Driving around Perth last week, I found myself in possession of a hire car armed with a GPS which was programmed to speak not only with a broad Australian accent, but in stylised idiom. Every time I arrived somewhere the GPS would announce:
“You have reached your destination. Windows up, don’t forget your sunnies and don’t let the seagulls steal your chips.”
It was as if HAL had adopted the personality of a character from Home and Away. Yet grating though it rapidly became, the GPS uncannily seemed to provide a wry commentary on the state of a state that goes to the polls on March 9 to decide who is going to run the quarry for the next four years.
The Liberal Party, led by accidental Premier Colin Barnett, seems likely to win with an increased majority. But nobody is quite prepared to count out Mark McGowan’s Labor Party just yet, not least because the sheer bizarreness of WA politics in recent years has made pundits wary of counting on apparently reasonable prognoses.
Last time around, the ALP government of Alan Carpenter managed to bungle its way out of office, despite being against a Liberal opposition that had been through four leaders in two years, including the hapless teen-man Troy Buswell.
Although his public antics are more befitting a character from a gauche Hollywood comedy — somewhere in the territory between John Landis and Judd Apatow — Buswell clearly does have some ability. Indeed, astonishingly, he retains key ministerial portfolios. But whether he is allegedly snapping bras, sniffing chairs, squeezing testicles or messily breaking up with ex-girlfriends who also happen to be members of Parliament, Buswell seems pathologically unable to hold back his inner John Belushi. You can almost hear the chant breaking out from the Liberal Party room: “Toga, toga, toga!”
The fundamental context in which the election will be fought, of course, is WA’s extraordinary mineral resources rush. Not just an economic driver, the boom is Western Australia’s abiding social and cultural condition underpinning everyday relations and subjectivities. The explosion of WA’s mining and energy sector is the central dynamic behind everything from the “Shit Perth People Say“, to the breaking of the $5 coffee barrier back in 2009.
In Perth’s central business district, the resource industry dominates the skyline. In 2012, BHP Billiton moved into a new skyscraper, Brookton Place. An “Evil Corporation HQ” straight from central casting, Brookton Place is a sinisterly dark hue, bigger than anything else around and is on the wrong angle to the rest of the city. “Resistance”, the architects seem to have been saying, “is useless”.
Faced with uninspiring politics but general circumstances of extraordinary prosperity, WA can appear apolitical and entitled. In that sense, while Buswell comes across as a buffoon, his lack of restraint does hint at the spirit of the times. Cashed up on geological luck and the banks’ credit, many Western Australians are becoming accustomed to enjoying the fruits of good fortune. “Straight on,” my genius of a GPS said at one point, “too easy.”
Yet anxieties persist. Many individuals and households are highly leveraged and, as all miners know deep down inside, every rush ends. Meanwhile there are those whom the boom has simply never reached, who are left wondering just where the hell you get five bucks for a flat white.
One senior MP told me last week there are resident populations of children at a number of Perth’s train stations because they have nowhere else to go. The social politics and consequences of the boom are complex and under-analysed but it’s clear the largesse is not evenly spread. And as last week’s Armadale greeting card controversy showed, tensions over class (and gender) are not far from the surface.
The upshot of so much disposable income landing in an isolated city with an individualistic culture is the burgeoning of hyper-consumption as a way of finding and expressing meaning. The consequences are everywhere: obesity is on the rise, Perth’s newly built houses are among the biggest in human history, and discretionary spending is king. Next to the private pleasure of shopping, it’s no wonder civic engagement in public politics feels like a drab option.
Welcome to the end of history, Perth-style. Windows up, don’t forget your sunnies and don’t let the seagulls steal your chips.
*David Ritter is CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, but is writing here in a personal capacity. He is a WA lad born and bred.