19/08/2010 - 00:00

Contests hinge on grass-roots issues

19/08/2010 - 00:00


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The proposed mining tax was never going to be a winner in WA, and Liberal Party coffers are evidence of that, with the local branch kicking-in $1 million for the federal campaign.

THE Western Australian business sector has put its money where its mouth is in supporting the Liberal Party during the federal election campaign.

One reason is obvious. The Liberals are the traditional supporters of private sector, which backs the party financially. The level of support depends on the issues.

Thanks to federal Labor, there’s been one dominant issue for the WA economy – the proposed new mining tax.

It’s that prospect that has enabled the Liberals to run one of the best-resourced campaigns for years, with the mid-level miners especially, throwing open their wallets and donating in record amounts.

So generous have they been that the WA division was able to kick in $1 million to the party’s federal campaign. Serious consideration was given to donating even more before it was decided to keep the money at home, just in case.

Should Labor win a second term, the mining sector will obviously be disappointed. But other sectors could well benefit, especially those in the communications business.

Labor’s national broadband plan has come in for plenty of attention, partly due to its cost – an estimated $43 billion. That’s big money in anyone’s book, although it’s planned to be spent over eight years.

When Prime Minister Julia Gillard outlined Labor’s plan for WA early in the campaign, contractors who stood to gain had mixed views. Some I spoke to said they were Liberal voters, but they were also firm supporters of the NBN. Naturally their businesses would benefit directly from the installation program.

But they also pointed to the projected benefits for communication once it was installed.

By comparison, the Liberal broadband plan is modest, giving the private sector a much greater role, and giving market forces a much greater influence in the rate at which the new technology is implemented.

It’s clear that any hopes Labor had of picking up key marginal seats in WA have been dealt a major blow by the planned mining tax. In short it’s electoral poison for Labor in the nation’s major resource state.

Recent opinion polls have strengthened the Liberal grip on the two key marginal seats in Perth’s northern suburbs. Barring some major gaffe in the last 24 hours of the campaign, Michael Keenan in Stirling and Luke Simpkins in Cowan can start packing their bags for another term each in Canberra.

But the three marginal seats in the eastern suburbs, stretching out along Albany Highway, and south to Pinjarra and Mandurah, are still of interest.

Both major parties have left no stone unturned, with personal ads even being run on prime time television. Party campaign managers know how quickly they soak up the cash.

Swan is a battle between the incumbent, Liberal Steve Irons, and his Labor challenger, lawyer Tim Hammond. Mr Irons has run a low-key grassroots campaign, and has received significant funds from the mining sector, angry at the proposed tax.

Although nominally behind on 2007 voting figures based on a recent redistribution of boundaries, Mr Irons is considered to have the edge in what could be one of the closest contests of the election.

Sharryn Jackson regained Hasluck for Labor three years ago, but that seat too is on a knife-edge, with a big proportion of fly-in, fly-out workers tipped to show their displeasure with the mining tax idea.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been thrown into the campaign for the adjoining seat of Canning, with Liberal Don Randall fighting a major challenge from former state Labor minister Alannah MacTiernan. Mr Randall’s war chest has been helped by a $1,000-a-plate fund raising lunch to hear former prime minister, John Howard.

Another contest to watch, although it won’t change the government, is in O’Connor where veteran Liberal Wilson Tuckey is fighting off the Nationals Tony Crook, who will be helped by Labor preferences.

There will be no uniform swings in this election. WA and Queensland are fertile ground for the Liberals, just as Victoria and South Australia will be strong for Labor. So NSW, which has been traditionally good for Labor, but where the Labor state government is on the nose, will be crucial.

There’s a real possibility that WA business may have backed a winner in what promises to be a very tight finish.

Leadership rumblings

THERE’S growing speculation that the WA Labor Party will have a new leader by the end of the year.

Current leader Eric Ripper has held the job since Alan Carpenter quit after Labor’s disastrous early state election in 2008.

Mr Ripper was seen to be a safe pair of hands; and that’s how it has turned out.

He’s used his experience from 22 years as an MP, including eight years as both deputy premier and treasurer, to provide stability and help a shattered parliamentary party regroup.

In addition he’s fostered the next generation of Labor frontbenchers, giving them more responsibility and providing guidance where required.

But one thing he hasn’t been able to do is dent the standing of the premier, Colin Barnett, or convince the electorate that the Liberal-National alliance is incompetent, despite question marks over the ability of some of its junior ministers.

With the resumption of parliament after the winter recess several Labor frontbenchers, especially Ben Wyatt (treasury), Mark McGowan (state development), Paul Papalia (local government) and Roger Cook (health), have taken higher profiles.

Mr Wyatt, in particular, has been very frisky in debate, seeking to mix it with the premier on economic issues.

At times he’s been pointed, accusing Mr Barnett of arrogance in his approach to savage increases in household charges.

The premier linked the new-found vigour in the opposition to the approaching federal election. State Labor was doing the bidding of Julia Gillard and federal Labor.

But National Party minister Terry Waldron cut to the chase after one Wyatt contribution, saying: “Sounds like a speech for Labor leadership”.

Jandakot Liberal MP Joe Francis pushed the issue along, suggesting that after the federal poll, state Labor would implode over the leadership issue.

What’s more likely is that Labor will wait until after the Armadale by-election on October 2 to seriously consider the top job, and who it wants to take the party to the next election in 2013, when Mr Ripper will be 62.

While he has been a steadying influence, Labor is badly in need of renewal. That means it must look at the next generation to take up the baton. Watch out for more jostling among the ‘young Turks’ in the months ahead.

• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV's state political reporter.






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