The range of issues turned up by state elections these days (law and order, hospital waiting lists, water supply) is usually so narrow it can be hard to tell one campaign from the next. Two concerns which don’t often rate a mention are equal opportunity and sexual harassment.

It is an indication of the extraordinary state of affairs in the WA Liberal Party that Labor is pursuing these unconventional lines of attack in its first negative advertising of the state election campaign. Commercial radio audiences are being targeted with ads in which a young girl declares her aspiration to grow up in “a place where women have a voice in the community” and “a society which respects women”. An older female voice then breaks the bad news that the Liberal Party “boys’ club” has “only one woman running in their held seats”, and that “Liberal Shadow Treasurer Troy Buswell thinks it’s funny to play with a woman’s bra in public and to sniff a woman’s chair”.

The two issues are closely related. As well as making him poison in the eyes of women voters, Buswell’s heavily publicised indiscretions clearly presented a stumbling block to the party’s efforts to recruit female candidates. His emergence as leader in January also coincided with the departure of the party’s existing two women in the lower house. Shadow Tourism Minister Katie Hodson-Thomas announced her retirement plans before entering the party room meeting that confirmed Buswell as leader, having earlier complained he had subjected her to “inappropriate” remarks in the presence of male colleagues (she admits to regretting the decision now her long-standing ally Colin Barnett is back at the helm). Shadow Attorney-General Sue Walker quit the party a fortnight later, citing factionalism and her lack of “trust” in Buswell. Walker will attempt to hold her seat of Nedlands as an independent against Bill Marmion, who won Liberal preselection as the only male nominee in a field of four.

One failure at least could be put down to misfortune rather than carelessness. When Barnett announced his retirement in February, the unopposed preselection nominee for his blue-ribbon seat of Cottesloe was Deidre Willmott, policy director for the Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a front-bench shoo-in. Willmott of course was compelled to stand aside when Barnett returned to the leadership a fortnight ago, and could not be persuaded with alternative offers of an upper house seat or a shot against Sue Walker in Nedlands. She has now been appointed chief-of-staff to Barnett and will no doubt take his place in Cottesloe if the Liberals lose the election, although this is not openly acknowledged.

When nominations closed on Friday, it was revealed the Liberals had managed a grand total of six female lower house candidates out of 58. Current polling suggests this will translate into two elected members out of about 24, both marginal seat newcomers with no obvious claim to a position on the front-bench. The situation is only slightly better in the upper house, where the most likely result will be four Liberal women out of 15. The Nationals too are likely to emerge with an all-male complement of three or four lower house MPs plus one in the upper house, unless their existing female MLC Wendy Duncan can pull off an unlikely win in Mining and Pastoral region.

The best Barnett has been able to make of the situation is to offer a front-bench position to Liz Constable, the long-standing independent member for the naturally Liberal western suburbs seat of Churchlands. Constable has been a notable presence alongside Barnett on the campaign trail, despite not yet having had much to say relating to her nominated portfolios of public sector management and government accountability.

Peter Fray

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