Nationals lead the way in big ideas

30/07/2009 - 00:00


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The defection of Vince Catania is a sign of the Nationals’ growing stature in WA politics.

POLITICS in Western Australia tends to tumble along in a fairly steady, predictable, and largely unimaginative manner.

There are the major parties - Labor and Liberal - both controlled by power-seeking cliques, so they've been steadily attracting fewer members and voters.

There's also Nationals WA, which still has a moderately healthy membership but was in long-term decline with regard to parliamentary representation.

The steady fall-off in Labor and Liberal electoral support is accompanied by a voter drift towards the Greens, especially from the former, and towards parties such as the Christian Democrats and Family First, plus independents, from the latter.

But something quite unusual happened last week.

Lower house MP, Vince Catania, resigned from the Labor Party to join Nationals WA.

"I've canvassed my electorate and one thing's quite clear, they all want Royalties for Regions," Mr Catania said. "What we've found is the Labor Party ... has a city-centric view on policies that does not reflect regional WA.

"Let me make it clear, this is not about Vince Catania. This is about delivering.

"People in regional WA are tired of fighting for basic services and infrastructure."

Among other things, the Catania resignation has turned the spotlight onto the long-time downward trend both major parties have been experiencing.

It has also demonstrated that Nationals leader, Brendon Grylls, is far and away the state's most adept and imaginative politician.

Although Labor leader Eric Ripper has a worthy record as treasurer and resources minister, he's shown little imagination in the party political realm.

For instance, he's failed to launch a major reform initiative that could revive Labor, WA's oldest party.

The same applies to the Liberals, where Colin Barnett is not only premier by default, but leader of his declining party for the same reason.

Mr Barnett is a walking double accident.

He became leader only because his now treasurer, Troy Buswell, was involved in a silly prank that threatened to leave the Liberals with about eight lower house seats.

And Mr Barnett became premier only because Labor's least competent leader ever, Alan Carpenter, was completely out of his depth as a politician and called an unnecessary early election.

Nothing Mr Barnett has done throughout his entire political career could lead one to even suspect he's imaginative.

What of Mr Grylls?

When he became Nationals leader his party was heading for demise with perhaps just two members likely in the next lower house and only one in the other chamber.

Mr Grylls believed this state of affairs had arisen largely because the Nationals were viewed as an ailing appendage of the moribund Liberals.

He rightly concluded something radical needed to be done.

Among his first moves in that direction was to meet and consult with Queensland Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce, and South Australian Nationals lower house member, Karlene Maywald, her party's only member in the South Australian parliament.

Interestingly, Mrs Maywald has been Minister for the River Murray and Water Security since 2004 in a Mike Rann-led Labor government.

However, her ministerial post rests upon a signed agreement with Labor under which she has the right to vote against any government initiative she believes would unacceptably affect her electorate or the business sector.

True, it's an atypical relationship, but one that seems to be working well.

No-one could allege South Australia has had unstable governance.

Quite the contrary, Mr Rann is seen as an effective leader with the Liberal Party struggling to present itself as credible.

It's worth noting that a number of high-profile Liberals publicly condemned Mrs Maywald's formal association with Labor, among them Adelaide-based federal MP Christopher Pyne, who called for her expulsion from the Nationals.

Patrick Secker, also a South Australian federal Liberal, called for an inquiry into her ministerial appointment.

Nor is Senator Joyce someone Liberals can take for granted.

For instance, he's stated publicly many times that he believes the introduction of an emissions trading scheme is crass stupidity of the highest order that will damage Australia's economy.

Although about half the Liberal MPs in Canberra agree with Senator Joyce, very few say so because the party's teetering leader, Malcolm Turnbull, subscribes to the Rudd-Wong view.

Mr Grylls' decision to opt for the Nationals' Joyce-Maywald wing gave extra force to his determination to direct his party towards an independent path, one far removed from the unimaginative and electorally declining Liberals.

It's important to note that this independent wing had an academic boffin advising it in the form of one-time Flinders University politics professor Dean Jaensch, whom Nationals WA commissioned to advise on developing a long-term survival strategy to counter Labor's 2006 state redistribution.

The strategy professor Jaensch recommended, called the 'hung parliament option', aimed at denying the two electorally declining major parties monopoly control over tax receipts.

In other words, it was about gaining access to the crucial tax dollar.

Professor Jaensch had earlier said: "Having a hung parliament gives more opportunity for government to be questioned, to be put on the spot.

"Equally, I think a hung parliament also gives more opportunity for discussion, for debate, for compromise.

"I see nothing evil about hung parliaments simply because many houses of parliament in Australia have hung parliaments - the Australian Senate, the Tasmanian upper house. They're hung parliaments which seem to work quite well."

Mr Grylls' marketing advisers naturally never called it that. They sought a catchy name that would appeal to voters beyond the Perth-Fremantle area - Royalties for Regions.

Although Mr Grylls' willingness to team-up with either Labor or the Liberals, the Maywald stance, wasn't derided here as severely as by South Australians Messrs Pyne and Secker, Mr Barnett nevertheless publicly and shortsightedly dubbed it a "stunt."

Well, it most definitely wasn't that, as Mr Barnett promptly discovered when he entered a bidding war against Mr Carpenter after election day for Mr Grylls' support in forming a government.

Although it's difficult to determine precisely how many tax dollars Mr Grylls has so far extracted from the Barnett-dominated government, one Labor insider who knows Mr Catania well assured State Scene it was more than $250 million, and rising.

Some stunt. And what's more it's rising in another way.

Mr Grylls has an effective working relationship with former Labor minister and now independent Kalgoorlie MP, John Bowler, and has won Mr Catania over to what once looked like a doomed party that's now most certainly growing.

After last year's election there were four lower house Nationals MPs and a whopping five upper house ones, with them holding the balance of power in each chamber.

With Mr Catania now part of the Nationals WA team, they've got five in each chamber and a cooperative Mr Bowler.

Clearly, success, which the Grylls-led Nationals had so much of at the last election, is breeding more success.

What of the future?

State Scene has been told the Nationals are already eyeing-off WA's four remaining regional lower house seats - Albany and Geraldton, held by Labor and the Liberals respectively, and the Kimberley and Pilbara, both still with Labor.

The last two certainly won't be easy to win, though if their sitting Labor members retire at the next election, as is likely, they'll be far easier to bag.

But, as Mr Grylls has shown over the past 10 months, anything is possible when one opts to think big and get away from WA's two unimaginatively led, moribund parties.


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