Armageddon: Nuclear WA Election Result Is Turnbull’s Newman Moment

ANY TALK that WA’s election result is purely due to “state factors” is, to be kind, delusional; just as Tony Abbott’s unpopularity fortified the swing against Campbell Newman in Queensland — where One Nation and “arrogance” were factors, as they were in WA — an unpopular federal government has compounded the revolt in another Liberal state. WA provides Malcolm Turnbull’s “Newman moment.” it is inconceivable he will emerge unscathed.

I am not simply taking a potshot at Malcolm Turnbull, whose claims on the leadership of the federal Liberal Party have never stacked up in my eyes; but so bad is the outcome of yesterday’s state election in Western Australia for the Liberal Party — the worst, in fact, since the ALP first contested a state election there in 1901 — that it is impossible to argue, with any credibility whatsoever, that a deeply unpopular federal Liberal government led by a deeply unpopular Prime Minister is innocent of blame for a truly dreadful result in what has traditionally been one of the best states in Australia for the forces of mainstream conservatism.

In fact, and whilst I used the metaphor of lambs engaging in the slaughter of Liberal MPs to frame my piece ahead of the WA state election yesterday, a better analogy today is that of a nuclear Armageddon that has generated millions of tons of lethal fallout: and some of this, inevitably, must fall on Canberra and poison Turnbull’s government.

With more than a third of the 47.1% of the primary vote Colin Barnett’s Liberal Party attracted at the 2013 WA election lost — along with more than half of the 31 MPs the Liberal Party won on that occasion in the 59-seat lower house — the Liberals, along with their National Party alliance partners, appear to have been able to muster less than a third of those 59 seats, if projections of 14 Liberals and 5 Nationals come to pass: easily the worst state election result for non-Labor forces in WA in more than 100 years.

This isn’t merely an embarrassment — it is an indictment.

Yesterday’s abysmal state election result in Western Australia is a wake-up call to the Liberal Party nationally; to have been completely poleaxed in what has for decades been one of its best states can’t simply be attributed to the longevity of the Barnett government (eight years and seven months) when Labor has spent more than a decade in office continuously in every other state over the past 35 years (and in Victoria and South Australia, has done so twice in that time).

It can’t simply be attributed to the huge pile of debt that has been racked up on Barnett’s watch after the end of the mining investment boom; in Queensland in 2015 and South Australia in 1997, Labor rebounded after crushing election defeats where financial mismanagement was the key factor within a single term to force minority governments; in Victoria in 1999 and Western Australia in 2001, the ALP reclaimed office after just two terms despite the scale of financial scandals that cost it office in landslide defeats dwarfing anything Barnett might be accused of today.

And it can’t just be blamed on the silly preference deal the Liberal Party struck with One Nation, whereby the Liberals foolishly preferenced the protest party above their National Party allies.

The result in WA is, to be clear, a sign of the Liberal Party’s slide from favour across the country: and more evidence of this recalibration of the national polity will follow, as sure as night follows day, unless the penny finally drops for those Liberals in a position to actually do something to reverse it.

Whilst the Barnett government was far from perfect, it did in fact have a powerful record of achievement upon which to campaign: a message which, in increasingly typical fashion for the Liberal Party everywhere, proved impossible for it to sell.

The Barnett government spent much of its second term fighting with itself, with a clear lack of succession planning forcing it to ask voters to endorse an unpopular 66-year-old figurehead for a further four years — a big ask at the best of times, let alone in the straitened economic circumstances the WA Liberals found themselves in after eight years in office.

But it reflects on a sick and increasingly inept organisation which, right across Australia, is showing signs of being incapable of winning unless it is to capitalise on the faults and shortcomings of the Labor Party, and with the resurgence of federal Labor under arguably the least suitable individual ever presented to voters as a potential Prime Minister, it is growing difficult to ascribe even that capability to the Liberal Party either.

Readers of this column know exactly what I believe are the handicaps my party faces — and these are as applicable to yesterday’s election in WA as they are anywhere else in Australia.

A basic inability to formulate and execute effective political strategies and tactics.

An utter inability to sell anything whatsoever, and a “communications” capacity that is amateurish at best and downright juvenile at worst.

A contingent of advisors, staffers and other insiders who owe their presence to parking their noses up the backsides of factional overlords, or to pandering to minor chieftains presiding over petty dunghills and fiefdoms, rather than being selected on the basis of what they can actually do to help the party: the Liberal Party, at senior levels and wherever any degree of operational expertise is required, better resembles a crony club these days than a slick, well-oiled, effective political machine.

A lack of policies (or, indeed, a lack of any coherent platform at all) that mark the party out as a beacon for the small government, low tax, pro-family, pro-business, pro-individual constituency it has traditionally represented: the Liberal Party these days is too busy eliminating points of difference with the ALP to be bothered with cogent contemporary expressions of the timeless and noble offer it is uniquely positioned to make for the benefit of all Australians.

A parliamentary cohort increasingly swelled by former staffers, factional stooges, and other worthless types: the same thing it has spent decades (rightly) pillorying Labor for.

And whilst yesterday’s election loss might have been all but unavoidable, its scale speaks to the basic inability of the party to fight effective campaigns these days: with just 14 Liberal MPs likely to emerge after a two-party swing that looks to be in the order of 15%, nobody can argue the party in any way mitigated its losses. It didn’t.

It is one thing to win elections from opposition on slogans such as “stop the boats” or “axe the tax:” it is another thing altogether to govern effectively once government has been secured and in this sense, what happened yesterday merely reflects the malaise that has infected the Liberal Party nationally.

To win — and to win the best victory in WA history in 2013 — and spend the ensuing four years descending into hubris, squabbles over the spoils of office, and exhibiting a complete contempt for the voters who put it there far transcends the difficulties imposed on the Barnett government by cyclical events like the end of a mining boom or the related fall in the state’s GST share: a modest loss might be justified, but this annihilation is at least partly self-inflicted.

But to claim that this was an election decided purely on “state factors” is fatuous; and in this sense, the malfunctioning, misfiring federal Coalition government of Malcolm Turnbull — which itself embodies every one of the problems afflicting the Liberal Party that I have listed here — has to take its share of the responsibility too.

To be sure, Turnbull now faces an odious parallel with the Queensland state election of 2015 and the role played in it by the standing of Tony Abbott and his government, but more on that in a moment.

Right now, I think the Liberal Party is facing the bleakest period of its existence since the early 1980s, when more than a decade of opposition federally (and in most of the states) loomed large; the odd triumph (NSW, 1988) was more than offset by failures that should have been successes (WA in 1989, Victoria in 1988, SA in 1989, federally in 1990 and 1993) and the gradual elimination of what “real estate” conservative forces entered that miserable period with in the first place, losing Queensland and Tasmania to Labor in 1989 and the Brisbane City Council (which at one point represented the most senior administration the party headed anywhere in Australia) in 1991.

Since the Coalition returned to office federally in 2013, state Liberal governments in Queensland, Victoria and now Western Australia have fallen; two years out from another state election in NSW, the party’s prospects look shaky there too. Liberals are unlikely to win in South Australia or Victoria next year, and the Liberal government in Tasmania is as much a hostage to that state’s proportional voting system as anything else when it comes to its prospects for winning a second term next year.

In other words — now holding office only in NSW, Tasmania and federally — there is realistic and probable scope for the Liberal Party to surrender office in all three of these jurisdictions over the next two years, and it is looking down the barrel of an even more painful period than the 1980s, and “professional, modern” Labor, began inflicting on it 35 years ago.

If readers are wondering why I’m not devoting today’s article to a systematic analysis of the numbers emanating from what is tantamount to an apocalyptic, politically nuclear event, it’s simply because I think it represents just the latest instalment of a pattern of decline that will consign the Liberal Party to a decade of misery unless something drastic occurs to arrest it, but those who fret over such minutiae can keep an eye on the Wikipedia breakdown of the results here: I think the question of how many MPs the party emerges with, or where the swing against it finally settles, is that irrelevant in the wider scheme of things.

Just as the 2013 state election in WA sounded the death knell on Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership (and arguably Labor’s tenure in office federally overall), I can’t help thinking that the one held yesterday heralds a similar milestone — or millstone — for Malcolm Turnbull.

It is a seismic event of the importance of the 1974 election in Queensland, which effectively stamped the papers of the Whitlam government in Canberra.

And another state election in Queensland, two years ago, led directly to the so-called “challenge by an empty chair” which began a protracted process of removing Abbott from the Prime Ministership: the swing against Campbell Newman was almost identical to the one suffered by Barnett yesterday, and whilst the Queensland LNP retained enough seats to remain within spitting distance of reclaiming government, it started from an even stronger position in terms of votes and seats than Barnett entered yesterday’s contest defending.

Nobody can suggest that the lacklustre Turnbull government is blameless for what happened yesterday.

Nobody can claim the Prime Minister, as Abbott was in Queensland in 2015, was anything less than a direct negative that amplified the movement away from the incumbent government.

It is time for Turnbull’s colleagues to seriously consider the damage his continued presence stands to inflict upon the Liberal Party’s fortunes, federally and around the states, should he be permitted to continue as the party’s most senior — and visible — standard-bearer.

But dumping Turnbull will be pointless unless the other structural problems the party has lumbered itself with are also addressed and in this sense, those who “control” the Liberal Party — and who dish out patronage and paid employment to the useless, the inept, and the downright incompetent — ought to take a hard, critical look at themselves in the wake of yesterday’s disaster, and make brutally honest decisions about where they want the party to head: and whether, despite their cosily entrenched sinecures, their handiwork is conducive to the best interests of the party at all.

Yesterday was cataclysmic. Without extensive change at almost every level, many similar humiliations will soon follow.

The Violence Of The Lambs: WA Liberals Face Slaughter

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.

Image result for hannibal lecter blood

A bloody mauling awaits the Liberal Party at today’s state election in Western Australia.

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.

Stephen Smith And The Puzzling Plot To Destroy WA Labor

PERHAPS IT’S SOMETHING in the desalinated Perth water, but the WA branch of the ALP must have a death wish; not content with the departure of a Senator and all of its lower house MPs ahead of this year’s federal election, some at WA Labor have orchestrated an attempt by former Defence minister Stephen Smith to lead the state party from outside Parliament ahead of an election next year. Even if it succeeds, it will all end in tears.

As senior ALP figures go, Stephen Smith is about as likeable — and as uncontroversial — as they get; in fact, during five years of publishing discussion pieces in this column, I have only ever found cause to focus on him directly just once: and perhaps in something of an omen, given what he has been up to in the past few days, that particular article noted a truly bizarre “opinion” piece that appeared in the Sunshine Coast Daily in late 2011, and which inexplicably implied he had spent time in a relationship with a dominatrix.

Nobody seemed to know what to make of it then, and I suspect anyone who recalls the piece is none the wiser now.

But as bizarre machinations go, what Smith has been up to in Western Australia — agitating to seize the leadership of the state ALP, from outside Parliament, to lead it into next year’s state election and become Premier (requiring a 10% two-party swing and an extra 10 seats in WA’s 59-seat lower house) — is simply astonishing.

For background, readers can access two pieces from The Australian here and here, and an analysis piece from the local Fairfax portal here.

That the apparent putsch by Smith to make a Campbell Newman-style foray into state politics without a seat in Parliament has been thwarted — for now — speaks volumes for the solidarity of his state counterparts, and their determination not to be shaken out of the kind of mediocre complacency that is so reflective of a federal party “led” by Bill Shorten: present state leader Mark McGowan performed impressively on a personal basis in 2013, just as his party received a comprehensive belting from voters, but the conduct of WA Labor ever since has been increasingly indicative of an approach based simply on waiting for Colin Barnett’s Liberals to fall over and die.

But it also seems clear that despite the shadow Cabinet unanimously closing ranks around McGowan — and Smith said to be able to garner just a handful of votes from the 32-strong state Caucus — the move to replace the former with the latter has been merely deferred, not abandoned.

To be sure, Western Australia is a basket case for the Labor Party, and that particular picnic seems unlikely to be unpacked any time soon.

Boasting just three of the 15 federal lower house seats in WA — a tally that does not increase on provisionally redistributed boundaries that will see the state command an extra seat from this year’s election onward — Labor has already been forced to endure the political embarrassment of all three of its MPs announcing their retirements from politics, deserting the ship in a rank humiliation of their “leader” that has delivered a clear indication of Labor’s likely election prospects in the process.

This evacuation of Labor’s federal ranks in the West was compounded by the resignation of one of its three Senators in Joe Bullock; whilst many in the ALP will not be sorry to see Bullock depart, of course, it still means that of the six elected representatives Labor could muster in its weakest state after the last election, two-thirds of them have jumped ship.

It’s not a good look.

But even with the limitations of McGowan’s leadership that have grown so evident over the past few years, the Barnett government looked like it would provide WA Labor with a silver lining; hit hard by the end of the resources boom, mired in ballooning debt as its export-dependent economy withers, and led by an ageing Premier with no obvious successor with Christian Porter now a federal MP, expectations on the ALP side (and among many Coalition hardheads) was that Barnett’s government would lose, however narrowly, the state election that is now just a year away.

In this context, the nonsense of the Smith leadership push is ridiculous.

One, it seems clear that for Smith to become leader in this unorthodox fashion, a huge amount of bad blood is going to have to be shed: not a helpful internal component in any serious bid to win a state election from opposition at the best of times, let alone when a 10% swing is required.

Two, the “template” most recently pioneered by Campbell Newman in Queensland — switching from City Hall in Brisbane to George Street — should be a warning to those who would emulate it, not a masterstroke to be adapted and redeployed: whilst far from a neophyte, Newman’s experience of state politics on becoming Premier was exactly zero (as is Smith’s) and the same political problems that befell Newman (who never really stopped being Lord Mayor of Brisbane in terms of style) could be expected to afflict Smith (who spent decades in federal politics and was twice a federal minister, which is in no way a comparable vocation to state politics).

Three, the Queensland LNP went into the 2012 state election needing a swing of just over 4% to get the 12 seats it needed to win; WA Labor approaches next year’s election needing more than double the swing to get 10 seats, which is a difficult ask at the best of times.

Four, Newman was co-opted into state Parliament to seal what shaped as a likely election win that some believed (mistakenly, in my view) was in jeopardy of being squandered under the leader he replaced; circumstances in WA are very different, and even with consistently favourable polls for the past 18 months or so, a Labor victory early next year is arguably far less certain than the one the LNP was always lined up to record in Queensland in 2012.

And finally, the prospect of a protracted leadership struggle — with Smith and his backers wearing down resistance through attrition — is likely to compound federal Labor’s chances in what has been its worst state for years; reputable polling over the past few months has seen the Coalition vote recover to the point the Liberals are likely to hold all (or almost all) of the 12 lower house seats they are defending, and perhaps win the new seat of Burt, too; in fact, when the resignations of its three lower house MPs are taken into consideration, there is a very real risk that Labor’s federal lower house presence could be cut to a single seat in Western Australia, and if that occurs it will be almost impossible to make up much ground overall at all, let alone install Bill Shorten in The Lodge.

In any case, Smith — already 60 years old, and set to turn 61 before next year’s election — hardly constitutes a long-term prospect for the state ALP, which means that if he succeeds in tearing McGowan down, then sooner rather than later Labor will be faced with the same dilemma that confronts the Liberal Party, with an ageing Premier leading a party with no obvious replacement.

After all, with just 21 lower house seats, McGowan presides over a shallow pond in which the talent quotient does not run deep; for Smith to succeed, McGowan’s viability as a leadership prospect down the track will be seriously (if not fatally) compromised just as John-Paul Langbroek’s was in Queensland, and Labor’s leadership stocks in WA are arguably much thinner than the LNP’s are now, its present leadership contortions notwithstanding.

You really have to wonder whether some at WA Labor simply have a political death wish.

Historically, WA has been far less unfriendly to the ALP than recent state and federal returns suggest; in fact, Labor has formed government in the state for roughly half the time since the party’s inception, and held half or more of the federal seats in the state as recently as 1998.

There is clear scope for the ALP, in favourable circumstances, to make hefty gains in Western Australia at both the state and federal level over the next year, even if it falls short of overthrowing Barnett at an election.

In this sense, and far from a masterstroke designed to seal victory for Labor, Smith’s machinations seem more like a puzzling plot designed to sabotage and then destroy his own party.

Even if he succeeds in dispatching McGowan, Smith’s victory will be a hollow one indeed: very likely to end in tears, bitter recriminations, and crushing defeat.

GST: Labor Should Grow Up And Join Reform Debate

THE SURPRISE of the GST on the reform agenda, partly due to an idea of NSW Premier Mike Baird that admittedly falls short, is encouraging: with rising public spending and an income tax base set to shrink for decades as the population ages, a rebuilt GST is key in fixing structural revenue issues. Labor must abandon its obstruction and empty rhetoric about “cruelty” and “fairness,” grow up, and help find the best outcome in the national interest.

First things first: until or unless his willingness to engage in meaningful discussion turns out to be a stunt or worse still, a subterranean strategy to scuttle meaningful change, South Australian Labor Premier Jay Weatherill deserves acknowledgement for apparently breaking ranks with the other Labor Premiers in being prepared to countenance changes to the GST; the push from some state Premiers to overhaul and bolster the GST may come to naught in the end, but it is refreshing — and surprising — to see a prominent identity from the “modern” ALP perhaps being prepared to actually set partisan politics aside in the interests of constructive policy rather than merely spruik an objective to do so as a way to harvest votes without ever delivering on it.

In fact, the fact a seemingly serious push for GST reform has emerged at all is surprising, for the combination of flat denials of willingness from almost every section of the ALP to even consider overhauling the tax and the reluctance of some Liberals to be the ones to raise the prospect of reform has to date killed any chance to even have a serious discussion around doing so.

The unprincipled charlatan that is ALP of the 21st century has seen to it that an increasing number of policy areas in urgent need of reform — taxation, welfare, labour market regulation and structural electoral reform, to name a few — are politically untouchable, and the GST fits within that subset; so concerned with winning elections at any cost is the Labor Party that it would rather see serious damage inflicted on this country than to permit its growing list of “sacred cows” to even be discussed, let alone reformed in any way.

But as ever, the ALP cares about power, not people.

The unlikely inclusion of the GST on the agenda for state Premiers to consider has come, in part, from an idea proposed by NSW’s Mike Baird that — to be blunt — fails to cut much ice when examined in even cursory detail, but Baird nonetheless deserves credit for getting the matter onto the table at all.

His idea for a straight lift in the GST rate from 10% to 15% without broadening the base (currently just 48% of all goods and services), with half the proceeds going to tax relief for low-income earners and welfare recipients to offset the impact and the remainder being carved up between the states, is at least a start.

But it fails to address the fact that the unhealthy reliance on PAYE tax is unsustainable, with an ageing population that sees that revenue base shrinking, which it will continue to do for decades; and as well intentioned as the Baird proposal undoubtedly is, it apparently places no emphasis on the need to match taxation reform with a program for winding back profligate, wasteful, recurrent government expenditure by past Labor governments — state and federal — that might have been well enough intentioned, but mostly is and was unaffordable.

It’s an unpleasant reality few in the ALP care to publicly admit, but every dollar of electoral bribery spent by a government is paid by a taxpayer — whether in business or a wage or salary earner — and for all the aversion to”cruelty” and infatuation with “fairness” Labor professes, there is little evidence it gives a stuff about the people who actually generate the tax dollars it so lovingly, and carelessly, doles out.

To say this largesse is out of control is an understatement; the line propounded by Liberal politicians (as well as a number of Treasury bureaucrats and economists) that the country has a spending problem rather than a revenue problem is true, and I saw at the weekend an article (a link to which I forgot to save — sorry!) that whilst headline revenues account for 27.3% of GDP, once the Medicare levy, superannuation contribution costs and other ancillary imposts are taken into account, the actual tax take is 33.2% of GDP — and bang on the OECD average, neatly exposing the myth that taxation in Australia is low by international standards.

Yet unless a switch in the focus of taxation is made from taxes on income to taxes on expenditure, that spending problem — if unaddressed, as Labor has gone to inordinate lengths to ensure it is — will soon enough be matched by a revenue problem as well, and it is only an irresponsible politician who can suggest there is no need to cut recurrent outlays or to take steps now to urgently fix the tax base.

I don’t propose to talk about cutting spending today, and in fact, this morning’s article is really only a curtain raiser to an enterprise in GST reform that I’m sure we will be talking about a lot more over coming weeks and months.

Aside from Baird putting the issue on the table — and Weatherill saying he is open to raising the GST and prepared to engage in rational and constructive conversation — Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein has said that whilst his state is disinclined to support changing the GST rate, he is prepared to listen to the arguments for change and reserve his government’s position on any reform proposals, whilst Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett (also nominally opposed to raising the GST rate) wants to examine the prospect of broadening the tax’s scope to apply to a far wider range of goods and services, including fresh food, the impact such changes would have, and the need for compensation for low-income earners and those on welfare and pensions.

I emphasise that any change to raise and/or broaden the GST comes with an obligation to do just that: it is the better-off who will contribute the bulk of the extra consumption tax dollars through higher spending, and those at the lower end of the social ecosystem would need to be compensated — just as they were when the tax was first introduced 15 years ago.

But broadly, there is considerable willingness among heads of government to contemplate tax reform. It is to be hoped some kind of consensus emerges.

Personally, I would like to see the GST doubled to 20% — in line with similar taxes in most comparable countries — with the income tax threshold lifted to, say, $25,000 per annum, marginal tax rates above that level flattened and reduced, and the GST base expanded to cover everything except healthcare, residential rents, education expenses and some financial transactions, with other government imposts like stamp duty and fuel excise abolished.

After increasing pensions and benefits to ensure welfare recipients are unaffected, some of the extra revenue could be ploughed into the states, with the remainder used to help fill the black hole left in the commonwealth budget by the Rudd-Gillard government that has been further exacerbated by the slowdown in Australia’s mining sector.

As a GST is a growth tax, these changes would set the country on a far more sustainable financial footing.

But as ever, the recalcitrant economic flat-earth types at the ALP refuse to have a bar of it.

So-called federal “leader” Bill Shorten refuses to discuss the GST at all, whilst he and others in the party claim their “policies” of cracking down on tax “evasion” by multinationals (read: punishing tax imposts on non-union businesses) and superannuation “reform” (read: punishing those who fund their own retirement without recourse to government benefits) would do the job instead.

But hitting big, offshore-based businesses is more of a pie chart concept than a practical, quantifiable, workable measure that could well do more harm than good if the usual hamfisted Labor way were to drive these companies — and Australian jobs — offshore.

And whilst Labor is obsessed with and racked by class envy and greed where self-funded retirees are concerned, I make the point that whilst Labor complains they don’t pay enough tax (not that there is an amount it would ever be satisfied with) but that these people save the government many billions of dollars annually by not claiming pensions.

You can’t have it both ways.

And as for Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ characteristically dumb-arsed call to lift the Medicare levy, all I will say is that this is an income tax rise that would have to be so large to make a meaningful difference to government budgets as to destroy the incentive to work. But Andrews — like so many of his Labor counterparts — is more interested in catchy sound bites than he is in serious, workable policy ideas.

It’s about time the GST occupied centre stage in any serious discussion about revenue and spending in this country, for it is the one measure that can be adapted to provide a fix to what, if left unaddressed, will become a permanent sea of red ink on state and federal budgets — and not all that far into the future.

Australia is not economically unassailable. Its prosperity cannot be taken for granted. Those leaders on both sides who have shown the courage and the stomach to start this debate deserve to be praised.

But as for the rest of the ALP which — as usual — would prefer to sit on the sidelines throwing populist stones in the hope it can be elected with as small a mandate for tough decisions as possible, it should grow up and take its responsibilities as a party to governance in Australia seriously, and stop trying to maintain a policy firewall contrived in its own petty electoral interests rather than focusing on the long-term good of the country.

 

Newspoll Lead In WA Presents A Quandary For Labor

A NEWSPOLL LEAD for the ALP in WA for the first time in almost seven years will be hailed by long-suffering Labor types, but poses a problem for their federal party; with its leadership stocks nationally vapid at most and its arguably best prospect stuck in a small state — with no obvious federal seat to draft him to — Labor must weigh whether storming a small conservative citadel is more important than its welfare on a larger stage.

Labor has scored a win this morning which, whilst Pyrrhic, is bigger than it seems; the Newspoll of state voting intention for Western Australia published in The Australian today finds the ALP ahead of the Coalition after preferences, 52-48, for the first time since the Gallop/Carpenter government was robbed of its majority and forced from office at the election there back in August 2008.

Readers can access the Newspoll tables here.

It’s a quick post from me this morning; back to reality after Easter (which I trust everyone enjoyed) and back to normal, I am pressed for time: but the name of the ALP’s state leader in WA, Mark McGowan, is one I think those of us in the eastern states are set to hear more often in the months ahead.

Someone had to take the fall: it’s about the unkindest thing I can find to say of McGowan, who — despite the fact I disagree with his politics — was the sacrificial lamb offered up at the state election in the West two years ago in the face of certain slaughter by the rampaging Liberal government of Colin Barnett and carrying the crushing weight of the unpopularity of the Gillard government; that election, which saw the Liberals win outright despite remaining in Coalition with the National Party, was one of the conservatives’ strongest victories in WA in decades, and in ordinary circumstances should have been enough to consign the ALP to at least another decade in the wilderness.

But “circumstances” are not ordinary, and since then we’ve seen the government of the ageing Barnett (who will be nearly 70 when the next election is due in 2017) lose its way; the bottom fall out of commodity prices, choking this bastion of the mining industry of revenue; and another federal government — this time a Liberal one — weigh Barnett down with record unpopularity that all of its state divisions have struggled to overcome, the big win in NSW last month notwithstanding.

Ever since McGowan oversaw the belting Labor copped in WA in early 2013 I have thought he represented the one bright spot on the ALP’s otherwise bleak outlook where its stocks of leadership are concerned; the most recent article in which we talked about this appeared on this site just before the last federal election, and whilst McGowan clearly has something to offer his party, I just wonder whether it would be doing itself a disservice to allow him to stay where he is and attempt to become Premier of WA.

Let’s face it: no objective assessment can find a genuine leadership prospect in the federal ALP caucus.

Current “leader” Bill Shorten has shown himself to be an irresponsible economic vandal, whose only known policies would trash the economy and smash the public healthcare system; his deputy, Tanya Plibersek is, on paper, arguably federal Labor’s best MP.

Yet Plibersek has shown more interest in her alliance to the Emily’s List “sisterhood” than she has exhibited any real interest in a meaningful contribution to issues of national importance, and has behaved like an adolescent with a grudge: not the stuff Australia’s leaders are made of. It is reminiscent of all the worst aspects of the Gillard era but without the unquestionable intellect that drove it (even if, it must be said, Gillard drove things in exactly the wrong direction).

Chris Bowen regurgitates silly Shorten slogans and these days resembles a cardboard cutout; Albanese is better, but there is nothing to suggest this warrior of Labor’s Left would be coherent as Prime Minister let alone connect with anyone beyond his narrow factional base. And Jason Clare, frankly, is a red herring who has singularly failed to fire since Labor went into opposition.

A quick look around the states — some Labor governs, and some it doesn’t — reveals a paucity of genuine leadership talent there too; with perhaps the exception of Cameron Dick in Queensland (thwarted, for now, by Annastacia Palaszczuk’s surprise win at the January state election), there isn’t a leader’s bootlace in sight: plenty of factional bovver boy types and union-controlled stooges (Daniel Andrews and Luke Foley, step forth) but nobody who might obviously emulate the impact of famous Labor names of yesteryear like John Bannon, John Cain, Geoff Gallop, Mike Rann or Peter Beattie (even if some of those names were erased from office in disgrace).

In some respects Labor was always going to retrieve its position in what has for most of the past 20 years been a conservative citadel in WA; as soon as the mining boom died out and commodity prices fell, the government that benefited most from the largesse (as it happens, a Liberal one) was always likely to find the going much rougher.

Yet the signs of this upturn — which, in truth, has been brewing for at least the past year, as readers will see from the Newspoll tables) presents Labor with a quandary.

Here is a leader — young, photogenic, articulate and seemingly talented — something Labor these days rarely, if ever, gets its hands on.

Does it persist with him in the hurly burly of dour state politics, or does it seek to take him to a higher level, and draft him into Canberra?

If it chose to do so, would he flourish, taking federal Labor with him, or would he wilt on the bigger stage as so many who have attempted the move in the past have done?

If it chose to do so, where would it run him? After all, Labor holds just three federal seats of the (soon to be) 16 in WA, and of those, only one — Fremantle — is safe enough to even contemplate parachuting a leadership prospect into.

And if it chose to move him, would it cannibalise the party’s apparent recovery in the West?

This morning’s post is simply to bring McGowan back onto our radar: I suspect we will be talking about this again, and before long — especially if Shorten persists with the populist rubbish that, in the end, sees him only marginally more popular than the deeply disliked Prime Minister he vacuously thinks himself a certainty to replace.

Over to you. What do people think of Labor’s “boy wonder” from the West?

 

WA: Nationals Almost Win Chair Sniffer’s Seat In By-Election

A BY-ELECTION YESTERDAY in the seat vacated by former Western Australian Treasurer and “chair sniffer” Troy Buswell has seen the Liberal Party run very close by its National Party partners in the ultra-conservative electorate of Vasse; despite the absence of a Labor candidate, the result underlines the fall from public favour of Colin Barnett’s government, and serves as a warning to the WA Liberals near the halfway point of its second term.

A seat like Vasse is the kind of electorate that is unlikely to ever fall to Labor, which is part of the reason the ALP did not stand; even so, the Coalition government of Colin Barnett — re-elected 18 months ago in a landslide — will take much from the by-election in Troy Buswell’s seat, with the Liberals suffering a huge swing to the National Party that almost saw the seat change hands.

The foibles and misadventures of the outgoing member for Vasse are well known, with Buswell making international headlines some years ago after it emerged that as Liberal leader he had sniffed the chair of female colleague; since that time, Western Australians also learned that he had had an affair with another colleague, yet the Liberal Party won office in 2008 (in minority under Barnett) and a second term last year. On both occasions, Buswell increased his majority in his own seat.

Whatever else might be said about his antics, Buswell’s enduring popularity seems beyond question.

Yet a boozy drive home in his government car from a wedding in February, during which he badly damaged several cars in a number of incidents, and his subsequent resignation from Cabinet may have changed that; then again, the revelation he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder may have ameliorated this.

But one way or another, his departure from Parliament has almost cost the Liberals his seat, in a result that underlines the dissatisfaction with Barnett’s government that has taken root so quickly after its thumping election win last March.

Readers can access the statistical analysis from ABC election guru Antony Green here.

Barnett’s Liberals will be relieved to have held the seat; trailing in opinion polls for much of the year that show the Premier to be little more popular than former Prime Minister Julia Gillard at her nadir, there was a very real risk this seat would fall to the National Party’s Peter Gordon.

It is difficult to conclude the by-election confirms the apparent spike in Communist Greens support in WA, with their candidate taking 18% of the vote; whilst the Greens polled strongly at the repeated Senate poll and record similar figures in most published polling of late, the fact Labor did not contest Vasse is hardly conclusive when it comes to claims of the “rise” of the Greens in the West.

At the risk of being flippant, the idea of the Greens winning responsibility for a seat that contains my beloved Margaret River, its pristine surf beaches and splendid wineries, sends a shudder down my spine. At the minimum, this result shows they remain a long, long way short of such a breakthrough.

Yet in a contemporary atmosphere of conservative state governments being subjected to absolute shellackings at by-elections over the past couple of years, this result in Vasse continues the trend; and it serves as a warning to Barnett, who must find some way to restore his government’s appeal ahead of a state election that — unbelievably — is just two years away.

In other electoral news yesterday, a vacant Labor seat in the Northern Territory legislature was retained by the opposition Labor Party, albeit with a swing against Labor of more than 4%: perhaps an indication that the tide has turned, and that the troubled CLP government is faring a little better than generally thought.

 

Liberal Triumph: Barnett Wins WA, Labor Fingers Point At Gillard Over Election Debacle

LABOR’S worst fears emerged from yesterday’s state election in Western Australia, with the party receiving a mauling from voters; whilst the result is a deserved triumph for Colin Barnett and the Liberals, for the ALP it’s a disaster, one for which blame is quickly being sheeted home to Julia Gillard.

At the close of counting for the night — with 73% of votes tallied — it appears the Liberal Party has won 33 of the 59 lower house seats (+10 seats); enough to govern in its own right, although Barnett has pledged to remain in partnership with the National Party.

The Nationals, in turn, have won 7 seats (+2), Labor 19 (-8), and all four Independent seats have been picked up by the major parties with two going to the Liberals and one each to Labor and the Nationals.

The statewide vote equates to a two-party preferred result of 57.5% to the Liberal-National government, and this represents a swing of some 6.4% from the result at the previous state election in 2008: slightly down on indications from both figures early in the count and the late polls, but a big swing no less.

In short, the conservative parties have scored a landslide election win.

As I have repeatedly made clear, this was an election the Barnett government deserved to win; its record has been one of solid delivery for Western Australia against a backdrop of a booming state economy, and in an environment made difficult by the presence of a hostile Labor regime in Canberra whose policies seem designed to specifically target Western Australia and to damage that state’s key industries, its economy, and the relative standing of its citizens.

Early indications are that the message the Labor Party has been sent by voters has failed to register, let alone be heeded; too many times during the course of the night, too many ALP figures have been at pains to get the message out that theirs was a wonderful campaign, run by a leader who achieved a great deal, and supported by many, many Western Australians.

It almost sounded like a celebration.

The real story is, however, rather different.

It is true — as I said yesterday — that Labor had unearthed a talented young leader in Mark McGowan, who presented what in other circumstances might have been an electable new face for the Labor Party in WA.

But despite the brave faces and the backslapping, McGowan has been unnecessarily sacrificed: it has been obvious for many months that this result, in round terms, was always going to happen, and Labor has wasted a bright prospect by sending him to the slaughter when older hands could have fulfilled such a function just as well.

The real villains in the Labor debacle, however, are Julia Gillard and her government.

One commentator I saw during the election coverage used the phrase “declared war” to describe the impact of federal government policies on Western Australia; it’s an analogy that is deadly accurate.

As I mentioned yesterday, a trifecta of issues — the carbon tax, the mining tax and the fraught question of GST distribution to the states — impact Western Australia far more heavily than any other state.

An exit poll — conducted by Newspoll for Sky News yesterday — found that 51% of respondents surveyed nominated the conduct of the Gillard government as the primary factor in deciding who to vote for.

So much for the old chestnut about federal factors not influencing state campaigns.

And despite the presence of senior Labor figures from WA in the Gillard ministry — such as Defence minister Stephen Smith — there is little about the conduct of federal Labor to suggest it could care less about Western Australia other than to regard it as a cash reserve.

Importantly, this charge could be levelled at the federal government when Kevin Rudd ran it, just as it’s appropriate to describe the present Gillard outfit. We’ll come back to that.

Already, it seems the recriminations are beginning behind closed doors; “senior ALP figures” — unnamed, naturally — are said to be considering action over the party’s leadership, and said to be considering sending a delegation to ask her to stand aside.

At the very minimum, the result in the West sends an ominous message to the federal ALP; it shows that even after all of the stunts, lies, “smart” initiatives and (unfunded) grand policies it has announced over the past six months, voters still seem hellbent on giving the Labor Party a walloping.

Yet Kevin Rudd is no answer; we have already been over this in great detail, but in the context of yesterday’s result in WA the problems with a resurrected Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister take on another dimension altogether.

Despite Labor’s federal representation in WA sitting at a historic low (3 of 15 federal seats), there is still room for that tally to edge downwards; indeed, two of those — Brand and Perth — could hardly be viewed with enhanced confidence based on the results recorded yesterday in state seats that overlap their boundaries.

In any case, the mining tax was originally conceived when Rudd was Prime Minister; his ETS would have impacted Western Australia just as much as the carbon tax has; and the problem of GST distribution was one Rudd and his Treasurer (the self-important Wayne Swan) showed little interest in dealing with when they sat together at the apex of government.

All of this comes as a new opinion poll (a Galaxy poll this time) shows two-party support for the ALP federally slipping another point, to trail the Coalition 45-55; we’ll talk about this some more when the next Newspoll is released early next week.

Labor is right to point the finger at Gillard for this latest fiasco; although she hasn’t set foot in Western Australia since before Christmas, the continuing presence of her government and her ongoing Prime Ministership have once again been shown as proven vote losers.

But as I said in one of my posts yesterday, the recriminations will not stop with the final tally of the votes in Western Australia, and — for the next fortnight — it seems we are set to be treated to fresh and brutal Labor Party infighting, with the squabble over the ALP leadership set to recommence in earnest.

To that end, I stand by my criticisms of Kevin Rudd, and reaffirm my contention that he is no answer to Labor’s electoral woes — be it in Western Australia or anywhere else.

Australians want a change of government at the national level, and what we have seen in the past 24 hours is evidence that in the absence of such a change, voters are prepared to hit out at Labor at any available opportunity — exceptional circumstances notwithstanding.

Colin Barnett deserves his win, and I heartily congratulate him and his team.

For Labor, though, this isn’t the end; rather, it is just the beginning.

The next fortnight will be one of the most torrid seen in federal politics for many years, and whether there is blood spilt or not, unlikely to advance the Labor cause in any way.

Then again — as a party preparing for a long spell in the wilderness — Labor may well have given up on retrieving its position, and may simply be reverting to type.