22/07/2010 - 00:00

Don’t take the west for granted

22/07/2010 - 00:00

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It may have only 15 seats in a 150-seat federal parliament, but WA could still play a determining role in the August election.

Don’t take the west for granted

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard obviously thinks she’s done enough in the past three weeks to get her Labor government back on track, otherwise she would not have called the August 21 election.

But neither she, nor her Liberal counterpart, Tony Abbott, should take Western Australia for granted. There are too many key issues in play for that.

WA might have only 15 federal seats – split 11 to four in favour of the Liberals – in a 150-seat parliament, but in a close poll they could be decisive.

Ms Gillard has identified three big issues that she’s tried to neutralise as negatives for Labor in an election campaign. She’s come up with new approaches; but she’d be wrong to think they won’t still affect how people vote.

The first is the new tax on the mining industry. After Kevin Rudd’s disastrous resource super profits tax plan, which pushed Labor’s support, and his career, south, Ms Gillard has come up with the minerals resource rent tax, with the support of the country’s three major miners.

But a big chunk of the rest of the industry still feels it has been ignored, including middle-tier companies and those planning to mine magnetite deposits in the Mid West. They say they shouldn’t be included in the new tax’s catchment. Don’t think we’ve heard the last of that.

The asylum seekers issue remains a potential time bomb. Never mind the relatively small number involved. There’s no hint of a bipartisan approach on this humanitarian issue and so the debate will continue on how to reduce the number of boats heading for Australia.

Turning them around on the high seas sounds good, but few believe it’s a realistic option.

And offshore processing? None of our neighbours is rushing to embrace the plan with East Timor, seen initially by Ms Gillard as the best option, seeming less than enthusiastic. The government says a solution could still be some way off, with the first processing centre not being ready for several years.

More asylum seekers are being housed in WA, with Curtin, in the Kimberley, and Leonora in the eastern Goldfields, close to full capacity. The federal government is keeping its options open on other locations, such as the old Northam army camp, should they be required.

Neither side is convincing on this issue.

Climate change also remains a problem for the government. Labor talked it up as the ‘barbecue stopper’, then dropped it when it looked too hard. Many voters became disillusioned over the change of heart.

Another issue that resonates in WA is health, and here Premier Colin Barnett seems to be on the side of the angels with his refusal to sign up to the federal hospital agreement. Under this plan, $450 million of federal money would flow into WA public hospitals over the next four years to help in areas such as elective surgery and emergency departments.

On paper it’s too good to knock back. But the premier says the requirement to hand over one-third of the state’s revenue from the goods and services tax to Canberra is non-negotiable. And so far most Western Australians seem to agree. So that’s another problem for the PM.

A month ago Labor was facing a wipeout in WA, with polls showing that the only seat it could retain was Fremantle. Mr Rudd’s dumping, and careful fence mending by his successor, has helped to essentially restore Labor’s local vote.

Realistically, only a handful of WA seats are in play. But they could be vital with the Liberals hoping to make big inroads in both Queensland and NSW, where the state Labor government is on the nose. If Labor’s vote is down in NSW, which has about one-third of the federal seats, the government will be struggling.

That’s why the major parties would be unwise not to deal decisively with the issues affecting the WA vote. It could decide who gets the keys to The Lodge in Canberra for the next three years.

Keating critique

PAUL Keating’s explosive response to references to him in Blanche d’Alpuget’s biography of her husband, Bob Hawke, should have come as no surprise.

Ms d’Alpuget’s suggestions that Mr Hawke effectively mentored Keating in the early years of the Labor government, and references to the former treasurer’s lack of a university education, predictably went down like a lead balloon with the one-time member for Blaxland.

It should be remembered that, although 14 years Mr Hawke’s junior, Mr Keating was no political novice when Labor was elected in 1983.

He had already been an MP for 14 years, a minister– briefly – in the Whitlam government, opposition spokesman for minerals and energy, and state president of the Labor Party in NSW. Certainly he was new to the treasurer’s portfolio. But very few of his colleagues had any experience in government, including Mr Hawke.

But Mr Keating always had his eyes on the top job, and others, including overseas, were already watching him closely.

I had some dealings with him while reporting on state politics in Sydney in the late 1970s. On one occasion, in 1979, he invited me to lunch in a Chinese restaurant in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown, near his electorate office. “Bring your notebook,” he said.

During a wide-ranging discussion, Labor’s leadership was raised. Bill Hayden was attempting to rebuild federal Labor after two election wipeouts, but as far as NSW Labor was concerned, he never really cut the mustard. And he had an independent streak, which was regarded with suspicion in NSW.

The name Hawke was mentioned, and the wisdom of him transferring from the ACTU presidency to Canberra, via a safe seat, was canvassed. Mr Keating seemed partial to the move, but then I put it to him that he could be the next leader after Mr Hayden, regardless of Mr Hawke.

He looked at me, shook his head and said: “No, time is on my side,” with a suspicion of a glint in his eyes.

And others were already watching him. On a visit to Tokyo the next year, I was a lunch guest of the giant Japanese trading house, Marubeni. After I had asked my questions, the topic turned to Australian politics, and eventually, the federal Labor leadership.

I said some doubted whether Mr Hayden was a long-term leader, and both Mr Hawke and the then NSW premier Neville Wran were considered possible successors, if they could get a safe seat.

“What about Mr Keating?” a Marubeni executive asked me, out of the blue.

“Yes, he’s a future leader, for sure,” I said.

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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