02/12/2010 - 00:00

NSW next stop on Liberal train

02/12/2010 - 00:00


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Colin Barnett may have some surprise fellow travellers at the next COAG meeting.

THE Victorian election result shows that the political pendulum is well and truly swinging; and the significance for Western Australia should not be underestimated.

No-one would be happier outside Victoria than WA’s premier, Colin Barnett, who has had to play a lone hand alongside all the other Labor premiers in dealings with the federal government on state matters.

And no-one would be more disappointed than the Greens, who had been tipped to poll well, and even pick up several seats.

The big swing to the Liberals in Victoria, against a Labor government widely acknowledged as well led and generally competent, took just about all but diehard Liberal supporters by surprise.

But it continued a trend that first emerged in the WA elections in 2008, despite the defeat of Alan Carpenter’s Labor government being widely attributed to electorate cynicism over his going to the polls six months early, and one of the most inept campaigns anyone can remember.

The drift from Labor was confirmed in the federal poll earlier this year, but it was only there if you were looking for it. Labor’s vote was softest in the resources states of WA and Queensland, which was explained away by a backlash against the proposed new resources tax.

The Liberals and Nationals failed to make big inroads in the federal vote in Victoria. Yet within five months, Victorian voters have punished their state Labor government.

Premier John Brumby put on a brave face on election night and refused to concede defeat, when all the evidence pointed to him heading for the opposition benches.

There will be all sorts of analysis as to the reasons for the Victorian vote. State issues obviously are the main factor, but the lack of direction coming from federal Labor in Canberra cannot be ruled out either.

And if that’s not bad enough for Labor, there is a date in 2011 for which the party will be bracing. That is March 26, when NSW goes to the polls. It’s widely conceded that voters have been waiting for that election for some time, anxious to tip out a government that has become inept, arrogant and out of touch.

If it goes according to expectations, NSW will join Victoria and WA as ‘non-Labor states’, a formidable bloc indeed at Council of Australian Government meetings, where Prime Minister Julia Gillard hopes to push through controversial reforms.

It’s one thing for a federal Labor government to impose changes on premiers who are all, bar one, on the same side; especially when the lone voice is WA. That can be explained away by the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ principle.

It’s another when the seemingly ‘maverick’ state is joined by the two most populous states.

Colin Barnett’s main beef with the federal government has been linked with its hospital reform program, or more precisely how to fund it.

The sticking point has been Canberra’s insistence that WA hand over 30 per cent of its GST revenue, along with the other states, in return for the Commonwealth taking major responsibility for public hospital funding. Mr Barnett’s has been a lone voice of resistance, saying the state will not hand over GST revenue to anyone. He’s happy for it to go into a joint fund with the Commonwealth, but there will be no ‘handover’.

Previously the premier has expressed concern about WA’s declining share of its GST contribution, thanks to strong revenue flows from the resources boom, and the Commonwealth Grants Commission formula. Currently the share is 68 cents in the dollar, but Mr Barnett has flagged in parliament a sharp further decline to 43 cents in the dollar within four years unless the formula is changed.

Throw in the premier’s blanket rejection of the planned resources tax, and the battle lines are clearly drawn.

That’s why he would be more than happy for Ted Baillieu to join him at the COAG table, as a likely ally. And from next April, barring a major calamity, Barry O’Farrell will be joining them as the newly elected NSW Liberal premier.

That doesn’t mean that their best interests will always coincide. But it will mean that if Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan want a deal with the states, they will have to work harder to get the Liberal premiers to fall into line.

The other lesson from the Victorian poll relates to the Greens. They won the House of Representatives seat of Melbourne at the federal election, and had been tipped to win at least two state seats. But they were left winless.

When Mr Baillieu announced the Liberals would give preferences to Labor ahead of the Greens, it was widely seen as a naive decision. Remember, the Greens have polled almost as well in blue ribbon Liberal seats as in their heartland – inner-city seats, which have been traditional Labor strongholds.

Mr Ballieu explained his move by saying that the Greens and the Liberals have little in common over a wide range of issues – from economic to social policies – therefore no Liberal preferences.

One reason for the move was to bring home to traditional Liberals thinking of giving the Greens their first preference that, if they bothered to look, they’d find a huge gulf in policies. The Liberal strategists didn’t want supporters to help elect Greens MPs, purely and simply on their environmental credentials.

Far from attracting a backlash against the Liberals on polling day, some strategists were praising the preference decision as a political masterstroke. They are even suggesting the Greens vote may now have peaked, and that the tide of support the party has enjoyed in recent years might be on the wane.

The Gillard government is now facing the same situation that John Howard had to grapple with during most of his prime ministership. He was often the only Liberal leader around the COAG table, having to deal with a host of state and territory Labor leaders. Judging by the post COAG news conferences Mr Howard chaired, he did it effectively.

That is something Ms Gillard and Mr Swan may have to emulate if they want further reforms endorsed by the states.

Mr Barnett has had no qualms digging in his heels on some proposed changes, even if his has been a lone voice. Now it seems he will have formidable support from his own side of politics the next time the leaders meet.

The Victorian result will be a jolt for federal Labor. Canberra would be wise to reassess its planned reforms and work harder on Commonwealth-state cooperation – rather than confrontation – as the political pendulum swings.

• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV’s state political reporter.





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