19/03/2013 - 23:56

Labor faces challenge of relevance

19/03/2013 - 23:56


Save articles for future reference.

Labor needs to get back to basics in WA, reinvigorating its image and getting boots on the ground.

Labor needs to get back to basics in WA, reinvigorating its image and getting boots on the ground.

IT’S always easy to be wise after the event, and there’s no shortage of advice for the Labor Party after its state election drubbing, which is exactly what it was.

Labor’s regional hero, Peter Watson, who defied the odds and won Albany for a fourth time, criticised his party’s candidate-selection process, saying it endorsed the advancement of “union hacks” for safe seats. The former postmaster says Labor should have wider community representation.

Former Labor MLC and party state secretary John Halden described its election platform as a “one trick pony”. All the eggs were placed in the Metronet basket, and you can’t hope to win an election like that.

Martin Whitely, who stood down from his safe seat of Bassendean in favour of United Voice secretary and left faction leader Dave Kelly, also called for a wider choice of candidates. A former schoolteacher, he’s nominating for the party’s Senate ticket.

Former minister and current Mayor of Vincent, Alannah MacTiernan, didn’t pull her punches. She said it was all Julia Gillard’s fault, and the sooner the prime minister goes the better.

The rule of thumb in state and federal elections is that no party can expect to win government unless its percentage vote has a four in front of it. And even there there’s no certainty.

At the state poll, Labor’s lower house vote was 33.2 per cent, or 2.7 per cent below support at the 2008 election. That compares with 47.1 per cent for the Liberals (up 8.7 per cent) and 6 per cent (up 1.2 per cent) for the Nationals.

The Greens vote was 8.3 per cent, which was a drop of 3.6 per cent. This was bad not only for the Greens but also for Labor, which has traditionally been a beneficiary of Greens’ preferences.

So let’s look at how the criticisms of the four prominent Labor members shape up.

Mr Watson says there are too many “union hacks”. The danger here is to tar every former union official in parliament as a “hack”. Would that also include Bob Hawke, who was president of the ACTU throughout the 1970s?

Does the term include Dave Kelly in Bassendean, and also former Unions WA secretary, Simone McGurk in Fremantle, or was he referring to the upper house where the major parties reward ‘loyal service’, out of the glare of public scrutiny the lower house attracts?

Presumably, given Labor’s origins, some union officials should graduate to political careers; and Mr Kelly and Ms McGurk are two of the more prominent from within union ranks.

A glance through ABC election analyst Antony Green’s election pendulum for Western Australia shows that, of members in Labor’s 10 safest seats before the election, only one — Fran Logan in Cockburn - had been a union official.

Former state ALP president Roger Cook and former state secretary Bill Johnston hold two other safe seats, Kwinana and Cannington, respectively.

Other members in the 10 safest seats include three ex-servicemen - the leader Mark McGowan (Rockingham) and Paul Papalia (Warnbro) from the Navy, and Peter Tinley (Willagee) from the SAS - and three lawyers: Ben Wyatt (Victoria Park); Margaret Quirk (Girrawheen); and Tony Buti (Armadale).

David Templeman, who polled strongly to retain Mandurah, was a schoolteacher.

Three of WA’s four Labor senators were union officials. They are Chris Evans, Mark Bishop and Glenn Sterle.

That ratio will be maintained if Joe Bullock from the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association of WA succeeds in ousting his former union colleague, Senator Bishop, from Labor’s ticket.

A unionist is also a frontrunner to fill the casual vacancy caused by Senator Evans’ pending retirement. Mr Whitely’s hopes of selection depend on party officials acknowledging it’s time to send a signal to voters that they are aware of the slide in party appeal and cast the selection net wider. It’s a long shot.

Mr Halden said Labor placed too much reliance on Metronet as a vote winner. Once Treasury’s costings of the project challenged the accuracy of Labor’s budgeted figure, it started to lose its shine, and there was no big back-up vote winner.

In fact John Hyde, who suffered a 10 per cent swing to lose the previously safe seat of Perth, says dumping projects like the new museum to help fund Metronet cost him votes. It sent the message that Labor did not care about the inner city.

Ms MacTiernan’s claim that it’s all Ms Gillard’s fault is a bit harsh because the prime minister acceded to Mr McGowan’s request and, along with most of her ministers, stayed away from WA during the campaign. But the unwritten message is that the PM is electoral poison for Labor in the west. Let’s see how she is received at the community cabinet meeting in the marginal federal seat of Hasluck later this month before rushing to judgment.

What is undeniable is that Labor must face up to the challenges posed by the election result or risk terminal decline. Two issues must be tackled immediately, and the critics touched on them.

The Liberals generally select candidates from their local communities, and that’s what Labor must do. Journalist Reece Whitby was a very presentable Labor candidate, but to take him out of Cottesloe and impose him on Morley voters in Labor’s heartland was too big an ask. It backfired twice.

Troy Buswell has great glee in reminding Cockburn’s Mr Logan that he lives in leafy Swanbourne. But Mr Logan is not alone. Other Labor MPs also represent the outer suburbs from their inner-city addresses.

You can only get away with that for so long.

Little wonder Mr McGowan makes a virtue of living in his electorate of Rockingham.

Labor’s policies need a facelift. The party learned nothing from the spectacular failure in 2008 when, in the last week of the campaign, it hammered its opposition to uranium mining and genetically modified crops. The issues failed to resonate.

The uranium-mining ban had a low profile this time but the GM issue resurfaced, especially in the seat of Warren-Blackwood, held by Terry Redman, for the Nationals. As agriculture minister, Mr Redman had supported a trial of GM crops, so Labor decided to withhold its preferences and direct them to his Liberal opponent instead. After trailing early, Mr Redman retained the seat.

And whether it’s ‘privatisation’ or ‘contracting out’, the union campaign against Liberal policy on staffing the Fiona Stanley and other new hospitals appeared to have only limited impact.

Safeguarding the rights of low-income workers is a given for Labor, but not enough to get a percentage primary vote with a four in front of it.

Labor must challenge the Liberals for the middle ground with strong local community-based candidates and fresh policies. Otherwise it’s destined for a long stay in the political wilderness.



Subscription Options