26/08/2010 - 00:00

Nationals’ success sends a warning

26/08/2010 - 00:00


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The rise of the Greens nationally and the resurgence of the Nationals in WA has thrown down the gauntlet to the major parties.

Nationals’ success sends a warning

A FASCINATING divergence is under way in Western Australian politics, and it has crucial ramifications for both major parties.

The Greens consolidated their position in the federal poll, with Senator Rachel Siewert winning a second six-year term, essentially at the expense of the Labor Party.

But of more significance was the success of the National Party in ending Wilson Tuckey’s 30-year hold on the lower house seat of O’Connor.

It’s confirmation of the Nationals’ Lazarus-like resurgence in WA politics that first surfaced in the state election two years ago.

Mr Tuckey’s iron grip on the seat had always been a puzzle, as the Nationals have been strongly represented in the same areas at state level.

And despite several concerted attempts, they had been unable to topple the feisty Liberal, who seemed to be buoyed by taunting the Liberals’ traditional coalition partners.

Four factors led to Mr Tuckey’s downfall. The first was that his opponent, Tony Crook, enjoyed a high profile in Kalgoorlie, which had been included in O’Connor for the first time after a recent redistribution.

The second was familiarity. After representing the seat since its formation in 1980, there was a view it was time for 75-year-old Mr Tuckey to step down in favour of youth.

Labor preferences were also important. Labor veteran Stephen Smith joked on the ABC TV’s election night coverage that, “for high tone policy reasons rather than just being mischievous, we are of course directing our preferences to the National candidate, not to Wilson.” That was crucial in the final result.

And Mr Tuckey didn’t help his chances by speaking out against the state’s Royalties for Regions policy, which has led to millions of extra dollars being pumped into the regions.

Mr Crook’s success means the Nationals have their first WA member in the House of Representatives since the mid-1970s.

The party has not only turned the tide on its federal representation. It’s also the second election in a row where it has confounded the critics and served notice to both Labor and the Liberals that it means business. Obviously the party’s success at the state level two years ago was no flash in the pan.

The Nationals’ success means that the assault on the support base of the major parties has intensified. They are being attacked from both the right and the left, providing a strategic dilemma.

The Liberals are reluctant to attack the Nationals, although there are plenty of seats across the country where they go head to head. Traditionally there is a preference exchange. But as we saw in the federal poll, Tony Abbott is quite happy to attack the Greens.

Labor was happy to give Mr Crook its preferences in O’Connor, which were crucial to his success. But no such deal emerged in the new seat of Durack, taking in most of the state’s mining regions and the Kimberley. While Labor was happy to see the back of Mr Tuckey, the party helped the return of Liberal Barry Haase in Durack.

The reason? Not out of any great love or affection but the fact that Durack stretches through state seats such as North West, Pilbara and Kimberley. Labor won all at the state election, although North West is now in the Nationals fold, thanks to the defection of Vince Catania.

The last thing Labor needs is a Nationals MP in Durack, actively promoting the party’s interests in the north, imposing even greater pressure on the state seats, let alone the sinecures in the upper house.

That’s the explanation for Mr Smith’s barb. And to some extent Labor can use its preferences in certain seats to decide whether a Liberal or National is returned. But if the Nationals’ vote keeps rising, that situation could well change.

Labor’s federal vote in WA represents a low water mark, not helped by the push for a new resources tax just six months before the poll. If it was designed as a divide and conquer device by the party’s strategic thinkers in the east, it was an abysmal failure. They can bad mouth WA all they like. But the error in judgment was theirs.

The WA Liberals are on a high. But they too must be wary of the Nationals in the bush, especially when helped by Labor preferences.

Missing in Armadale

THE by-election for the state seat of Armadale on October 2 will be the third since the election of the Liberal-National government almost two years ago. And in all three the Liberal Party has failed to field a candidate.

The common link between all three seats is that they have been considered safe for Labor.

But that view was knocked for six in the first contest last year to replace Labor powerbroker, Jim McGinty, in Fremantle. Victory went to Adele Carles, then of the Greens, now an independent. In the second, retired army officer Peter Tinley easily retained Willetton for Labor, replacing former premier Alan Carpenter.

In both cases the Liberals declined to be represented on the grounds there was little to be gained. By-elections tend to go against the government of the day so why give your opponents any ammunition?

In Armadale, vacated by Alannah MacTiernan to run in the federal seat of Canning, a senior Liberal let it be known the party would be nominating a ‘star’ candidate. But when nominations closed, there were only four contenders, and no Liberal.

The party says there was an intention to nominate, but that the member had been forced to pull out for personal reasons at virtually the last minute.

So Colin Barnett and his government will escape voter scrutiny over some recent decisions, including savage increases in electricity and water charges, which would have almost certainly produced a backlash.

Incidentally, the Liberals were very pleased that nominations for Armadale closed on the eve of the federal election, ruling out any possibility of Ms MacTiernan recontesting.

That was reminiscent of the 1986 state election contest for Subiaco, at which Carmen Lawrence entered state parliament. Labor threw everything behind her campaign to ensure she defeated former federal Liberal Ross McLean, who was seen as a future state Liberal leader.

On that occasion Labor was satisfied that the result effectively was a win-win. Dr Lawrence won the seat – and Mr McLean was kept out.

What goes around comes around.

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




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