Western Australia’s tourism slogan was once The Wildflower State. Then it became The State of Excitement – to the amusement of Victorians. Now WA is the One Party State. After Saturday’s election there is a government in the West without an opposition.
Amid the cheers of the victorious and the recriminations of the defeated, only two statements can be made with certainty in the immediate aftermath of WA Labor’s triumphant Saturday 13 March landslide. West Australian voters liked the State Government’s approach to Covid-19 and the Liberal Party in Perth has taken such a tumble that the shock waves are felt in Canberra.
The (now former) Opposition Leader Zak Kirkup’s appeal to voters to support a viable Parliament was too subtle and he lost his seat along with all but two or possibly three Liberal members. Labor held an astonishing 41 Legislative Assembly seats after the 2017 landslide and now holds a mind-boggling 52 out of the Assembly’s total of 59. Opposition leadership passes to Mia Davies of the Nationals who hails from the tiny wheatbelt town of Yorkrakine. She was a young Minister for Water in the Barnett Government.
The big question for democracy in the West is will other institutions fill the vacuum left by the absence of a parliamentary opposition? Will the West Australian Newspaper and other media step up their political coverage and their scrutiny of a dominant government? Will the courts, the Chambers of Commerce, the Universities and other groups take a more critical view? Vacuums are there to be filled so I think we will see more criticism of the Government from outside of party politics.
Already Liberal critics are pointing the finger at Kirkup’s green energy policy, his concession of defeat, the influence of power brokers on pre-selections, the Clive Palmer story and so on. They are missing the point. The die was cast. We saw a truly out-of-this-world performance by the Labor Government. How on earth could any political party in such a democracy as Australia in the 21st century in a fair and square election pull off such a total victory?
Here’s how. The West Australian Government has a strong military backbone. Premier McGowan came West as a Royal Australian Navy lawyer stationed at HMAS Stirling on Garden Island, facing the calm waters of Cockburn Sound in the Rockingham electorate which he now represents. Housing Minister Peter Tinley was a senior officer in the SAS Regiment who went to America in 2002 to plan Australia’s part in the Iraq invasion. Tourism Minister Paul Paplia was a Navy clearance diver with 26 years’ experience in the military.
Peter Tinley gave us a fascinating lecture at the Port Hedland Chamber of Commerce before his entry to Parliament. The sign above his desk in the command post tent in the Iraqi desert read: “The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.” Tinley would listen to the bellyaches of troops for a few minutes, then point to the sign. There was a job to be done.
I am a member of the ALP in WA and this is how I read the action of the past year that led to Saturday’s total victory. When the Covid enemy appeared on the radar, the Government seized the moment. With their military background the brains trust decided on a policy knowing that it did not matter whether the policy was correct. That could be argued by historians. What did matter was to pursue the policy with firm, consistent leadership – not to waver and not to doubt. Premier McGowan stood like a light house on a rocky cliff sending out reliable signals to mariners.
There will be many theories about the way blue-ribbon Liberal seats fell to the ALP. Here is my view. I thought the Liberals were appealing to young voters with Kirkup’s leadership and environmentally friendly policies but it was the loss of older voters that cost the conservatives. This is just a personal observation but I think a critical mass of older voters were scared of Covid-19. They appreciated the Government’s hard-line border policy and they related to Mark McGowan’s leadership and the sympathetic manner of his many press conferences.
The election landslide was forecast by the polls. Nevertheless, it was a startling result in a modern democracy. The federal election is a year away. WA was a stronghold for Scott Morrison in 2019 and it is true that voters distinguish between state and federal issues but Labor people in Canberra this week will be smiling.