With the odds of a second term for the McGowan government shortening by the day, The Nationals are hoping their independence from the Liberals on key issues will get them over the line in the regions.
Hendy Cowan only lost one election in his life, and it was a blowout.
However, that loss can’t tarnish his legacy within the party, which started with his election to the Legislative Assembly in 1974.
During his political career, Mr Cowan arguably played the most important role in forming the modern incarnation of The Nationals WA, having reformed its factions and repaired its relations with the Liberal Party during the 1970s and 1980s.
Such was the reputation of The Nationals’ leader that, by the time the Liberals claimed enough seats in state parliament to govern outright in 1993, goodwill between Mr Cowan and then-incoming premier Richard Court meant the party was invited to govern as a coalition partner.
Mr Cowan was subsequently appointed deputy premier, a position from which he built his profile, bringing a wealth of experience to ministries including small business and regional development, between 1995 and 2001.
By the end of his second term as deputy premier, either emboldened by his experience or aware he may soon be returned to opposition, Mr Cowan decided to switch to federal politics, with his name atop the party’s Senate ticket at the 2001 federal election.
The premise of his candidacy was simple: while the party enjoyed healthy representation in state parliament, the federal performance of its Western Australian branch lagged, having failed to send a representative to Canberra for more than 20 years.
Mr Cowan’s candidacy promised to change that, given his strong name recognition, conservative credentials and appeal to the regions.
The tilt for a Senate seat failed.
Mr Cowan earned just 2.4 per cent of the vote, a slight improvement on prior election cycles that nevertheless left the party outpolled by the Greens, One Nation and the Democrats.
Even without taking his stature as one of the state’s most prominent policymakers into account, the result was considered a drubbing.
“Some critics were of the view he [Mr Cowan] wasn’t serious about the campaign,” Peter Kennedy, journalist and Political Perspective columnist said.
“As an observer, I didn’t see any evidence he gave it other than his best shot.”
Explanations for Mr Cowan’s failure are myriad.
Just nine months before the Senate bid, The Nationals had recorded its worst-ever result at a state election, receiving just 3.3 per cent of the primary vote while also losing government.
And although the party now holds the seat of North-West Central and has made at least one successful run at the seat of Pilbara, The Nationals’ base had, up until 2010, focused almost exclusively on WA’s sparsely populated farming and agriculture regions in the state’s lower half.
“It was a very narrow area of support that The Nationals had, and as the state’s population had exploded since the 1980s, the bulk of the extra people were not natural supporters of the party,” Mr Kennedy told Business News.
“As the state’s population grew, the farming base was probably shrinking.”
That wholly regional focus likely limited the statewide appeal of Mr Cowan’s candidacy; however, in deciding to retain autonomy for The Nationals as well as its explicit focus on the regions, Mr Cowan may also have ensured the long-term viability of a party that nowadays faces more competition than ever for regional representation.
His legacy is visible today.
Although they remain on cordial terms, the Liberal Party of WA and The Nationals WA have never formally amalgamated, as is the case with the parties in Queensland.
Similarly, The Nationals never agreed to indefinitely govern as a junior coalition partner, as has traditionally been the case in NSW.
While that has meant the party has never been assured representation in government, it has also provided autonomy and helped avoid the sort of misadventures that have befallen the Liberal-led coalition government in NSW.
There, the party has lost votes and seats under Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who has earned a reputation as a destabilising force due to run-ins with federal figures and repeated threats to shift the party to the Crossbench.
Competition is fierce for regional seats in NSW, as the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party have picked off The Nationals’ representatives in western electorates, in part due to Mr Barilaro’s unpopularity.
This conflict has been far more muted in WA, though, where Mia Davies, a considerably calmer presence than Mr Barilaro, has led the party since 2017.
Despite losing two seats and receiving 5.4 per cent of the primary vote at the last state election, The Nationals WA has consistently won about half a dozen seats in the lower house in every election since the early 1970s.
Most recently, in 2008, the party used its political influence when then-leader Brendon Grylls secured concessions from the Liberals to implement Royalties for Regions in exchange for a working majority in state parliament.
That program required the government to divert $1 billion of income from the state’s mining tax revenues annually to be spent on regional development.
This policy has come to define the party’s electoral standing in the past decade, cementing its focus on WA as well as its hold on the lower half of the state.
“The coalition negotiations were not easy,” he said.
“I make no apologies to my colleagues or to the Liberal Party for that.
“Under my leadership, I wanted to ensure that government policy and direction had significant input from the National Party.”
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In subsequent years, the party has made ensuring the survival of Royalties for Regions a fundamental priority.
The policy may have helped deliver crucial electoral wins to The Nationals in 2008 and 2013, but opinions outside the regions are decidedly mixed.
Most notable has been widespread criticism of a handful of projects funded under the program, including $17 million spent on automated lavatories in the City of Bunbury, labelled by some media outlets as ‘talking toilets’.
That these toilets were, in fact, automated, self-cleaning lavatories widely available throughout many metropolitan councils is proof enough for Mr Grylls that disparagement of the policy has been motivated by a generalised antipathy for country voters, rather than good faith scrutiny.
“Why is it appropriate to build community amenity for sports, arts, culture, health and education in Wanneroo and Rockingham, but not fair in the Wheatbelt and the Pilbara?” he said.
“Our job as members of parliament was to get ourselves into a position of influence so we could fix 50 to 60 years of neglect.
“We managed to achieve that.”
Nevertheless, some criticism of the program has been substantiated in recent years, with an inquiry led by John Langoulant in 2018 referring to Royalties for Regions as knee-jerk, ad-hoc and financially destabilising.
Others, such as Kevin Michel, who currently represents the seat of Pilbara for Labor, as well as the state’s regional development minister, Alannah MacTiernan, have questioned the wisdom of funding amenities and infrastructure that is either unsustainable or makes little direct contribution to local economies.
Criticism aside, the program remains broadly popular with many local governments that have benefited over the past decade from $9 billion of spending on schools, hospitals and roads. Mr Grylls based his entire campaign on the policy when he contested the seat of Pilbara in 2013.
That seat had been widely seen as safe for Labor, having been held by that party without interruption for 30 years.
At the time, Mr Grylls believed the mining boom, which had created two-speed economies in Port Hedland and Karratha, made the seat contestable for a party explicitly created to address regional concerns.
He pitched his candidacy to voters who were in a similar position to his brother, who had relocated to the Pilbara at the start of the mining boom, and was spending hundreds of dollars to rent a caravan and share a communal toilet for the pleasure of working 12-hour days.
“It was hardly the type of environment you’d want to be raising a family in,” Mr Grylls said.
That argument clearly held sway, as he managed to win the seat and secure a 19-point swing.
Mr Grylls held that seat for just a single term, but told Business News his ability to extract policy wins while effectively being consigned to the minority made his candidacy appealing.
“Rent was going through the roof, infrastructure was poor, service delivery was poor, and the Pilbara and the Kimberley had felt a little bit abandoned,” he said.
“That was fertile ground for a new leader of a party looking for a new story.”
Pushing into the state’s north has also been a necessary move for The Nationals.
WA’s adoption of ‘one vote, one value’ in 2005 had effectively ended malapportionment on a seat-by-seat basis, abolishing a handful of the state’s regional electorates and, with it, most of The Nationals’ chance to win seats.
However, while one vote, one value may have reduced the party’s representation, population growth in Perth’s metropolitan area may also account for redistributions that have progressively chipped away at rural representation in the lower house.
According to ABS data, WA’s population is projected to be more than 3 million by 2030; most of this growth is occurring in Perth, where all but one local government area experienced population growth of up to 3 per cent in 2019.
With a handful of notable exceptions, including Port Hedland, Karratha and Exmouth on the state’s north-west coast, and Augusta-Margaret River in the South West, dozens of local government areas in the regions bled residents last year while the cities grew bigger.
“Rural Australia has been losing populations to the city over time,” Benjamin Reilly, professor of political science and international relations at The University of Western Australia, said.
“Rural-urban migration is real, and one of the consequences is that, over time, there are fewer rural seats.
“What we’ve seen with each redistribution … is that, when there is a loss of seat, it will be a rural seat.
“Often that means there will be two formerly Nationals-held seats that will be combined into one.
“If you’re a party that explicitly represents the regions and there are fewer and fewer voters in the regions, you’ve got a problem.”
It’s an ever-present issue that has been accelerated in recent months as a result of restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms Davies, who has led The Nationals since 2017, told Business News declining travel had led to significant workforce shortages for many regional tourism operators, hospitality venues and small businesses.
She said this worsened existing challenges for WA’s regions.
“I’ve been saying to a lot of our communities that this is an opportunity to not just go back to normal but … build back better,” Ms Davies said.
“When you have a challenge that strikes at the fundamental basis of how our communities, industries and businesses operate, we should take a moment to think about what we can do better.”
Ms Davies is betting that the focus on these issues will play well come next March, when the party intends to contest every regional electorate in that month’s state election.
It is likely that Albany and Collie-Preston, where the incumbent members hold the speakership and sports ministry, respectively, will be top targets for the party, with Collie-Preston presenting as an obvious contest.
There, retiring incumbent Mick Murray took three runs at the seat before dislodging The Nationals’ Hilda Turnbull in 2001, winning by a razor thin margin of 34 votes after preferences.
The Nationals have preselected former Shire of Collie president Wayne Sanford to contest the seat, challenging councillor Jodie Hanns, who is contesting the seat on behalf of Labor.
In Albany, meanwhile, where The Nationals polled more votes than the Liberals to finish second in 2017, local businesswoman Delma Beasjou will face off against councillor Rebecca Stephens to replace retiring incumbent, Peter Watson.
Other opportunities include the Labor-held seat of Kimberley, which will be vacated by Josie Farrer, and Pilbara, which Mr Grylls lost narrowly amid a million-dollar, negative television advertising blitz funded by mining lobbying groups in response to his support for a $5 per tonne tax on iron ore production.
Kalgoorlie, which has trended towards conservative parties over the past two decades, may also prove competitive.
The Nationals, however, may face difficulty in this race, given their recruit in the last state election – former federal MP Tony Crook – received just a quarter of the vote against eventual winner, Kyran O’Donnell.
Conversely, abysmal prospects for the Liberal opposition may also play into The Nationals’ hands.
Recent polling from Utting Research has found respondents overwhelmingly approve of the state government and are prepared to reward it with a positive, double-digit swing.
If that were to happen, it is likely that Churchlands, Cottesloe and Vasse would be the only seats the Liberal Party would retain.
The Nationals, however, would likely retain four seats, facing the threat of losing Geraldton and a tight contest for North West Central.
In a worst-case scenario, whereby Labor wins the two-party preferred vote by a two-to-one margin, The Nationals may earn the right to lead as the official opposition with the Liberals relegated either to junior coalition members, or the crossbench.
Ms Davies declined to be drawn on this hypothetical, preferring to highlight the polling in question was performed courtesy of John Utting, who has worked as the Labor Party’s national pollster since the 1990s.
Ms Davies said the focus remained on policy, with ensuring The Nationals’ role in overseeing Royalties for Regions in 2021 remained the top priority.
In its current form, she believes the policy has been all but hollowed out, as the state government has transferred existing programs – such as the $250 million in annual subsidies for Water Corporation — into the fund’s purview.
She’s also conscious of the antipathy some fiscally conservative members of the Liberals have for the policy, with Mike Nahan, who led the Liberals in opposition between 2017 and 2019, declaring unequivocally in 2018 that the program should be scrapped.
While current opposition leader Liza Harvey does support the program, Ms Davies makes clear that neither party has her confidence to oversee Royalties for Regions, believing the only way for it to be executed faithfully is for The Nationals to run the program.
That situation would likely be all but impossible unless the party was to hold the regional development portfolio in a coalition government with the Liberals.
Still, Ms Davies said the party would remain wholly committed to pushing for policies that would specifically benefit regional WA.
“People understand clearly that The Nationals is an independent party that will govern with another political party, but we will do it on our own terms,” she said.
“They want [a party that is] frank and fearless and will get a bloody nose for them.
“They don’t expect us to win every fight, either; they just expect us to have a go.
“I get accused of being one-eyed regularly, but I’m quite happy to be accused of being singularly focused on regional WA.”