JERRY ROBERTS The West Australian Liberals get serious

Mar 26, 2018

A weekend of elections lifted the spirits of the Liberal and Labor Parties while the Greens made another attempt to back-stab themselves out of existence.  The most important political event was the one that received the least attention.  It was a by-election held in Perth’s seaside suburb of Cottesloe.

After the Tasmanian win, South Australia was another confidence booster for Malcolm Turnbull and the federal government.  Labor did the country a service by bringing a nurse into the House of Reps.  Let’s have more nurses in Parliament.  They are the people who keep us alive when we are in hospital and they are the critics best placed to identify weaknesses in our health system.

One of the many mistakes being made by the young, inexperienced State Labor Government in Western Australia is to under-estimate its opposition.  After a landslide victory this is an easy trap into which new governments fall.  The oldest rule in West Australian politics is never to under-estimate the power and influence of Perth’s Western suburbs Establishment.  These are the families and the interests that have run Western Australia since colonial days.

When Perth’s Western suburbs power brokers feel a slight risk that they may lose their grip on the State they close ranks and bring in the heavy hitters.  The by-election for Cottesloe was called on the retirement from the Parliament of the long-serving member and former Premier, Colin Barnett.  In pre-selection manoeuvres there was a flurry of activity from the girls who promoted a promising candidate but the time for identity politics was past.

As soon as David Honey made himself available there was no doubt that he would be the new Member for Cottesloe in the West Australian Legislative Assembly.  David is a heavy hitter.  He will take over the Liberal leadership within 18 months and the State Government needs to start taking its opposition seriously.

The Government has such a massive majority that it is unlikely to do a Campbell Newman and lose after one term but it is not impossible and the first year has been a disaster.  The major areas of State Government responsibility and expenditure are health, education and police.  Significant cuts to the police budget coincided with an outburst of violent crime in Perth.  That was a warm-up for the education cuts which have lit such a fire among teachers, parents, the bush in general and the students themselves that it will not take all that strong a breeze to fan the flames out of control.

The big worry is health, where cuts are yet to be announced.  I gather from the local Member of State Parliament that there are more cuts to come but there will be longer “consultation.”  The catch phrase for the government is “budget repair.”

Australians do not elect Labor Governments to hear lectures on book-keeping. They turn to Labor for action, industry, employment, ideas and vision.  The West Australian Government has already broken the six-month rule.  The accepted wisdom is that new governments have six months in which they can blame their problems on the previous government.  After that, they own the problems.  They wanted the job and the job is theirs.

The six-month rule is exaggerated.  It is more like six weeks.  Each incoming government’s shock discovery of budget “black holes” is such a cliché that cynical electorates become even more jaded and people wonder why they bother voting.  The worrying feature about this WA Government is that it does not appear to have a Plan B and the government is now into its second year. Labor’s chances of holding West Australian federal seats in next year’s election do not look bright.

The WA Labor “budget repair” strategy is built around a report by former Treasury official John Langoulant examining projects managed by the Liberal Coalition Government under Premier Colin Barnett.  I was surprised that a person of John Langoulant’s standing in a conservative profession in a conservative town would lend his name to a political witch-hunt of this magnitude.  Labor members of Parliament are now dropping heavy bundles of his report on to the tables at local branch meetings and are expressing surprise when branch members prefer to read the sports pages of the local newspaper.

I am reading Clive Hamilton’s book on the Chinese Communist Party’s infiltration of Australian politics and I am not going to read the Langoulant report but I did read Iain Rennie’s report on the West Australian public service and wrote about it in Pearls and Irritations (18 December 2017).

As a general comment on John Langoulant’s thesis, the winding down of the public service goes back to the theories of Hayek and Friedman and the politics of Thatcher.  In Australia the public service felt this new broom from the Labor governments of the 1980s.  Michael Pusey’s “Economic Rationalism in Canberra” described the process. Treasury in Perth forecast an iron ore price of $125 a tonne when it was about to fall to half that level.  There was a lot of silly talk from people who should have known better about a never-ending China boom.  There is no reason to think a Labor Government in West Perth at the time would have done any better than the government of the day.

Before the weekend’s events I was expecting Labor to win handsomely at next year’s federal election, mainly because of the Liberals’ attachment to corporate tax cuts.  Now I’m not so sure. I don’t underestimate Malcolm Turnbull (or Bill Shorten) and federal Labor has always struggled in the West, where the loss of seats next year will not be the major blow.

Queensland will be Labor’s problem.  The Party will not be able to have two bob each way, as it managed to do in Batman on Saturday where it was helped by the presence of a top-notch candidate and the bitchiness of the Greens.

Is Labor a blue-collar (or orange, his-visibility shirt) industrial political Party or is it new-class suburban?

If Adani’s Australian manager is correct and there is a market for the coal, that mine will go ahead.  The deals have been done.  The market will be the driver.  In my old-fashioned view of continental Australia, the problem with the Adani project is water, a more important resource than coal, iron ore or gold.  So, I’m against development of the Galilee Basin but I don’t live in Queensland.

This is not a straight-forward issue for Labor.

Jerry Roberts is a member of the Australian Labor Party


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