23/01/2015 - 04:50

McGowan sense political shift

23/01/2015 - 04:50

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State Labor is taking the fight to the government over its economic performance.

BUSY: Mark McGowan has his work cut out, despite the Barnett government’s failings.

Nearly two years has passed since the Labor Party received a monumental drubbing at the last state election.

The party took a big hit in Western Australia for two main reasons – for appearing out of touch with the electorate, and the unpopularity of Julia Gillard's government in Canberra, fuelled by its disastrous mining tax.

The result left the Liberals and Nationals with 38 seats in the Legislative Assembly, and Labor with just 21. On that basis, Labor would need two good election results to have any hope of winning in 2021. That would mean 13 years in the wilderness.

But the sands are shifting in WA politics and Labor is starting to think it's in with a chance at the next poll in 2017.

One reason is beyond the direct control of Premier Colin Barnett and his government; that is the slump in revenue caused by declining royalties and goods and services tax reimbursements.

However Labor leader Mark McGowan, who has just completed three years in the job, is not prepared to let the government off the hook.

Mr McGowan faces a challenging 12 months to position his party for the run-up to the next election. He says the government should have been prepared for the drop in revenue growth.

Identifying the economy as the big issue in 2015, Mr McGowan has zeroed in on the frequently used defence that the change was simply 'just another phase' in the WA economic cycle; the suggestion that, after prolonged growth there's always a slump, with unemployment a natural consequence.

"If it's not unusual then you should plan for it," Mr McGowan told Political Perspective.

"The boom and bust cycles have been there for a long time, and that means you should actually diversify.

"I don't like the fact that we seem to be suffering from the 'Dutch disease'; we have failed to diversify the economy in the good times and now we're going to pay for it when things are not as buoyant in the mining sector. That should have been planned for."

Unlike some past Labor leaders, Mr McGowan – a former Navy lawyer – is happy to promote his links with business.

"I have a great relationship with people across the business community, whether it's mining, agriculture ... I get on well with tourism, manufacturing, education services," he said.

Such confidence is a far cry from when a former senior Labor MP omitted plans for small business from his report at an ALP conference because, at the time, there was little rapport between that sector and the party.

Remember, it was Mr McGowan's transition to Labor leadership that allowed Mr Barnett to proceed with more relaxed retail trading hours, after the Nationals failed to lend support. And as a member of the Carpenter government in 2006 he introduced the changes that led to the emergence of small bars in Perth.

Perhaps Mr McGowan has been influenced by his upbringing in regional NSW. His father was a wool classer, a 'milko', and then a lawn-mowing contractor. Later he managed a squash court complex. No nine-to-five mentality there.

It's apparent that Labor, under Mr McGowan, will not go soft on the government as it seeks to repair the budget.

"When you blow your debt levels and increase your deficit in good economic times, you leave limited capacity when the economy turns down," he said. "And that's the big problem WA is about to face."

Traffic congestion and public transport, plus the big-spending areas of health and education, will also continue to be prominent.

WA Labor could be helped by the change in the federal government. Prime Minister Tony Abbott also has the challenge of budget repair – code for 'stiff medicine'. Not much room for sweeteners there, which won't help the Liberal cause.

On paper, Mr McGowan and WA Labor face a huge task to regain office. Labor's primary vote was a dismal 33.1 per cent at the last election, compared with 47.1 per cent for the Liberals. The last Newspoll had Labor's support unchanged, but Liberal backing had dropped to 34 per cent. And on a two-party preferred basis, the score was tied, 50:50.

So Labor needs a swing of about 9 per cent – before a boundary redistribution this year – to win an extra nine seats; a big ask. One senior Labor source says the departure of the Labor government in Canberra could help regain four state seats lost last time. And while that may seem an overly optimistic point of view, for the party, at any rate, there's hope.

On the question of who would make the better premier, Mr McGowan led Mr Barnett by one point.

With state parliament due to resume on February 17, the pressure will be on both leaders. Can Mr McGowan successfully exploit the difficult decisions Mr Barnett has to make? And can the premier satisfactorily explain why he is making them?

Game on.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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