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.