Clive Palmer complicates life for WA Labor

Jul 22, 2020

The legal and political manoeuvres of Clive Palmer are complications for Western Australia’s Labor Government in the final months of its first term in office.
Clive Palmer has taken legal action against the West Australian Government over its interstate border closure, citing Section 92 of the Australian Constitution dealing with freedom of movement between the States. Palmer lodged papers with the High Court in May and the case has been referred to the Federal Court to sort out the facts. The State was granted a delay because expert witness — ANU epidemiologist Kamalini Lukage — was enlisted to assist the Victorians with their Covid-19 outbreak.

The Federal Court is scheduled to hear the arguments on 27 and 28 July. The Victorian outbreak would appear to weaken Palmer’s case but it is an interesting constitutional issue. The background to the fight is a dispute between Palmer and the WA Government over the Sino Iron magnetite project at Cape Lambert in the West Pilbara. Palmer says the State is ganging up with China Inc. against the Aussie battler. The State argues it is standing up for investment and jobs.

There are overtones of the WA Government legislation against Lang Hancock in the 1970s but then the government enjoyed bipartisan support. This time the position of the Liberals in office in Canberra and in opposition in Perth is more nuanced. Attorney General Christian Porter says the Federal Government is not assisting WA. It is assisting the Court. WA Opposition Leader Lisa Harvey says the State Government’s proposed election spending limits are aimed at Clive Palmer. That sounds like a reasonable comment.

In a nutshell, the electoral proposals limit the maximum spend of about $8 million to Parties fielding candidates in every seat. To qualify for a big spend, Palmer United Party would have to contest all 59 Assembly and 36 Council seats. That is 95 candidates, according to my arithmetic. Quite a task, even for Clive Palmer. I reckon Labor has a 50/50 chance of getting these spending limits through the Legislative Council where it needs to find 5 votes from the cross benches.

The ABC’s WA political reporter Jacob Kagi is covering this issue and asks if Clive Palmer hates Mark McGowan more than he hates Bill Shorten. It is the wrong question. Can Palmer inflict the same damage on WA Labor that he dished out to Shorten and federal Labor with his vicious mega-spending advertising last year? Probably not. Palmer’s hostility was crucial last year because it was a close election. There is no indication that next year’s WA election will be close, although unemployment and mortgage stress making for a miserable Christmas could swing the pendulum against sitting governments.

Yet another complication is legal action taken against Palmer by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) relating to funding of Palmer United Party’s successful campaign in the 2013 federal election. To the layman, these charges appear serious but if they are worrying the Queenslander, he doesn’t show it. Litigation is Clive Palmer’s middle name.

Labor’s landslide on 11 March 2017 was unprecedented in West Australian political history. The number of swings in double figures was remarkable. Labor’s Sabine Winton won Wanneroo with a swing of 18.2 percent. Jessica Stokovski took Kingsley with 14.7 percent. Mark Folkard won Burns Beach with 13.9 percent and a swing of 13.4 percent won Murray-Wellington for Labor’s Robyn Clarke.

Labor’s victory in Jandakot, best known as the home of Perth’s second airport, reads like a Bollywood script. Yaz Mubarakai, born in Mumbai, arrived in Western Australia in 1997, ran restaurants, raised a family, served in local government at Cockburn and won Jandakot for Labor in 2017 with a swing of 19.4 percent. To borrow a phrase from Arnold Schwarzenegger — only in Australia.

The 2017 election result giving 41 of the 59 Legislative Assembly seats to Labor and a handy 14 of the 36 Legislative Council seats is likely to be a high-water mark for the Party in WA but Labor is still on the attack and Premier Mark McGowan has been spending time on the ground in three marginal Liberal seats of Dawesville, Hilarys and Darling Range.

Dawesville was a sleepy holiday and retirement locale in my youth and still strikes me as unlikely Labor territory. The area was safe Liberal country when represented by tennis legend Arthur Marshall. Zac Kirkup won it for the Liberals in 2017 with a two-party preferred 50.7 percent to Labor’s 49.3. The new member for Dawesville impresses colleagues and opponents as a future WA Liberal leader but he is on a slim margin.

Premier McGowan has grown into the job and it is hard to see any opponents landing a glove on him, even a savage super-heavyweight mauler like Clive Palmer. McGowan plays sandgropers’ parochialism like a violin and he has developed a neat populist touch. I liked his quip about today’s footballers being overpaid.

Liberal Opposition Leader Lisa Harvey at first opposed the State border closures, putting the case for small business. I agreed with her. She changed her mind with the recent spike in Victorian cases of Covid-19. I have not changed my view but I am in a small minority of people more concerned about the spread of authoritarian government than the spread of the latest virus so I just murmur quietly to myself like the Good Soldier Schweik.

Small indeed. According to one survey, nine out of ten West Australians support the border closure policy. It helps when the Victorians are the bad guys. The antipathy between the two States is due to the unfortunate fact that Victorians know how to play Australian Rules football rather well. Sandgropers of my vintage may recall a year when we sent to Melbourne a star-studded team carrying high hopes. Ted Whitten and Ron Barassi played kick to kick. Doug Wade kicked 10 goals and the Vics won by a cricket score.

Following the opening of WA’s internal border that was keeping tourists out of the Kimberley, the parade of caravans heading north is now in full swing in perfect weather but minus the usual contingent from Melbourne who love to watch the night sky in the outback because they can’t see the stars through the thick air at home.

“Victoria the place to be” is the inscription on their number plates. Naturally we West Australians ask the obvious question. “If Victoria is the place to be, what are you folks doing over here? Did somebody leave the gate open?”

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