The WA elections has seen state Liberals fail once again, but what can be done to break the cycle? Owen Outside has a few suggestions: The WA election result may not have been the landslide that eastern states have seen, but it tends to confirm what I have been thinking about state politics for a while. The big issue as I see it is the supreme lack of talent in the Liberals (and Nationals) at state level.

This is becoming self-reinforcing. The Libs don’t win state elections because they haven’t got the cattle, as football commentators would say. Consequently, talented Liberals don’t want to go into state politics, creating a vicious cycle.

For the immediate future I see state politics generally looking like this (note caveat of generally – there will be some exceptions): The ALP holds government comfortably in the face of a very weak opposition. It goes on winning until it either becomes so corrupt or so incompetent that it is thrown out in despair. The coalition takes over, but their talent pool is so shallow they lose after one or two elections and the cycle starts again.

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As I said, there will be some exceptions. Occasionally the Liberals may manage to get several talented people into a particular state parliament at once. Sometimes a drastic economic crisis may coincide with an election, costing a still vigorous ALP government power. But most of the time this is what I expect to happen in all states and the ACT (I’m not confident to predict for the Northern Territory).

The longer it goes on, the harder it will be for the Liberals to break this pattern – even if they lose government federally it will be a long time, if ever, before they are seen as a basket case there. Given the choice between the glory of Canberra, including substantial terms in government, and near permanent opposition in the state parliament the best and brightest will take the trip inland. Even many of those who can’t manage to land a federal seat will conclude that there’s more money to be made in the private sector, and you get to win more often.

This is not to say that there will soon not be a single talented state coalition MP. There will be some, but the problem is that one individual is not enough. Even the best, stuck in a hopeless team, will eventually be ground down to despair, a phenomenon well known to some footballers until the league started evening up the competition.

It’s not a cheerful prospect. The Labor governments may sometimes be quite good when first elected, but in the manner of most governments, will decay with time, while the Liberal administrations will be bloody hopeless. We might get moderately good government a third of the time if we’re lucky.

Breaking The Cycle

So what could break this cycle? Well for a start, changes to the Liberal Party recruitment practises so that a bunch of talented newcomers enter state parliament. If this happens there could be a flow on effect, as the pioneers encourage others to join them. It’s possible, but as I have said, the trend is the other way. Given the aging nature of the Liberal membership the internal pool is getting smaller and smaller, and while there is more talent in Canberra, its not like it’s so deep they want to go pinching it for the state houses. Recruiting high flyers from outside the party always has its problems, and when you need not just one or two, but several per state it gets harder still.

Another possibility is that the ALP talent pool will decline to the point where the two parties are evenly matched. This might make a few Liberal supporters happy, but it hardly improves the state of governance in this country.

There is one thing that could improve things though – the rise of a genuine third party capable of winning substantial numbers of state seats, and even the balance of power.

This would have several effects. For a start, opposition from two directions would keep the pressure on ALP governments, probably improving their performance when in power. When no party gains majority government the ministry would either be made up of members of two parties (depending on the circumstances we may see Lab-Lib coalitions with the third party in opposition, or either Labor or Liberals governing with their support) or would be truly accountable to a house in which it does not control. Coalitions would make for more conflict, but would at least provide a wider talent pool for selecting the ministry.

This would also make state politics more interesting, and might attract people who like a challenge to both the Labor and Liberal state teams. Depending on the nature of the third party it might also outrage some members of the community, who would get active in consequence, further broadening the pool at preselection time.

The problem is, who could this party or parties be? In Tasmania the answer is obviously The Greens, but there is no reason to believe the same party will emerge in every state. Below is my assessment of the prospects.

A breakaway party. It’s possible that either Labor or Liberal will experience a split, leading to the formation of a serious competitor. This is the way most major-minor parties have formed in Australian history. However, if the state Liberals are as weak as I expect, a split from them is unlikely to create a major force. An ALP split is possible, but it doesn’t seem all that likely to me. If it was going to happen it probably would have occurred during the drastic changes in direction during the 80s and early 90s.

It is also conceivable that a new party could emerge from nowhere; that is, without having any current state or federal registration. This is certainly not going to be easy. Most new parties fail, and to make it to several seats in the lower house in any state parliament is a huge ask. Such a party would need to win either close to 20% of the vote statewide or, like the Nationals, have a very geographically concentrated vote. It would need to rest on more than a charismatic leader, although that would certainly help. Such a party would also need a high level of internal agreement, otherwise it would shatter the moment it gained significant power and some contentious issue came up.

I’d say the most likely form for such a party, at least in several states, would be as a progressive rural and regional force. There have been a heap of attempts to forge a new rural party, but most of these have been far-right forces. As the dismal vote of the New Country Party in the WA election shows, this really is not viable unless you have a celebrity leader, and even that eventually tends to fail. (For the record, the New Country Party was formed by two ex-One Nation MPs. They got 0.3% statewide in the upper house, managing just 2% in their strongest area).

However, a very different sort of regional party might have a chance. The sort of party that could appeal to sea changers and people in the larger regional centres, as well as traditional rural voters. Many of the attempts at rural parties have based themselves around bigotry either against Aborigines, Asians or Gays. It might have temporary appeal, but it’s not a sustainable strategy. But a quality of life party, promoting services, the environment and decentralisation might have a show.

There are probably other niches, but I can’t think of them.

So this leaves the parties that currently do exist. Could any of them grow to a powerful force? As I’ve said the Greens are pretty much there in Tasmania. The only thing stopping them playing the role I have described is the pathological hatred between the three parties in Tasmania. Labor and Liberal won’t go into coalition with each other because of history, while neither will touch the Greens because their positions are too far apart on crucial issues. Consequently any balance of power situation may lead to stalemate. But this may not be the case forever. Younger Labor MPs may either find they agree with the Greens on some of the key issues, or, raised in an environment where the Greens are the enemy, may decide a Lab-Lib coalition is not unthinkable.

In the ACT the Greens just need to boost their vote from the 9% where it has been stuck for a while to about 14% and they will have 3-4 seats. The ACT Labor party is not nearly as hostile to the Greens as their Tasmanian cousins and the Liberals there might be able to work with either Labor or the Greens when appropriate.

However, in the other states the Greens are a long way from representing this sort of force. Western Australia is in many ways the best opportunity for them, with a historic base and a favourable electoral system. The fact that their vote stalled this time, even more than the loss of seats demonstrates it will be long time, if ever, before the Greens can fulfil this sort of role in most states.

It is possible that the Nationals could transform themselves, but so far the signs are not good. Their vote is in decline everywhere, and despite signs of independence in some states they are so tied to the Liberals federally that creating an independent profile is almost impossible. The push for amalgamation in Queensland makes it even harder. The Nationals have the resources and the base to become a third force, at least in some states, but it’s not clear if they have the flexibility of mind.

The Democrats and One Nation both always had structural problems which hampered their prospects, but each of them might once have made it, at least in a couple of states. No longer. From now on their influence is limited to preference decisions.

I’d also dismiss the bulk of federally registered parties. If you can’t get 1% of the vote now you’re probably best advised to give up. Some of them may win a single spot in an upper house, but that is about it.

In deference to Crikey’s past association I won’t ignore People Power, but I don’t see them making it either. They could become a bit of a force at by-elections now and then, possibly including Werriwa, and I wouldn’t rule out an upper house seat or two (although I wouldn’t bet on it) but I don’t see them going further. The problem is not that people won’t vote for their policies, they very well might. The problem is that I can’t see their philosophy attracting the large numbers of active members such a party would require. Making a substantial party work requires literally millions of unpaid hours, and for that people have to not just like what you stand for, but love it.

Which leaves us with Family First. There’s no question the undying commitment is there, and the money will certainly help. In the long run they will probably either amalgamate with the Christian Democrats, or simply absorb their vote (despite being beaten by the CDP in WA). But for them to go higher would require a drastic change to the way Australians think. What’s more, if religious fundamentalism really does rise that much, it’s likely it will simply take over the Liberals, leaving them an even smaller force than I predict, and Family First with nothing to differentiate themselves.

Just how unlikely Family First are to have broad appeal can be seen from their federal campaign. They spent most of their time trying to make sure people knew as little as possible about what they stand for. Saying “If it’s good for families we’ll support it, if it’d bad we’ll oppose it” without dealing with the fundamentally subjective nature of such issues may get you an initial vote, but eventually you have to show your hand. And when their entire campaign was made up of telling outright lies about another party, and refusing to explain what they actually believe is “good for families” it’s clear their leadership realises that most voters won’t like the detail when they see it.

PS During the WA election I came up with a theory on why Barnett supported the canal. It didn’t get a run on Crikey, but I like it, so I thought I’d give it another shot here.

Maps are usually drawn with north at the top. In Australian culture this translates to talking about north as “up” and south as “down”. One flies “down” from Brisbane to Canberra, despite the fact that Brisbane is at sea level and Canberra in the mountains. This is not universal – in England London, Oxford and Cambridge are “up” while less prestigious places are “down”. I believe in some other countries (probably including Switzerland) a place is considered “up” if it actually is at higher altitude.

Phillip Adams believes this is the reason Australians are so concerned about Asian immigration – we have this vision that gravity will eventually suck millions of people down on top of us. He argues that if our maps had south at the top then we’d be more worried about penguins.

It’s the pumping that really made the canal idea a turkey – by some estimates it would take more power to pump water 3700km than to desalinate seawater. The one off cost of a canal could be borne; the ongoing cost of pumping could not. Of course Barnett knew that water would need to be pumped from Kimberly to get to Perth, but I think he just never quite believed it. His subconscious kept looking at the map thinking, “If we just built a channel the water will flow down”. If you don’t believe me, turn a map of WA upside down; see how much harder it looks to imagine the thing working?

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Peter Fray
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