22/06/2004 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny -State Scene: State poll’s power balance

22/06/2004 - 22:00


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Geoff Gallop-led Labor goes into the coming State election fully aware that it gained power in February 2001 largely because of one Liberal minister’s mismanagement, as well as misfortune in the case of the Nationals.

State poll’s power balance


Geoff Gallop-led Labor goes into the coming State election fully aware that it gained power in February 2001 largely because of one Liberal minister’s mismanagement, as well as misfortune in the case of the Nationals.

The Liberals’ major debilitating factor was the inability of senior minister, Doug Shave, to police shifty fast-money men who were conning retirees out of their life’s assets.

Compounding this was the Coalition ministry’s inability to steer an electorally acceptable course through the conflicting stands of the forestry sector and increasing numbers of urban voters wanting greater preservation, irrespective of the cost to South West townships and communities.

A more competent leadership would have removed Mr Shave from his portfolio and navigated its way through the forests issue.

The Nationals, however, encountered bad luck.

Well ahead of that election, the still new One Nation – initially a Queensland and east coast phenomenon – was already having an impact across Western Australia’s conservative voter ranks.

The major reason was that One Nation’s leader, Pauline Hanson, was mouthing anti-Coalition sentiments often similar to those made over a decade earlier by former Nationals Queensland premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

It’s worth recalling that Sir Joh was the central figure during 1987 of the Coalition-bashing ‘Joh for PM’ campaign that so severely crippled the then Howard-led Liberals and Nationals at that year’s national election.

To have One Nation surfacing, especially in rural WA electorates, on top of Mr Shave’s bungling and the forests issue meant a conservative electoral slump was assured.

In aggregate WA’s Nationals saw their already small but regionally concentrated voter base slashed by nearly half.

In February 2001 they attracted just 3.3 per cent of the statewide vote, compared with 5.8 per cent at the previous election.

This huge slice of their support base meant they lost the seat of Collie to Labor and won just one upper house seat.

Moreover, pro-One Nation sentiment had also penetrated Liberal ranks, especially in the bush, meaning many backers actually preferenced Labor or Greens candidates after first voting One Nation, something the latter was urging as a response to the conservative ‘put One Nation last’ ploy.

Clearly, rightist One Nation severally disrupted unity of purpose on the conservative side of Western Australian politics.

It’s little wonder Labor gained several marginal lower house seats it hadn’t expected.

Although the One Nation phenomenon meant three of its candidates – Paddy Embry, Frank Hough and John Fischer – won upper house seats, it never gained the prized balance of power in that powerful chamber, meaning the Hansonite vision for WA couldn’t be realised.

Even though we’re still six, perhaps eight months out from the coming election, it’s nevertheless worth asking how things may pan out this time around for Messrs Embry, Hough and Fischer, as well as the conservative side generally.

From One Nation’s standpoint the news since 2001 has been terrible.

As well as failing to gain the balance of power in the upper house that year, Mr Embry resigned early from their ranks. And last month Messrs Hough and Fischer also quit. For all intents and purposes One Nation no longer exists and probably faces deregistration because of its minuscule membership.

Mr Fischer’s  announcement that he and Mr Hough were resigning pulled no punches.

“Unfortunately there is a privately funded activist group that has managed to destabilise the lay party to the extent that members were unsure of their financial status,” he said.

“There has been rampant financial unaccountability within the State Party, and from those purporting to control national funds.

“From the last Federal election there has been an issue of over $400,000 – which I have demanded answers for – where has it gone. We shouldn’t need to go to court to find out the answer to this question.”

Despite the three resignations it’s certainly likely all three MPs will recontest their seats, meaning the upper house will probably revert to conservative control, not by a Labor-Green alliance as at present.

Moreover One Nation’s implosion is unlikely to disadvantage the conservative side because, and crucially, this time around the Liberal, National and former One Nation upper house teams will be exchanging preferences between themselves ahead of Labor and Greens candidates, something that didn’t happen in 2001.

Mr Embry will probably stand as an independent with an even chance of being returned with Liberal and/or National preferences.

Although Messrs Hough and Fischer’s chances are slimmer – far slimmer in Mr Hough’s case – both could, nevertheless, be returned.

But even if all three fail their seats will almost certainly all go to Liberal and/or Nationals candidates.

A look at the three One Nationers voting patterns shows they invariably sided with the Liberals and Nationals. What this means is that the conservatives are going into the coming election without a schism, and even if the three former One Nation MPs are returned, that’s not a problem for the right.

The big loser from all this rightist tranquillity and underlying unity is Dr Gallop. To make matters worse for him, Mr Shave has failed to gain Liberal endorsement despite doggedly fighting to redeem himself through the upper house. And Labor’s costly forests preservation program has meant Dr Gallop is without a rallying green issue to harp on about.

But there’s something else.

If all three, or two, or even just one of the One Nationers is returned, they or that one may well yet gain the upper house’s balance of power, so it’s still possible we’ll see what One Nation envisaged for WA but failed to bring about in 2001.

Furthermore, under such circumstances it matters little if Dr Gallop or Colin Barnett becomes premier. A single ex-One Nationer or the two or three of them holding the balance of power would mean they’d be calling the tune on legislation proposed either by a Labor or Coalition government.

Clearly, Pauline Hanson’s ghost still hovers over WA.


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