David never in the dark politically

WA’S February 10 election threatens the very future of Australia’s political leadership.

The WA election is the first one there has been for some time. The last election of note in Australia was that which heralded the end of the Kennett Government in Victoria.

Since that election, the GST has been introduced, Telstra has been partially privatised, Australia’s dollar plunged to record lows, petrol prices soared and Australia has a real chance of being free of Damir Dokic.

In that context, the battle between the Liberal and Labor parties in WA takes on national significance.

Veteran political commentator and Curtin University professor of history and politics David Black believes nobody knows what is going on in Australian politics because there has not been an election for so long.

“In the next 14 months there will be a Federal election, two state and two territory elections,” Prof. Black said.

“This is also the first election since One Nation had its problems. That party is probably stronger here than in Queensland.”

Prof. Black believes following elections is like following Test cricket closely.

“After some time you learn what makes a good captain and a good bowling attack. You learn when one side is on the defensive,” he said.

And Prof. Black has been following politics since 1946 when he was a primary schooler.

He believes history, probably his first love, and politics are intertwined.

“When I went to university I always intended to be a historian but I also had this strong interest in politics and elections,” Prof. Black said.

He became a schoolteacher specialising in english and history before joining the then WA Institute of Technology as a history and politics lecturer.

“The role actually called for a historian with an interest in politics, so I pretty much fitted the bill,” Prof. Black said.

He was soon contacted by ABC This Day Tonight compere Duncan Graham to comment on political issues and his political commentating career was born.

“In 1972 I graduated to election commentator for the ABC,” Prof. Black said.

That election was the one that swept Gough Whitlam to the head of the Federal Parliament.

Prof. Black has covered all the Federal elections since then until the ABC moved to its national coverage and has not missed a State election.

“I think little has changed in politics itself,” he said.

“What has changed is the technology available to election commentators. I can remember sitting there and trying to calculate percentages and preferences.

“These days you get masses of information on swings and polling figures and projections.

“In the old days, the ABC used to show a bit of the election coverage and then cut away to a Bing Crosby movie. These days the coverage is continuous – at least for the ABC.”

Prof. Black said media coverage of politics and elections had changed the public’s focus on politics.

“The media highlights politics so much now. There has always been cynicism about politics but I think the media focus has increased it,” he said.

“Part of the way you get to be the leader of a political party now depends on how you handle the media. In the old days, political leaders were often those that worked hard in the party rooms.

“There has been a criticism that Australians are politically naïve, particularly when compared to Americans.

“But here we have compulsory voting that attempts to involve the whole community in the political process. In the US there are whole sections of the community that don’t vote.”

Prof. Black said little happened in elections these days that he had not seen before.

“What confronts Labor now is very similar to what it faced in 1983. Except in ’83 it needed a swing of nine seats and this time it needs a swing of 11,” he said.

“But then Labor had a dynamic leader in Brian Burke.

“There are some elections where you just know people want something exciting to happen.

It was like that when Whitlam won in ’72 and Burke in ’83.

“This election is not like that. People say it is a choice between Court and Gallop but I think it’s more about a choice between the teams they represent.

“Most of Gallop’s team is virtually unknown except for former Labor leader Jim McGinty and strong characters such as Alannah MacTiernan.

“And Court’s team is not looking too flash with Doug Shave, John Day and Kevin Prince all having a bad time of it lately.

“Labor could win this election but probably won’t. They’re ahead in all the polls but there’s a big task ahead.

“Australian polls are usually very reliable but they only tell how many votes a party is going to get – not how many seats they will win.

“To me, Labor is too close to the Coalition. They will have to convince people to vote the government out.

“Yet at the same time the Coalition is trading on its record. Parties that do that traditionally lose because they sound like they’ve run out of ideas.”

Prof. Black believes the presence of three independents in Liz Constable, Phillip Pendal and Larry Graham could create a hung parliament – something that has not happened in WA for some time.

“And if Doug Shave loses, Labor could have the numbers to hold a minority government,” he said.

“It is a worry to me that Larry Graham’s seat was the one Labor won most convincingly in the last election and Constable and Pendal’s seats are two Liberal strongholds.”

Prof. Black said the days of people voting along traditional party lines were dwindling, particularly among younger voters. The amount of choice available on the ballot sheets was part of the reason for this.

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