19/10/2004 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Liberal bright sparks look for election edge

19/10/2004 - 22:00

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With so many aspirational voters in Western Australia – to use Mark Latham’s borrowed term – deserting Labor on October 9 it’s little wonder Geoff Gallop’s boffins are reassessing his provisional plan to call a December 2004 State election.

With so many aspirational voters in Western Australia – to use Mark Latham’s borrowed term – deserting Labor on October 9 it’s little wonder Geoff Gallop’s boffins are reassessing his provisional plan to call a December 2004 State election.

What they’ll consider before deciding on whether to stick with December 4 or go months later – an election could be called as late as April 2005 – are similarities and differences between Dr Gallop and Mr Latham.

And while they’re at it they’ll make similar comparisons between Liberals John Howard and Colin Barnett.

After all that has been fully canvassed they’ll be better placed to consider how voters may assess State Labor’s record and what the conservative coalition may counter with.

State Scene is curious about such assessments because of a remark made just before Federal election day by an insightful State Liberal MP.

I asked if he thought Dr Gallop would opt for December 4.

“Geoff is caught between a Mark and a spark,” the poetically-inclined smiling MP replied.

I quickly learned that this meant things depended on how Mark Latham’s performance looked after transposing Federal voting patterns onto State seats.

The reference to a “spark”, I next discovered, was shorthand for WA’s expected perilous summer electricity supply situation.

Labor fears Western Power may be unable to provide uninterrupted electricity supply between December and March.

“If the lights flicker just once over summer,” the MP added, “Geoff’s dead in the water at an early 2005 election.”

Dr Gallop and Labor’s master tactician, Attorney-General Jim McGinty, know this, which explains why Western Power has stocked up with bunker fuel and negotiated what’s called ‘energy demand’ management deals.

These deals provide the ability to cut off power at short notice to large industrial users if Western Power needs to ensure households can keep air-conditioners operating.

The Gallop-McGinty duo also knows the fate of former California Democratic governor Gray Davis, who lost out to Austrian-born body builder, Hollywood star, and Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, following California’s 2001 ‘spark’ crisis. That said, one can’t help sympathising with Dr Gallop since Labor didn’t create WA’s potential energy bottleneck.

That’s arisen because, when he was energy minister, Mr Barnett sold-off the Pilbara-to-South West gas pipeline to Epic Energy for an exorbitant $2.4 billion.

That meant Epic couldn’t finance boosting the once government-owned pipeline’s capacity to meet WA’s growing gas needs.

Clearly, Labor would regard it as a huge political injustice if Mr Barnett emulated governor Schwarzenegger’s political achievement because of glitches in producing “sparks”.

But Messrs Gallop and McGinty know full well that aspirational voters wouldn’t be sitting around debating the 2001 shortsighted Barnett Epic sale if air-conditioners weren’t working over summer 2004-05.

Voters would simply dispatch Labor like Californians dispatched governor Gray, meaning Mr Barnett would become premier.

Thus, having lots of bunker fuel on standby in case there’s inadequate energy due to delays in Pilbara gas flows was Labor’s only alternative.

And that’s why a February 2005 election was being discarded for a December 2004 one.

But the Latham performance was so disastrous for Labor that three ministers – Bob Kucera, Michelle Roberts and Alannah MacTiernan – would lose their seats if it’s repeated at State level.

So the next question to ask is whether that is likely.

Here the prognostication for Dr Gallop seems far better, largely because he’s no Mark Latham and Mr Barnett is far from being a John Howard.

Moreover, Dr Gallop is the incumbent, so he’ll have all the advantages Mr Howard had, not the other way around.

Dr Gallop doesn’t have the same strange personality as Mr Latham.

Although pundits have highlighted that many electors voted Liberal because of interest rates, significant numbers shied away from Labor because of Mr Latham’s strange attraction to use of aggressive and crude language.

State Scene last highlighted this on August 19 and pointed out that senior Labor figures such as WA’s Kim Beazley and Stephen Smith worked overtime coaxing Mr Latham away from his deep attachment to the aggressive style of his two former bosses and mentors, Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating.

Notwithstanding those belated Beazley-Smith efforts, enough voters perceived that Labor’s new leader had a far from mellow character, and this impacted markedly upon the Federal election’s outcome.

Fortunately for WA Labor Dr Gallop has a vastly different temperament.

Moreover, he’s disassociated his government from predecessor Labor’s WA Inc reputation and he’s even instructed ministers not to have contact with former Labor Premier Brian Burke.

Dr Gallop is from rather genteel upper middle-class origins.

His father was a company secretary, so he has none of the Latham-style chip on his shoulder about hailing from a poor background.

True, Gallop-led Labor has failed to enthuse WA voters in the way  that Labor’s Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and South Australian Premier Mike Rann have done.

However, Dr Gallop’s relationship with parliamentary colleagues is miles ahead of Mr Barnett due, in part, to the latter having failed to fully involve  some members of his frontbench.

Unlike John Howard, who Federal Liberal MPs see as deserving of their party’s leadership, many State Liberal MPs see Mr Barnett as holding his position only because there’s presently no-one else within their ranks.

Which leaves the Gallop-McGinty duo in moderately comfortable territory and having to stand just on their performance, their record, since February 2001.

That record includes: virtually abolishing WA’s timber industry; failing to give the go-ahead for a new privately built northern tourist town at Mauds Landing; an additional billion dollar tax slug upon Western Australians; a hardly-commenced Perth-Mandurah railway that’ll intrude into the CBD via the Narrows Bridge without sinking the ugly and intrusive century-old Perth-Fremantle railway line that scares the capital’s precinct; and little more.

Whenever the election is called – and State Scene still suspects it will be December 4 because going in the wake of the Latham defeat would be less disastrous than after a black-out – unfortunately it’s shaping-up to being one in which the winner will be the leader and party that voters least dislike.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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