OPINION: The ball is in Malcolm Turnbull’s court if the Liberals want to shore up seats in WA.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his cabinet ministers will face a major fence-mending exercise to rebuild the Liberal Party vote when they make a rare visit to Perth next month.
The Liberals are still reeling from the flogging they received in the March state election, when Colin Barnett’s government was dumped after two terms, winning only 13 of the 59 Legislative Assembly seats.
If a similar vote were recorded in the next federal poll due by mid 2019, Western Australia’s Liberal representation in the House of Representatives would slump from 11 members out of 16, to just six (or worse).
As the accompanying table shows, three ministers are among those in the firing line: Ken Wyatt, who had a margin of just 2.1 per cent in his seat of Hasluck; Christian Porter, who held Pearce by 3.6 per cent; and Michael Keenan, who had 6.1 per cent up his sleeve in Stirling.
Also balancing precariously is the member for Swan, Steve Irons (3.6 per cent), and Canning MP Andrew Hastie (6.8 per cent).
The loss of these MPs would be a major blow for the party. Mr Porter, especially, has been earmarked for higher duties in Canberra, Mr Keenan has proved to be a safe pair of hands, and the youthful Mr Hastie (aged 34), who has a military background, is seen as a vital player in the party’s future.
The Liberals know that, after dominating the WA political scene since Mr Barnett led them back to power at the state level in 2008, the electoral pendulum has swung violently. So what can the party do?
It has embarked on a major advertising campaign, involving a costly six-figure investment, to promote the party’s commitment to issues such as defence industry projects and education spending. Critics believe that, while the defence allocation is miniscule compared with that for South Australia, it is heading in the right direction. More skilled jobs will result. That’s the relatively easy part.
The paltry 34 per cent of GST revenue generated in WA and returned to the state is still the party’s Achilles heel. Treasurer Scott Morrison, while making sympathetic noises, skirted around the issue during a recent visit to Perth. And he ruled out any change to the treatment of gambling taxes in the Commonwealth Grants Commission’s redistribution formula.
The point here is that, while mining royalties, which are a big revenue source in WA, are a key part in state revenue considered by the commission, gambling revenue, including from poker machines, is not. It’s an anomaly, but the treasurer has no stomach to change it. Coincidentally, gambling taxes (thanks to the widespread installation of poker machines) are far more lucrative in the populous states of Victoria, NSW and Queensland. And more voters represent more seats in parliament. Upset them at your peril.
Labor leader Bill Shorten will face the same dilemma should the opposition win the next poll and the problem remains. But he is desperate to fly below the radar for the time being, hoping a solution can be found.
Mr Turnbull could well pull a rabbit out of the hat and provide a big cash grant to help WA Labor’s first state budget in September. Another $500 million (equalling that granted to Mr Barnett’s government) would go down well, and would again be federal recognition of the miserable GST deal.
Any defence initiative would be well received, too. The stationing of naval vessels in the north-west has been talked about for years. In fact such a decision is probably overdue, given the activity of foreign navies in the Indian Ocean.
And the prime minister is committed to investing in the expanding capital cities to ensure they aren’t choked by growth. The concept of an inland harbour, which would ensure the Welshpool-Forrestfield area became a focal point for the efficient distribution of goods linked with container traffic, has been floated.
Coincidentally, this area also impinges on two federal Liberal marginal seats – Hasluck (Mr Wyatt) and Swan (Mr Irons). Such a decision would be a great campaigning point for the two MPs.
It’s wonderful when a strategy like this comes together. But it could be just too good to be true. Mr Turnbull, it’s over to you.