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.


Liberals Set To Romp Home in WA State Election

LABOR is set to be dealt another savage blow today as Western Australians go to the polls to elect a state government for the next four years; Colin Barnett’s minority Liberal government is set to be re-elected in such a landslide as to underpin two more terms in office, whilst the ALP will be crushed.

In an election that is as much a referendum on the Gillard government as it is on state issues, Labor is set to record its third poleaxing at a state election in three years, following record defeats in NSW in 2011 and in Queensland last year.

Whether the ALP cares to admit it or not, it has needlessly trashed a bright future prospect by switching leaders last year; I contend that the Liberals’ win today was only ever going to be a question of the margin, and that Labor would have been better served allowing former leader Eric Ripper take the hit that today’s election will inflict.

A Newspoll published this morning in The Weekend Australian suggests Labors worst fears are set to materialise tonight; Newspoll is showing a 59.5-40.5% lead to the Liberals after preferences, which if uniformly replicated equates to a 7.6% swing, the loss of 13 Labor seats, and Labor reduced to just 14 of the 59 seats in the WA lower house.

This is consistent with my estimate of the Liberals and Nationals winning 40 to 45 of the 59 seats, which includes two usually safe but independently held Liberal seats (Alfred Cove and Churchlands) returning to the Liberal fold.

Should such a result be recorded, Mark McGowan is going to have to carry the can for it; it is true WA Labor unearthed a fresh young face that is attractive to the electorate, but McGowan’s future will be perhaps fatally compromised after shouldering the responsibility for what always loomed as a horrific result.

I warned six weeks ago that the greatest threat to the Liberals in this election would be any hint of hubris; to their credit, the Liberals have run a disciplined campaign showcasing the achievements of their four years in office, and making a compelling argument in favour of their re-election.

WA voters seem unconcerned at the prospect of chair-sniffer and Treasurer, Troy Buswell, becoming Premier in a mid-term leadership handover; the ALP has attempted to extract mileage from the admittedly unsavoury prospect, which is one of the very few cards it has had to play during the campaign.

For one thing, this election is set against a commitment from Barnett to serve a full term, and for another — even if he opts to retire in, say, three years — there is no guarantee Buswell would even be a candidate.

Indeed, the Treasurer has ruled himself out, saying he will “never, ever” return to the leadership of the Liberal Party.

It is noteworthy that Prime Minister Julia Gillard has not only failed to set foot in Western Australia for the duration of this campaign, but has been actively discouraged from doing so by Labor’s WA leadership.

Yet as I stated at the outset, this election — despite any delusion to the contrary — is as much a referendum on the Gillard government’s performance as it is on state issues.

Federally, the Labor Party has been on the nose in Western Australia for many years now; its best result in that state in the past 20 years was to win 7 of the then 14 seats in WA in 1998, and its most recent return in 2010 was 3 out of 15.

Labor last won a majority of federal seats in WA in 1990, taking 8 of its then 14 seats.

Today at the federal level, WA competes with Queensland as Labor’s worst state; whilst I don’t agree for a minute with ALP assertions that Campbell Newman’s conservative state government in Queensland will help Labor win additional seats in Queensland, I think WA is easily the most anti-Labor place in the country at present.

Western Australia under Colin Barnett has been a thorn in the side of the Rudd/Gillard government for four and a half years, with entirely legitimate grievances over its treatment at the hands of federal Labor across a range of issues including the carbon tax, the mining tax, and its poor deal on the share of GST revenue collected in WA that is returned to that state by the Commonwealth.

It is for this reason that it really doesn’t matter whether Gillard appeared on the campaign trail for WA Labor or not; today’s result will be partially generated by a competent Liberal government being rewarded by voters with an additional term in office, but much of the swing against Labor will be fuelled by open hostility towards the ALP for which Labor generally, and Gillard in particular, can only blame itself.

I will be watching the results as the evening progresses; for those like me who are based on the east coast, coverage will be online on ABC24, which is providing the feed from the local ABC broadcast in Perth. Coverage begins at 9pm, Melbourne time (8pm in Queensland).

The Red And The Blue endorses — heartily — the re-election of Colin Barnett’s government today. To be frank, the case for the Liberals’ re-election is so open and shut in my mind as to wonder who — aside from ALP and union apparatchiks, the welfare and migrant lobbies, and a small portion of the unionised workforce — would see any reason whatsoever to even contemplate voting Labor.

It promises to be a very interesting night indeed, and one conservatives across the country will savour.

For the ALP the result will spell trouble, and whilst Gillard will refuse to accept any of the blame for it, the repercussions for federal Labor will not end when the final votes are tallied late tonight.

WA: Echoes Of Kennett In 1999 As Barnett Begins Election Campaign

WESTERN Australians go to the polls on 9 March to elect a state government; Liberal Premier Colin Barnett appears an almost unbackable favourite to win re-election in a landslide. But the Premier’s greatest enemy may well be hubris, and on that score, an ominous breeze blew across the West today.

I read a report in the Perth press this morning, and couldn’t help but think of the predicament of Jeff Kennett in Victoria back in 1999; miles ahead of Labor, and with some baggage to account for after seven years in office to be sure, but whose shock loss — and it was a shock, even to the ALP — owed more to an arrogant and complacent campaign than it did to any merit or overt endorsement of the alternative.

There is a great difference between discipline and hubris, and between arrogance and confidence; the danger lies in knowing where the red line that separates them is.

I put it in these terms because the Premier is absolutely spot-on in his warning to Liberal MPs that they are “one serious mistake” away from losing government.

Any holder of political office faces that brutal reality, and never more so than now.

And the potential problem, in turn, lies both in the fact Liberal MPs appear to have been willing to brief the media — on a background basis, of course — on the material covered at a special party room meeting last week, and in the nature of some of that material itself.

The thing that raises my eyebrows is the fact that all the anonymously quoted Liberal MPs told the Murdoch press about “Colin’s Rules for the campaign,” a phrase also attributed to the party’s state director, Ben Morton, who co-chaired the meeting of Liberal parliamentarians with Mr Barnett.

It just seems to have a whiff of “Jeff” about it; I don’t mean Kennett personally, of course, but rather the ridiculous “Jeff”-centric campaign the Victorian Premier was instructed by his own secretariat to fight, complete with a website (http://www.jeff.com) which featured a computer game based on the Premier driving around the F1 racetrack at Albert Park running key Labor Party figures over in order to “win.”

And with one MP who was present at that meeting revealing that “we were told of Colin’s rules. But before that we were warned: ‘If anybody can’t keep the confidence of this meeting they should leave the room,'” it begs the question what that MP and his/her colleagues think they’re doing divulging most of what was covered to the press.

Especially when one MP noted they were explicitly told not to speak to the media during the campaign “if they could avoid it.”

The MP also revealed that the Liberals were told that if they did speak to members of the press, they were to refer journalists to the Premier’s department.

Readers in Victoria will know that all of this sounds very, very similar to the edicts coming from Kennett’s office in Treasury Place during the ill-fated 1999 election campaign.

It is true that much of what Barnett’s MPs were told is simple common sense; we know that discipline and campaign focus were absolutely central to his message, and we know it because his MPs just had to talk about it — without attribution, the normal course for cowardly media sources to take.

But in a breathtaking show of political naivety, one of the MPs backgrounding journalists said of Barnett that “he said: ‘If things go right, we can get a third term of government'” which even the most amateur of political operatives would recognise as an absolute no-no, given the government hasn’t even won its second term yet, let alone a third.

I think Barnett’s government has been good for Western Australia; in the four and a half years since it took office — as a minority, in Coalition with the National Party — that state has gone from a mere powerhouse to the economic engine room of this country, single-handedly holding Australia out of recession whatever Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard might say, and despite the best efforts of the duo to smother it.

And I disagree with Labor leader Mark McGowan’s assessment that “Mr Barnett thinks they are going to win…I don’t think West Australians like that sort of arrogance.”

If you’re in Mark McGowan’s shoes, all you’ve got to work with is accusations of arrogance and hubris; and whilst I am sounding a note of caution over precisely those issues, it’s not as cut and dried as McGowan might like.

It is true that at various times during his time in office, Barnett has been accused of autocracy and complacency; nothing like the self-inflicted wound carried by Kennett, mind, who once described Melbourne as Victoria’s “beating heart” and the regions as its “toenails,” but certainly enough for him to rightly be conscious of avoiding any charge of hubris.

And on that score, the Premier was dead right to warn his MPs in those terms — even if they were ill-disciplined enough to leak it in defiance of the instructions they were given.

Certainly, the trap is there for Barnett to fall into; whether he does or not will become clear in the next month or so.

Whether McGowan likes it or not, one of the many assets Barnett has to hand in this campaign is a Labor opposition that has been ineffective, remote from the issues facing Western Australia, and guilty by association of being a state division of the reviled Gillard government.

And whilst Western Australia has been governed by Labor for just over half of the time since Federation (with Bob Hawke’s uncle Bert its one-time Premier), it does have a reputation as a “traditional” conservative state, and held good (and even strengthened) for the federal Liberals even as Richard Court lost in 2001 in a result partially attributable to the activities of Pauline Hanson, and even as John Howard was losing government in 2007.

The Coalition starts this campaign with 29 of the 59 lower house seats (24 Liberals, 5 Nationals) and, despite winning nearly 52% of the two-party vote at the last election in September 2008, needs a small uniform swing of 0.2% in its favour to win an outright majority.

Current opinion polling suggests the swing to the Coalition will be more in the order of 7%, which if replicated on 9 March would see the conservatives win at least 40 seats and the Liberals a majority in their own right, meaning Barnett could govern without the National Party if desired or if Coalition talks between the parties break down.

The change in the ALP leadership last year from Eric Ripper to Mark McGowan seems to have been unproductive; the initial spike in voting intention for Labor proved short-lived, and whilst McGowan generally rates more highly as leader and as preferred Premier than did his predecessor, the simple fact is that his numbers are dreadful when compared to those of the Premier.

At the commencement of the campaign proper — and at time of writing — it is virtually unthinkable that the Liberals will fail to be re-elected; indeed, the most likely outcome is that Barnett’s government not only wins, but achieves a thumping majority, leaving a decimated and demoralised Labor Party to lick its wounds.

And, yes, to remain there for at least another two terms.

Yet the same thing was said of Kennett, as he called an election in August 1999 for the earliest date allowable the following month; and whilst a contrast with Barnett’s outfit in WA certainly exists, so do the parallels, which is salient reason for the memory of the Kennett experience to be kept in the back of Barnett’s mind for the next six weeks.