News travels quickly from the West!
Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Yesterday was the 28th anniversary of Paul Keating winning the “unwinnable Federal election” against John Hewson. It was the Federal election when Hewson’s Liberal Coalition promised to implement their “Fightback” Agenda only to see the ALP win a fifth successive election, despite national unemployment of over one million and interest rates that would make current borrowers blanch in disbelief.
13th March, 2021 will become another significant electoral anniversary. It is the day when Mark McGowan’s State Labor government won the most comprehensive electoral victory in the history of the State, possibly in Australia’s Federal electoral history. Such is the extent of the victory that the State of Western Australia may be ‘unwinnable’ for the Liberal Party for a generation.
How quickly things turn around!
In 2013, the Western Australian Liberal government led by Colin Barnett won the State election comfortably with the coalition claiming 38 of the 59 Legislative Assembly seats. Mark McGowan was the State Opposition Leader. Many doubted his ability to lead the party to victory four years later. Such was the concern that an attempt was made to recruit former Federal Minister, Steven Smith, to lead the State party. The ALP’s primary vote at the 2013 election was 33.33%. Living in Perth at the time, my neighbouring electorate of Ocean Reef, (now named Burns Beach) saw the Liberal candidate returned with a two-party preferred margin of 69%-31%.
Eight years later, the statistics could not be more different.
In winning government for a second term, Mark McGowan’s Labor Party is likely to win an unprecedented 51 of the 59 seats. The Labor Party’s primary vote has all but doubled since 2013, with it now sitting at just on 60%. The Liberal Party’s primary vote has collapsed to just over 20%. It may only win three seats and lose its official Opposition status to the National Party. The electorate of Burns Beach, won surprisingly by the ALP in 2017, has become a safe seat for the ALP. The two-party preferred vote in now an astonishing 75-25% in favour of Labor. Many Labor seats are not held with a two-party preferred vote of over 70%.
The coalition have lost some of the bluest and safest of their seats: Hillarys, South Perth, Bateman, Scarborough, Geraldton, and Carine and may lose Nedlands and Churchlands. It is the equivalent of the Liberal/National coalition losing the Federal seats of Ryan and Moncrieff in Queensland, Bradfield and Parkes in New South Wales, Goldstein and Wannon in Victoria, Barker and Sturt in South Australia and Curtin and Tangney in Western Australia. In Tasmania, everything is marginal!
In Western Australia’s Upper House the results are no less overwhelming. The ALP is predicted to win 22 of the 36 seats in the Legislative Council. It will not so much have a rubber stamp to legislate in an unencumbered fashion, but more a rubber mallet.
The maps say a thousand words: look carefully at the second and you can see the solitary blue speck of Cottesloe, which may well be the Liberal Party’s sole suburban seat if it does not retain either of Nedlands or Churchlands! The Labor hegemony is all but complete except for a ring of National seats on the fringes of Perth’s urban area and in southern and mid-northern farming regions, with the voters of Albany again returning a Labor member and Geraldton electing a Labor member for the first time since 2005. If Lady Macbeth was a psephologist, she could again observe that “the multitudinous electoral seats are incarnadine”!
There are precedents for this scale of electoral defeat and, thankfully for the Liberal Party, the fact that such defeats do not always lead to permanent political oblivion.
When Canada’s first female Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, led Canada’s Conservative Party to defeat in the 1993 election, she lost her seat and her party was left with only two members in the Parliament. Yet, thirteen years later, Stephen Harper, led the Conservatives to victory.
Queensland’s first female Premier Anna Bligh led her Labor Party to a disastrous defeat in the 2012 State election. The ALP retained only seven seats of the then 89 seat unicameral Queensland Parliament.
At the next election in 2015, the ALP, led by Anastasia Palaszczuk, who had been widely dubbed “An accidental Opposition Leader” were able to retain government with the support of the parliament’s lone independent. Even allowing for the large swings that Queensland’s optional preferential voting system promotes, it was a “Lazarus with a quadruple bypass" result.
When living in WA, the State’s acronym was sometimes derisively used to comment on delays in getting projects completed. WA was code for “wait awhile”.
Well, we did not have to wait long for the results on Saturday night, nor wait long for the analysis. So, how in the space of eight years has the authority and presence of the State Liberal Party been eviscerated to the extent it has?
As I remind my history students, the answers to such questions inevitably involve a mix of short and long-term factors. So here they are:
1. Competent State governments are rarely denied a second term. It is no surprise that the McGowan government was re-elected per se. The shock factor is the degree to which it has added to its electoral success. Its 10.5% swing of 2017 has been bookended by a further 13% swing. In eight years, one in four Western Australian voters has switched their voting preference from Liberal to Labor;
2. If you live by iron-ore, you die by iron-ore: 47% of Western Australia’s economy is based on the mining industry. When Colin Barnett lost office in 2017, the State was in deficit. Just as the Barnett government commissioned large scale public works projects including a new Children’s Hospital and sports stadium, the iron ore price collapsed and Barnett wore McGowan’s opprobrium as a careless economic manager. In June 2016 the iron price had plummeted to $48.00 per tonne. On Election Day in 2017 it had only recovered to $55.00. When McGowan went to the polls on Saturday it was $168.00 per tonne. Our best trading frenemy is still buying copious amounts of iron ore and Mr. McGowan could trumpet a surplus Budget. Interestingly, the State’s Treasurer, Ben Wyatt, chose to retire at Saturday’s election with is inner-metropolitan seat of Victoria Park now being represented by Hannah Beazley, daughter of former Federal Opposition Leader and current Western Australian Governor, Kim Beazley.
3. Always be prepared to accept unintended gifts from your opponents! This week former Federal Finance Minister and Western Australian Senator, Mathias Cormann, became the first person from the Asia-Pacific region to be elected Secretary-General for the OECD. When Federal Finance Minister, he worked hard to guarantee a greater share of Goods and Services Tax revenue for his State. Western Australia in the early 2000s was receiving less than forty cents of every GST dollar whilst Tasmania was receiving $1.34 of every dollar. Cormann was worried about the electoral effects of an unrelenting campaign from Perth’s only metropolitan newspaper, The West Australian, on this fiscal imbalance. A deal was struck to guarantee WA a base of $0.75 of every GST dollar. Whilst it may have saved Federal Liberal seats at the last Federal election, this deal has also enabled Mr. McGowan to better manage the State’s books. In the cruel world of politics, Mr. McGowan’s party will never give acknowledgement to the Liberal party for effecting the improved GST arrangement. In the same vein Mr. McGowan was a vocal opponent of the construction of Perth’s new AFL stadium. Yet, during the AFL ‘hub season’ of 2020, he decried the AFL’s decision not to have a hub in Perth because he proudly said “we have the finest stadium in the country.” How quickly people forget!
4. No succession planning. When Colin Barnett lost the 2017 election he was the State’s fifth longest serving Premier. Ironically, given events of recent weeks, Barnett did not wish to hand over the Premiership to the then State Treasurer, Christian Porter, before the last election. Like John Howard, he soldiered on to electoral oblivion and most of the cream of the next generation of party leaders were defeated and never to return. Since Barnett’s electoral loss, the State Liberal Party has had three leaders- Nehan, Harvey and Kirkup- and must now look for its fifth leader in four years. The future belongs to those who plan for it, not to those that seek to deny its inevitability.
The Liberal Party has now lost the seats represented by its previous three leaders with Zak Kirkup now set to become the subject of the following trivia night question- Who was the State politician who became the Leader of his party during his first and only term of parliament, and lead the party for 15 weeks before taking it to its worst ever defeat? If ever there was a poisoned chalice, this job was it! Zak was widely criticised for acknowledging a fortnight before the election what all knew to be obvious, namely that his party could not win the election . For Zak, his recognition of this truth was not seen as a call to arms to rally the faithful and prevent an unimaginable rout, but as evidence of weakness and capitulation. When you are down and nearly out, nothing sounds as it should!
5. The essence of Western Australia itself. If you scratch a Russian you will find a nationalist. If you scratch a Western Australian, you find a secessionist. The “kick the Canberra can” and “those over East have no idea how we underwrite Australia’s economic strength” are recurring motifs of Western Australian life and politics. At certain times, certain events have consolidated this outlook to the advantage of the incumbent government. This has never been better demonstrated than during the Covid-19 pandemic.
6. Never waste a crisis. The arrival of the pandemic saw Mark McGowan act to ensure he “never wasted his crisis.” His closing of the State’s borders to all other Australians, was dressed up as the necessary cost to ensure that the State’s mining sector could continue to trade internationally; however, it played wonderfully to the isolationist leanings of the State’s population. When former Opposition Leader Liza Harvey had the temerity to suggest that the border controls were excessive, her days as party leader were instantly numbered. Remember, less than a hundred years ago, Western Australians voted to secede from the “indissoluble Federal Commonwealth.” McGowan was portrayed as the man that preserved the livelihoods of those in the West whilst the “othersiders” foundered.
If you add the advantages of incumbency, economic security, parochialism and isolationist pride- all of which were amplified by the pandemic- with disarray in your chief opponent you have the recipe for an electoral blitzkrieg. And so it was.
1. For mine, the result all but guarantees that there will not be a Federal election this year. The attention given to standards of Ministerial behaviour in and outside of the Parliament has centred around two Western Australians- Christian Porter and Linda Reynolds- and I do not believe Mr. Morrison will wish to poke the bear;
2. When the next Federal election is held, will Saturday’s extraordinary results translate into greater success for the ALP at a Federal level? The jury is still out and Mr. Morrison will want to delay any chance of a voter encore for as long as possible;
3. To the victor go the spoils, but are there too many? Once Mr. McGowan chooses his Ministry, what to do with the occupants of his overcrowded backbenches? Whilst we make our Judges retire at seventy, some of the ALP caucus continue on well past that. The State’s Attorney-General, John Quigley is 73 in December and has been re-elected as member for Butler for another four years; and
4. Can there be an effective Opposition? The scale of the Coalition’s defeat raises fair questions about whether the government can be held to reasonable account. All advocates of the principles of representative government must hope that it can.
Tennis Notes: Roger Federer made his long-awaited return to competitive tennis last week at the Doha Open. A narrow first-round victory against England’s Dan Evans was followed by a second round defeat by Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili, after Federer held a match point. A dear friend pointed out to me that Basilashvili did win the whole tournament, but we agreed that Federer, who turns 40 in August, must accept the loud noise of Mother Nature’s clock. Interestingly, Federer, has withdrawn from the forthcoming Dubai Open. Time does weary them. We all want Federer’s extraordinary career to end with a bang and not a whimper.
A final thought. I always remember being told by an astute financier that Australia’s economic good fortunes lay in the fact that the nation benefitted from being “either the world’s quarry, the world’s farm and/or the world’s holiday resort.”
He told me if that world commodity prices are high, we are drought free and the exchange rate is low encouraging international tourism, then the nation’s economy booms.
Conversely, if commodity prices are low, there is a drought and the exchange rate is high, we have economic adversity.
Witness this week’s State and Federal government announcements to promote internal tourism within Australia. Discounted airfares and accommodation rates are on offer. For the moment, we cannot be the word’s resort. The only thing arriving in great numbers are supplies of the Covid-19 vaccine.
The irony is that uncertainty about border lockdowns has made people as cautious about visiting another State as they might have been about visiting a Latin American banana republic in years past! Further, the inability to travel internationally also means that there are very few rooms at Australian inns, even for fellow citizens with cheap airfares. There are no vacant rooms in Broome, because they are all filled by touring Western Australians who, in years past, would have been in Bali!
Australians all let us rejoice, because we are unable to go anywhere other than where we already are! And whilst we may be celebrating the personal safety that this provides us, it is a reminder that Australia, the sole island continent, cannot continue to be economically isolated for an extended period.
14th March 2021