12/09/2017 - 10:11

GST stoush drives WA-first push

12/09/2017 - 10:11


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OPINION: The idea of forming a new political party to run Senate candidates on a Western Australia-first platform appears to have come to a number of people at the same time.

GST stoush drives WA-first push
Nigel Satterley and other business leaders are backing a new party focused on lifting WA’s GST share.

The idea of forming a new political party to run Senate candidates on a Western Australia-first platform appears to have come to a number of people at the same time.

In April, it was reported that former leader of The Nationals WA Brendon Grylls was considering a run for the Senate (a claim he denied). In June, former Perth lord mayor and Labor Party member Chas Hopkins announced he was forming a new party to back his run for the Senate on a platform of securing a better deal for WA.

And this month, leading property developer Nigel Satterley announced he was part of a group of business leaders backing a new party to fight for an increase in WA’s GST share.

All have recognised the opportunity to ride the current wave of discontentment about GST policy to win one, and possibly two, Senate seats in WA at the next federal election.

There are two factors that have created a favourable environment for a new local party.

The first is that many Western Australians are upset about the state’s GST allocation, which has led to a widespread belief that WA is being treated unfairly.

The discontent began when the Barnett government started attacking its federal counterpart on GST, rather than accept responsibility for its own overspending.

The state Labor Party, which was then in opposition, could have called out the government on its overspending and budget miscalculations, but chose instead to further inflame the issue by agreeing that WA was being victimised.

Both federal leaders then weighed-in to the debate on the grievance side of the issue, further cementing the belief among Western Australians that WA is being treated unfairly, and increasing hostility to the federal government among voters in the west.

This has worked out very well for Bill Shorten, who has put forward a good solution that he does not have to implement (because he is not in government), and not so well for Malcolm Turnbull, who will take the blame.

The second factor is that the major political parties have been very successful at trashing each other’s brands while failing to strengthen their own. Negativism was developed into an art form by Tony Abbott ahead of the 2013 election and reached its apogee (or perhaps nadir) with Labor’s Mediscare campaign in the following election.

Only Mr Turnbull tried to run a positive message at the 2016 poll, and he was nearly undone by the overwhelming negativity of Mediscare.

Negative campaigning has turned every election into a contest to see which party can make the other lose more votes.

The effect of this is that the major parties have not given the electorate anything to vote for.

This has led to the rise of minor parties, whose diverse assortment of self-opinionated rhetoric, emotional outpourings and half-baked ideas has have given significant parts of the electorate something the major parties have failed to deliver – people who they think represent them.

Consequently, in recent elections, the party that has won government by winning the lower house has failed to win a majority in the Senate. The result has been that Australia is now governed by a collection of crackpots on the Senate’s crossbench.

The major parties could deal with this problem by preferencing each other so there would be a winner-take-all outcome, but so far they have not chosen to take that approach, thereby maintaining the fertile environment for minor parties.

While Labor is currently leading in the polls by a large margin, Mr Shorten has a lower ‘preferred prime minister’ rating than Mr Turnbull, whose own rating is low. That implies that people want to vote against Mr Turnbull rather than for his opponent, and it follows that many people will again be voting for minor parties at the next election.

In WA, the primary cause of discontentment is the allocation of GST, which creates an enormous opening for a new WA-first party.

It is not an opportunity for the Greens, which is a national party, or Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, which is a Queensland party. Those parties will each have a senator facing re-election in 2019 and they will probably be losers at the next election if a WA-first party can get its act together.

Only a party with 100 per cent WA DNA will be able to get the pro-WA vote.

As mentioned at the outset, some have sensed this opportunity to put their hands up to run for the Senate; others are considering it.

There could be a number of people leading small parties trying to capture this space and it could descend into the situation parodied in the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian, where the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, and the Judean Popular People’s Front fought each other instead of the Romans.

While a group of parties fighting each other, each claiming to be the true WA party, would make great television, the outcome would be a lottery.

A strong WA party needs to emerge, led and supported by respected people, and running good candidates.

One of the weaknesses of the major parties is that candidates are chosen from those who put themselves forward. This system puts the most ambitious (and sometimes the most ruthless) people into parliament, but not necessarily the most able.

Rather than call for candidates, the new party should recruit them; there are a number of high-profile people who would make very good candidates.

Typically, these people choose not to go into parliament because the party system works against them and because politics is not their calling; but this is a once-in-a-lifetime issue and they should be prevailed upon to make the commitment.

There are also some former state and federal members of parliament who would make good candidates.

A ticket with high quality, credible candidates will have the best chance of winning two Senate seats, and that should be the main objective of any new party.

• Simon Withers is a former investment banker


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