22/04/2013 - 15:44

Winner takes all is bad for WA

22/04/2013 - 15:44


Save articles for future reference.

WA could lose out in the long run, with a likely incoming Abbott government paying less attention to a state perceived to be in the bag politically.

The Western Australian Liberal Party must be rubbing its hands in glee. It achieved a record vote in the March state election, all the signs are that it will score heavily in the September federal poll, and the Labor Party is brawling over the endorsement of Senate candidates.

As far as the political cycle goes, the stars are certainly aligned for the Liberals, much as they were for Labor during the 1990s. 

But is such a carve-up of power in 2013 in the best interests of WA? There is already evidence to suggest it is not. And the problem could get worse.

WA has had challenges for years making its voice heard in Canberra. Federal MPs with strong personalities can make a difference. Examples are Reg Withers and Fred Chaney on the Liberal side, and Peter Walsh and Kim Beazley for Labor.

And Perth MP Stephen Smith, the federal defence minister, has been instrumental in attracting some major international events to Perth such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2011 and visits by two US Secretaries of State (a possibility never contemplated before) plus senior ministerial meetings. Good for WA’s profile, of course.

Despite the state’s strong economy, the financial power still lies in Canberra. That is where the state must command attention as a serious player, albeit with only 15 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives.

For that reason, to use a term often quoted by former prime minister John Howard, WA must “punch above its weight”.

To do that it needs MPs of some standing – at both the state and federal level – who will be listened to. The recent allocation of the national pool of $14.5 billion for education based on the Gonski report, indicates is not happening.

It suits supporters of both parties to descend into a political squabble as to why the Gonski carve-up is so inequitable.

Liberals can accuse the Gillard government of incompetence and of simply favouring the more populous states. Labor backers can blame Premier Colin Barnett for not pushing hard enough during negotiations.

Both could be partly right. But the reality is that the federal government saw fit to offer WA a pittance, in comparison to the other states, and is willing to wear any political odium. This includes a drop in Labor’s support in WA. No ifs or buts.

The reason? Labor holds only three of the 15 federal seats, it won’t win any more in September and could lose seats. Good for the Liberals and bad for Labor.

It is also bad for WA, for two reasons. The first is that governments always look for a “dividend” when making big-spending decisions. If the party in government has a state “locked up”, there is little to be gained by spreading largesse its way. You can’t neglect it of course, but that does partly depend on the clout of the federal MPs.

The other reason is that big majorities, while loved by the party in power, usually don't make for good government.

The best government I have seen was in NSW between 1976 and 1978 when Labor ruled with the support of an independent. Its slogan was “sound, moderate and responsible”. It was so successful it was re-elected in a landslide in 1978 and remained in power for a further 10 years. By then it had become complacent and sloppy, due in part to bloated majorette.

So the risk is that after September, a federal coalition could take WA for granted and look to shore up marginal seats in other states.

WA Labor must also review its selection of candidates and policies. The recent blue over its Senate ticket is just the tip of the iceberg. Safe seats, especially in the Senate and Legislative Council, are handed out as “rewards” for loyal service to the party by factional chiefs regardless of, it seems, electoral consequences.

For example, much has already been said about the right-wing Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association leader Joe Bullock, winning top spot on Labor’s Senate ticket.

Mr Bullock ousted his union’s previous secretary, Mark Bishop, who has served three terms in the Senate. The decision seemed based simply on the view that Senator Bishop’s time was up and now it was Mr Bullock’s turn to sit on the red leather seats in Canberra.

But there’s more. To replace the left’s Chris Evans in the Senate, senior left-wing United Voice official Sue Lines will return from the Sydney office to fill the vacancy.

Former state Labor MP Martin Whitely put his hand up for a Senate seat but was passed over and quit the party in protest. Other potential candidates from outside the union circle did not even bother to nominate. There was no point.

Good for the Liberals, bad for Labor and bad for WA. 


Subscription Options