, arguing against a simple laissez-faire approach to the mining industry.

Although Premier Colin Barnett has indicated that some changes will be made to the Royalties for Regions program, all major parties went to the election with a policy platform that included its retention; Labor leader Mark McGowan stated that were his party to form government, he would be Minister for Regions as well as Premier, the program would be maintained and “spent on regional people's priorities, like dangerous country roads”.

Since Barnett's victory, the Nationals no longer hold the balance of power; the Liberals can govern without them, although Barnett has announced that his ministry will include Nationals members. If Royalties for Regions was the ace in the Nationals’ sleeve in 2008, it may have been a card that could only be played once, particularly once the policy was embraced by the Liberal and Labor parties.

Barnett himself may have trumped the Nationals’ narrative – although his own electorate is the swanky "western suburb" (the meaning of this phrase in WA is quite different from its significance in NSW) of Cottesloe, his policies have emphasised the periphery as well as the centre; a light rail line in Perth, but also a Perth-Darwin highway and support for major projects in the state’s north.

On being elected, Barnett foreshadowed further battles over the distribution of GST revenue and also emphasised his commitment to “growth”. In particular, he enthused that this was “the decade where WA can really grasp its opportunity to broaden its economy, particularly with the growth of Asia”, lauding the “great opportunities” for the agricultural sector “in terms of food security amongst developing nations and our capacity is there to grow and expand and broaden our agriculture”.  

Signs suggest, then, both that the old WA development ideology is alive and well and that the dominant conservative approach in the state continues to be linked to big rather than small government. 

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.