EIGHT and a half years of Coalition government in WA will end today, as Colin Barnett’s Liberals face annihilation at the ballot box; an ageing Premier, coupled with crippling debt in the wake of the mining boom and an inability to resolve GST shares in his state’s favour, will see voters sweep an unready — and undeserving — ALP to office. The result will be a debacle, and a humiliation for Malcolm Turnbull. But it will contain a silver lining of sorts.
First things first: yet again, my apologies to readers for a week and a half of radio silence; the past couple of weeks have been a little busier than I envisaged, and whilst we’ve missed a few issues — not least, the endgame of the WA state election campaign — most of these remain live, and we will catch up on some of them in the coming few days.
But last time I was in England (and it bothers me enormously that it was almost nine years ago), three big political developments occurred: the onset of the Global Financial Crisis, of which nary a word had been reported in Australia, but which erupted the first week I was in London with the force of a doomsday alert; the replacement of hapless federal Liberal leader Brendan Nelson by Malcolm Turnbull, raising the curtain on a misadventure that continues to play out today; and the ascension, in minority, of Colin Barnett and a Liberal-National “alliance” to government in Western Australia for the first time since a One Nation preference campaign laid waste to the government of Richard Court in early 2001.
Despite the fact we haven’t found the time to discuss it in this column, I have been keeping an eye on the WA election campaign, and the only way I can describe it — as today’s Newspoll in The Australian shows Barnett on track to suffer an 11% swing to Labor and the loss of 13 seats — is as a gigantic face-palm event.
Already reeling from the “It’s Time” factor and from the explosion of state debt to some $40bn in the aftermath of the end of the mining boom — and hurt by the decline of WA’s return of GST monies paid in that state to just 30 cents in the dollar, under the convoluted formula used to determine GST payments — the Liberals’ reputation for sound economic management has, perhaps through little fault of its own, become tarnished in the minds of voters who don’t comprehend the finer details of Commonwealth-State relations, and don’t want to: in their view, the local man in charge in Perth is the man who carries the can.
At 66 years of age, Barnett is the oldest incumbent Premier to seek a further term in office since Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s final victory in Queensland in 1986: whereas voters once accepted government was an activity largely conducted by “old men,” those days are long gone — as John Howard’s defeat federally in 2007 showed — with people likelier to “give a young feller a go” rather than cultivate a governing class of gerontocrats of the kind once personified by names such as Bolte, Askin, Menzies, Playford, Court and, of course, Bjelke-Petersen himself.
Barnett’s government was significantly weakened by the transfer of arguably its best minister, former Treasurer and Attorney-General (now federal Social Services minister) Christian Porter to federal politics in 2013, and by the inevitable loss of the freakishly talented but irretrievably flawed Troy “Chair Sniffer” Buswell after literally more than one scandal too many in 2010.
And the deal the WA Liberals have struck with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation — foolishly agreeing to place the minor party ahead of their alliance partners, the Nationals — made a prudent exercise in seeking to harness lost protest votes through preferences a justifiable millstone for their opponents (and the Nationals themselves) to publicly hang around their necks.
This column has openly advocated Coalition parties placing One Nation ahead of the ALP and
Communist Party Greens, noting that of the two extreme fringe parties, the Greens are far worse than One Nation; but placing the Hanson party ahead of their governing allies was a lunatic act of overreach by the WA Liberals that will now compound, rather than ameliorate, their imminent defeat.
It is a relatively unimportant detail that the Nationals, under the unpalatable stewardship of the incendiary Brendon Grylls, are an irritant the WA Liberals feel they could well do without: to lose the support of National Party MPs in the lower house, as the political waters recede drastically from the near all-time high mark recorded in 2013, is to lose almost any hope of remaining in office at a difficult election long foreseen in reputable polling to herald likely defeat.
And the Nationals’ beloved “Royalties for Regions” project — which was the key to Barnett receiving their support in minority in 2008 — may well be an expensive fancy that is now completely unaffordable after the evaporation of the rivers of royalties gold that initially funded it, but Barnett’s open promise to all but abandon it is tantamount to a poke in the eye with a sharp stick on top of the brutal betrayal served up by the Liberals’ unwise preference arrangements with One Nation.
The deal with One Nation was all but invalidated anyway by Hanson’s demonstration, in front of TV cameras from the Perth media, of how to vote One Nation without helping to re-elect Barnett: a simple but lethal tutorial in the dangers of getting closer to Hanson’s protest party than the Liberals needed to.
And in any case, Barnett’s case for re-election — which in essence boils down to an appeal for support of the “trust us, we’ll be better than they will” variety — is an intangible offer that voters have no real way to either qualify or to quantify.
Indeed, his suggestion yesterday that Perth would grind to a halt — and that things would “stop happening” in WA — if the ALP is elected today carried with it the distinct whiff of desperation.
Of Labor, there is little to say, except that its case for government in 2017 is barely different than that offered four years ago.
Its leader, Mark McGowan, is at first glance an inoffensive and amenable character who doesn’t scare the horses. In practice, he is merely the latest in a long line of former union hacks and spivs served up to the electorate as a “man of the people” when in fact, he is no more than another Trades Hall stooge uninterested in all that much beyond the whims and decrees of his union masters.
The abortive coup last year — which purported to replace him with former federal minister Stephen Smith — offers a glimpse into just how securely McGowan is ensconced in his leadership: the odds on him being rolled as Premier, should he put a foot out of line in the eyes of his union overlords, are very high indeed, which is hardly an inspiring reality before the keys to the Premier’s suite on Harvest Terrace have even been secured.
And Labor’s signature Metronet initiative — buried by a frenzied Liberal Party attack in 2013 and mired in hitherto unresolved questions of its financial viability — is once again the centrepiece of McGowan’s pitch for votes in Perth.
I think the Newspoll finding of an 11% swing against Barnett is about right; the only real question in my mind is how it translates into seats, for the 57.3% scored by the Coalition in 2013 would, had the swing against Labor been more uniform, have yielded at least three more seats than it did, and possibly as many as five: in other words, Labor’s underlying starting position is stronger than the belting it received four years ago would suggest at first glance.
But I have grave doubts that Labor will prove any better than the Liberals in dealing with the huge debt racked up in the wake of the mining boom — a debt at least partly fuelled by Grylls’ expensive RfR scheme — and whilst an ALP Premier from WA will undoubtedly have his work cut out trying to wrest more money from a Coalition government in Canberra, the rhetoric from McGowan’s federal counterparts about not diverting funds from so-called “mendicant” states (Tasmania, South Australia) suggests the inclement weather of federal-state relations would not be improved by the arrival of a Labor government in Canberra, either.
There is however no point trying to sugar-coat the electoral wrecking ball that is about to slam into the WA Liberals with the impact of a force ten gale, and no credible way to suggest the carnage will not reverberate across the country in the same way their landslide win in 2013 probably sealed both the fate of Julia Gillard as Prime Minister and of Labor itself in government nationally.
There are, however, a couple of improbable silver linings to wrest from the coming political disaster.
One — in a repeat of the pattern that followed One Nation’s unlikely success at the Queensland state election of 1998 — is the undeniable sign that having made real electoral inroads, the wheels on the One Nation cart are beginning to wobble; Hanson’s behaviour on the campaign trail, coupled with her unilateral disendorsement of a swag of candidates and the clear signs of trouble within her federal Senate team, shows once again that whilst One Nation may be able to secure a handful of seats through its destructive populist antics, it simply isn’t up to the responsibility that trust imposes upon it to act soberly, maturely, and rationally.
Hanson’s blatant denial of calling for GST revenues to be diverted from Queensland to WA, only for the footage of her doing so to be splashed across the media this week, is just one misstep that has contributed to the steady decline in the One Nation vote for today’s election, and which is likely to erode its support in the Sunshine State as Queenslanders too face a state election — perhaps within a matter of weeks.
And two, the unmitigated disaster today’s loss will force the Liberal Party to confront will have severe ramifications for the federal party’s standing. The already weak leadership of Malcolm Turnbull will be further compromised by a clear rejection of his party in one of its traditional strongholds. The magnitude of the defeat will be impossible to attribute to Barnett and his misfiring administration alone. Taken in aggregate with the Liberal Party’s loss of multiple seats in WA for the first time in 20 years at last year’s federal election, today’s fiasco will at best ram another nail into Turnbull’s political coffin, and at worst may trigger a move against him by his federal colleagues.
It is every bit as bad for the PM as that. Perversely, for the federal Liberals, the defeat could provide the impetus for something positive, although it remains to be seen whether they have the bottle or the stomach or the judgement to act on it.
But to paraphrase the 1991 horror flick The Silence of the Lambs, the lambs are crying; in this case they find form in the voters of Western Australia, and they are baying for blood. It is a Liberal government that now faces slaughter, and the violence of its executioners will leave the survivors with many wounds to lick.
I will be watching the count online after 9pm Melbourne time, but whichever way you cut it, tonight will be a very bad night indeed for the Liberal Party.
Unless the lessons from the debacle are quickly absorbed, and responded to astutely, many more will soon follow.