10/09/2008 - 22:00

Nats' tactical masterstroke

10/09/2008 - 22:00

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THE standout feature of Saturday's panic-driven premature election was that neither Alan Carpenter nor Colin Barnett pulled their party over the line to govern Western Australia in their own right.

THE standout feature of Saturday's panic-driven premature election was that neither Alan Carpenter nor Colin Barnett pulled their party over the line to govern Western Australia in their own right.

Labor attracted only 36 per cent of the primary vote, the Liberals 39 percent - each just over one third when 72 per cent of votes were counted.

Both failed to convince voters they could administer WA when high-taxing government - always headed by a major party - was the recipient of an unprecedented level of tax receipts.

Mr Carpenter's calling of the election six months early resulted in five sitting Labor members losing their seats, with four Carpenter-anointed candidates failing to win.

He's therefore somewhat like the Earl of Cardigan who, in 1854, ordered his Dragoons, Lancers and Hussars to charge deep into that valley of death.

That won't please paramount Labor's factional chiefs, who Mr Carpenter was undermining by parachuting handpicked 'dream team' pals - two of whom, like the premier, were journalists - into once safe Labor seats.

With two potential Liberal ministers - Steve Thomas and Gary Snook - going down, Mr Barnett is more like the Earl of Lucan, Cardigan's brother-in-law, who commanded the cavalry at Balaclava, Crimea.

Strangely both leaders boosted their personal vote - Mr Carpenter by 0.6 percent in Willagee and Mr Barnett 9.6 percent in Cottesloe.

Whatever the reason, both were found to be wanting when it came to projecting obvious local appeal beyond their electorates' boundaries.

Far more serious was that both were without a contingency plan to cover the eventuality of not being able to govern in their own right, but needing the Nationals or an Independent or two to help out.

That meant neither considered the Nationals' now two year-old Royalties for Regions Plan, which means statutory earmarking of 25 per cent of all royalties (currently about $700 million) annually for non-metropolitan infrastructure needs.

 

That's truly amazing, since it suggests neither believed a fall-back position was required.

Both appear to have expected to win the 30 seats needed to govern in their own right.

Neither, therefore, abided by that wise adage of hoping and working for the best but always preparing for the worst; another sad commentary on their calibre as leaders.

Again, Mr Barnett isn't as culpable, since he, as a belatedly reinstated leader, had markedly less time to contemplate contingencies.

However, that doesn't get him off the hook, since three weeks before election day he publicly dubbed the longstanding Royalties for Regions Plan a "stunt", which it definitely isn't.

Although Mr Carpenter never went to the extent of so deriding Nationals leader Brendon Grylls' efforts for regional voters, he also rejected out-of-hand any likelihood of favourably considering the Nationals' plan.

Even though few metropolitan voters may have known that a Royalties for Regions Plan existed, neither leader had an excuse for being similarly ignorant since it was launched with considerable fanfare by Mr Grylls in 2006.

And State Scene is pleased to report having attended that now-historic event.

The guest of honour was outspoken Queensland Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce, who stressed the Nationals mustn't be an appendage of city-based Laborism and Liberalism.

Mr Grylls agreed, which meant that predisposition became the cornerstone of his negotiations with Messrs Carpenter and Barnett.

Equally significant was the fact that also present at the launch was retired Flinders University politics academic, Professor Dean Jensch.

That's either unknown to or was completely overlooked by Messrs Carpenter and Barnett.

Adelaide-based Professor Jensch was commissioned by Mr Grylls to advise on developing a long-term strategy to counter the Jim McGinty-driven redistribution, which was designed to annihilate WA's Nationals - the so-called hung parliament option, which meant major parties being denied monopoly control of tax receipts.

And his advice has clearly been shown to be far more important than Messrs Carpenter and Barnett imagined, since they're now talking turkey with Mr Grylls.

No-one knows more about South Australia's political scene than Professor Jensch, where the Mike Rann-led Labor government has been sharing power with Nationals MP, Karlene Mayward, who is also a minister.

Moreover, while Professor Jensch was advising on how a Royalties for Regions Plan could be refined, Mr Grylls was visiting SA to consult with Mrs Maywald.

The upshot was that by mid-2006 the Nationals were ready for an election, whether it was called very early, early, the normal time, or even late.

And they've been campaigning ever since - the only party to do so - which explains their brilliant performance.

That's not something one can say of the squabbling Liberals.

And it's because of this that, when State Scene first heard rumours of Mr Carpenter plotting an early poll, this column first highlighted the South Australian and Royalties for Region Plan options (State Scene, 'A changing political dynamic', March 13 2008):

"Also not to be overlooked - though this is certainly less likely - is that Premier Carpenter could move to outmanoeuvre [then Liberal leader] Mr Buswell by offering the Nationals a place, or two, or more, in a Labor ministry, if the election outcome numbers fell accordingly.

"Nationals MPs in a Labor cabinet?

"Impossible, most will probably say.

"But that suggestion isn't as unlikely as some may presume.

"Not widely realised in WA political circles is the fact that South Australia's Labor government, headed by Mike Rann, includes Karlene Maywald, a Nationals MP.

"Mrs Maywald is Minister for the River Murray, Regional Development, Small Business, Consumer Affairs and Science and the Information Economy.

"She's also Minister assisting the Minister for Industry and Trade and Minister for Water Security.

"Since she's the only Nationals member of South Australia's parliament, she is the state parliamentary leader of her party.

"Mrs Maywald entered the Rann ministry in 2004 after signing an agreement with Labor that's allowed her to reserve the right to vote against the Rann government over any legislation affecting her electorate or the business community.

"What this suggests is that if the numbers fall a certain way at this state's coming election, Western Australians could easily see one or more such Maywald agreements signed either by Mr Carpenter or [then Liberal leader] Mr Buswell.

"Interesting political times may indeed be ahead of us."

Neither major party leader can ever say that they weren't warned.

But what of the future, irrespective of whichever major party leader is eventually able to coax Mr Grylls across to their side under the threatened hung parliament option?

Let's consider Professor Jensch's answer to this now-pertinent question.

At about the time he visited Perth in 2006 advising Mr Grylls, he was a member of an ABC radio panel discussing this very question.

Jensch: "I don't think it's a case that minority governments cause those sorts of economic malaises.

"When you look around to other states, for example my own state in South Australia, it's been a hung parliament in both houses for a number of years and we don't seem to have an economic malaise.

"These are arguments that major parties will put up because they want control of the parliament in their own right."

Interviewer: "Political comm-en-tator Dean Jensch says hung parliaments are good for democracy."

Jensch: "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."

There you have it, from the man who helped devise what's currently proving to be Mr Gryll's brilliantly successful Royalties for Regions Plan.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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