How close did the WA Nationals really come to an historic deal to keep Labor in government?

As a meeting of actual or potential Nationals MPs concluded on Saturday evening, there were indications that just such an arrangement had been reached, with potentially momentous consequences for the federal Coalition.

Perth’s Sunday Times newspaper hit the stands that evening with a story detailing Warren Truss’s “last-ditch plea to stop WA Labor marriage”.

A vocal opponent of the Labor option, former leader Max Trenorden, was quoted saying: “I am not going to say whether I am happy with the decision or not, but I’m certainly not going to commit suicide over it”.

The party had already set tongues wagging by flying in Karlene Maywald from South Australia to tell the meeting of her experience as a member of Mike Rann’s Labor cabinet.

There was thus a genuine air of suspense when leader Brendon Grylls stood before the media the next morning to announce his party’s decision.

Reports today indicate that Grylls at least was deadly serious in his determination to cut a deal with Labor.

In response to Grylls’ demand for a $675 million “Royalties for Regions” commitment, Labor offered what Robert Taylor of The West Australian describes as “a significantly more detailed document than that which the Liberals produced”.

Taylor further reports that the deal was favoured by the six newcomers at the meeting, although only two of these had been confirmed as elected and another two definitely haven’t been.

However, Grylls’ plan faced two insurmountable obstacles.

The first was the emphatic opposition of four of the party’s six sitting members, three of whom represent electorates in the party’s agricultural heartland where support for Labor is almost non-existent.

Three of those who backed a Labor deal came from the very different political terrain of the vast Mining and Pastoral region, where the Nationals did not even bother to field candidates at the 2005 election.

The party owed its outstanding performance in this area largely to disaffected Labor voters, many of whom sent their preferences to Labor ahead of the Liberals.

The second obstacle was Labor’s poor performance in the upper house, where it stands to win as few as 11 of the 36 seats.

Any agreements reached between Labor and the Nationals would thus have depended on the support of the Greens, whereas the Liberals plus the Nationals provided a clear majority.

The Liberals-Nationals lockout in the upper house invites renewed scrutiny of the 2005 deal between Labor, the Greens and Liberal-turned-independent Alan Cadby which secured passage of one-vote one-value reforms.

The Greens’ insistence on maintaining rural vote weighting in the upper house has proved a bonanza for the resurgent Nationals, who have most likely won three of the six seats in the grossly malapportioned Agricultural region.

This might well have created the conditions for one-vote one-value to be dismantled by the new parliament.

The stumbling block to such an arrangement is the lower rather than the upper house, which in a reversal of the usual circumstance is not controlled by the governing parties.

Late counting made life considerably more complicated for the new government by thwarting the Liberals’ hopes of nabbing Albany from Labor and Alfred Cove from independent Janet Woollard, and overturning what was believed to be a victory for independent candidate Carol Adams in the apparently safe Labor seat of Kwinana.

That puts the numbers in the Legislative Assembly at 28 Labor, 24 Liberal, four Nationals and three independents.

In happier circumstances, the Liberals might have hoped for a combined Liberal-Nationals majority in both houses with Carol Adams to serve as Speaker.

They will instead be casting around for one of the independents to take on the role, giving Labor and the Liberal-Nationals parity on the floor while the remaining two independents hold the balance of power.

*William Bowe’s Poll Bludger blog is now featured as part of Crikey’s blog network.

Peter Fray

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