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A senior pro-Liberal business heavyweight in Peth has weighed in with an analysis of the issues in WA.
Two weeks into the 2001 State election and it is already shaping up as a campaign of un-relieved dullness, enlivened only by the sporadic attempts of either party to prove that they either don’t want or are not fit for government.

To be fair to the Coalition, it’s not that they’ve been a bad government, just not a very good one. In his first campaign, Richard Court proclaimed that “This is not Victoria, and I’m not Jeff Kennett.” While undoubtedly true, what he forgot to mention is that he is also not Alan Stockdale. This is significant because Mr Court, who is also his own Treasurer, has presided over a regime of fiscal profligacy in his last couple of budgets. That the State’s financial position is not much worse than it is, is due to WA’s unique boost from minerals royalties and current high commodity prices – Treasury gets around $800 million annually from this source.

Although a big spender, Mr Court has got little electoral kudos from this largesse. The electorate sees him as having slashed hospitals , schools and police budgets, despite real increases in the order of 30%. At the same time, interest groups and the media (when they are not endlessly running stories about waiting lists) sees the Government as on the edge of a financial crisis. This is overstating it, but it is a significant insight into the Government’s lack of credibility in this area that, when recent Treasury forward estimates showing a drift into the red in out years without policy changes were released, the media uniformly presented it as the State on the brink of a Cain/Kirner style debt spiral.

Adding to the Government’s problems is a severe lack of talent on its frontbenches. This may only be the usual problem with State politics but has undoubtedly been exacerbated by virtually nothing in the way of cabinet re-shuffles over the eight years the Government has been in power. A recent example was the extraordinary public outburst by the Minister for Fair Trading, Doug Shave, accusing his colleagues of disloyalty and expressing his own dissatisfaction with the job. Richard Court, a fairly even tempered individual by all accounts, is no Jeff Kennett in temperament either, but even he is unlikely to grant Mr Shave his wish if the Government is returned.

This lack of talent and mediocre public management explains why the ALP is a strong possibility for government, even though it is difficult to point to anywhere the Government has really gone wrong (Ed’s note: what about finance brokers?). But the Opposition seems to be doing its best to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

It could be argued that the ALP’s stance on native title (which, in contrast to the Queensland ALP, is essentially to deny there is a problem and block legislative amendments) is principled. That is its only virtue. In a State heavily dependent on mining, native title has indisputably caused exploration to dry up, with declines in new projects as investment falls. This plays very badly in rural seats and there is a real possibility that the ALP could lose the State seat of Kalgoorlie. One ALP Upper House member has already left the party over this issue.

The ALP cannot win government in the city because of WA’s continuing malapportionment, so it must pick up rural seats. In one sense this makes it clear why the ALP would like to change the system. But to propose doing so in the middle of an election, as the Opposition Leader has done, appears madness.

Compounding the ALP’s regional woes is the puzzling decision to de-select a very popular local member in the Pilbara in favour of a candidate whose only proven ability is that of working the local branches. The de-selected MP is running as an independent and could well take the seat. If he does, he would have to be more saint like than most not to exact some measure of political vengeance on his former colleagues.

And the ALP has hardly been helped, just as the last high profile figure from WA Inc, Julian Grill (although one of the more capable figures on either side of the House) retires, by the decision of a local radio station to call in Brian Burke as a guest commentator – in a gesture to even handedness they have also found a disgraced pollie from the other side in Noel Crichton-Browne but this does not have the same resonance. (Ed’s note: that would be 6PR, owned by the same company that runs 3AW).

Finally, the ALP has bought itself a fight with the State’s main business lobby groups by proposing to change the State’s industrial relations framework to limit the use of individual workplace contracts. While not going as far the unions would have liked, the incentives to do so are obvious. Large sections of the State have been de-unionised as workers switch to individual contracts and see no need for unions to represent them, with a consequent loss of union influence and hence on the ground assets for the ALP. But these individual contracts have been a key factor in achieving very large productivity gains, without which the mining industry in particular would not have been able to weather the Asian crisis. This issue probably won’t do the ALP any harm in the regions but could hurt it in the city and a full scale campaign by business remains a possibility.

The most likely result? A hung parliament looks a possibility. The next Government could well depend on a collection of independents. One, Liz Constable, an ex-Liberal, would not be a concern. Another ex-Liberal, Phil Pendal, has disturbing green overtones and might be inclined to urge anti development policies as the price for his support. Dumped sitting ALP member Larry Graham, who will probably be returned, is an unknown. The Upper House will remain hostage to the Democrats and Greens. With no certainty of getting legislation through either house, whoever has a majority in the Legislative Assembly may have to pander to the whims of political fringe dwellers as the price for passage. The prospects for good government in this scenario look dubious and the 1990s may look much better in retrospect than they do now.

Peter Fray

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