10/02/2011 - 00:00

All eyes are on the Nationals

10/02/2011 - 00:00


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Under the leadership of Brendon Grylls the Nationals are increasingly confident about their future role in state politics.

THE demise of the National Party in Western Australia has been confidently predicted for the past 40 years; but not any more.

At one stage some years back the party’s support was ebbing away as the drift of its traditional supporters from regions such as the Wheatbelt gathered pace.

And Labor strategists were gloating during the last term that the introduction of one-vote, one value would drive the final nails into the Nationals’ coffin.

How wrong they were. Thanks to astute campaigning by leader, Brendon Grylls, and the promotion of the Royalties for Regions policy, the Nationals turned the tide.

The implementation of the royalties policy has resulted in more than $1 billion extra being allocated to regional WA during the past two years. Not surprisingly, millions have been sunk into the party’s own electorates, with an expectation appreciative voters will do the right thing next time.

But big money is also being invested in electorates held by the major parties. And there are grounds for increasing nervousness across the political spectrum.

Labor especially has reason to worry. The first signs emerged when the party’s north-west MP Vince Catania jumped ship and joined the Nationals. Labor said he sold out. Mr Catania said he believed his constituents would get a better deal through his pragmatism. He could have added he would also stand a better chance of extending his political career.

But Mr Grylls has been tireless in his role as regional development minister, ensuring millions of extra dollars are earmarked for projects such as the Ord River stage two and the Pilbara Cities program. They are both great for their respective regions.

But the sitting members just happen to be Labor MPs. And while they would be pleased to see the money flowing in, they would be entitled to be just a tad nervous as to how voters will react at the next election.

Tom Stephens in the Pilbara seat and Carol Martin in the Kimberley are both long-term MPs. But voters have indicated they can be unsympathetic come polling day. Just ask Wilson Tuckey, who was dumped after 30 years in federal politics.

And that’s the point. It’s not just Labor seats that look like being under threat.

The Liberals’ Graham Jacobs was a narrow winner last time in Eyre. But he was a casualty of Colin Barnett’s recent cabinet reshuffle, and at the moment he’s licking his wounds. Should he decide to turn his back on politics, the Liberals would have an uphill job hanging onto the seat. The beneficiaries? Almost certainly the Nationals.

And don’t forget Independent MP John Bowler in Kalgoorlie. Driven out of the Labor cabinet and party last term by then premier Alan Carpenter after indiscretions revealed by the Corruption and Crime Commission, Mr Bowler continues to enjoy the backing of local voters.

He is now a de facto Nationals member, attending party meetings and generally assisting the party in its parliamentary strategy. Should he retire, that’s another seat the Nationals would be targeting.

The problem for Labor is that its party structure is a shadow of that which applied even 10 years ago. It has less union support and a weakened branch membership.

The Liberals are much stronger financially, and must be grateful to federal Labor’s ham-fisted resource tax strategy, which has boosted Liberal coffers, especially from the mid-level miners. Nevertheless the Nationals are nibbling around the edges.

A sign of the Nationals’ renewed confidence is the decision to delve into the vexed issue of gay and lesbian relationships. The party has prepared a draft Civil Partnerships Bill, which would allow gay and lesbian couples to register their relationships with the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

But it would not provide for gay marriage, which is a federal responsibility.

The Nationals in previous years would blanch at such an initiative, which is a political hot potato for the Liberals and Labor. No timetable has been set for the introduction of the bill, which would stand a good chance of passing the upper house, but could strike trouble in the assembly.

The Nationals probably don’t need such legislation to enhance their support, but it would be confirmation of the party’s growing stature in state politics.

Benefits for Bligh

IT’S an ill wind that blows nobody any good, according to the old saying. And Queensland Premier Anna Bligh would have to be a prime example.

Late last year her approval rating was languishing at just 28 per cent, well behind that of the opposition leader, John-Paul Langbroek.

Then came the devastating floods in the south of the state early in January, followed by Cyclone Yasi last week, and political fortunes have changed markedly.

Ms Bligh has taken a high media profile on both occasions, and been scored positively for her accessibility and understanding of the plight of thousands of Queenslanders. The reaction of her government has also been seen to be a plus.

At times it has seemed she’s been walking a fine line between hogging the limelight and performing the legitimate role of a premier doing the best for her people – but for her, so far so good.

It’s been a different story for Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She too has had a high profile on the issue but instant responses indicate that has yet to be reflected in a political bounce for her. It’s also appeared she’s been competing with her state counterpart.

The challenge for political leaders responding to natural disasters is ensuring that visits to damaged areas are driven by real concerns rather than just providing picture opportunities for the media. And when such trips are prolonged they can cause a significant diversion of resources, which should be devoted to the rebuilding effort.

Ms Gillard has also had a mixed reaction to the decision to impose a flood levy. She initially said there would be no extra fundraising for the recovery program, then changed her tune after running the prospect up the flagpole for public reaction. She then announced her plan for the levy to raise almost $2 billion in 2011-12.

It would have been better if the cabinet had met immediately after her first Queensland visit and moved on the levy promptly – after getting expert advice, of course. This would have coincided with more disturbing pictures on the damage and may well have won wider support. It would have helped the prime minister look decisive.

The reaction of Labor supporters to Ms Gillard is similar to that of cricket fans towards Australian batsman Michael Clarke. They are waiting for both to come good. The signs have improved for Clarke, and the jury is out on the prime minister.

But then who know who the beneficiary of the next ill wind will be?






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