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The rest of Australia might not care too much about the Western Australian state election this Saturday, but the state and its leaders don’t much care for the rest of Australia, either.

As the election campaign draws to a close both leaders have continued a WA tradition of bagging the “eastern states”  in a campaign that has become a contest over who will best “stand up” to Canberra.

In one corner the incumbent, Liberal Premier Colin Barnett. With the air of a parochial town mayor he has sought to cast himself as WA’s chief protector, resisting federal government “meddling” in health policy, education and disability reform, and loudly protesting against the mining tax, carbon tax and the current model of GST distribution.

In the other is Labor leader Mark McGowan. Liberal TV advertisements warn that McGowan is beholden to  Canberra and won’t fight for WA. Political analyst  and Edith Cowan University Professor Harry Phillips says the Liberal Party’s campaign has forced McGowan into similarly strong anti-Canberra rhetoric. “McGowan has had to adopt the same sort of view on the GST and the MRRT [Mineral Resource Rent Tax, known as the mining tax], although not quite as strong,” he said. McGowan has also joined Barnett in voicing opposition to the carbon tax. At his request federal cabinet ministers have not campaigned in WA, and any unavoidable commitment they’ve had in the State has been kept discreet.

The visceral reaction of Western Australians to federal policies cannot be attributed solely to the unpopularity of the Gillard government. WA has always held an angsty suspicion that nobody understands its special needs as the biggest, most sparsely populated and most isolated state. The popular, if erroneous boast of Perth as the world’s most isolated capital city exposes the Western Australian frontier mentality that still exists despite advances in communication and cheap air travel.

WA joined the federation reluctantly at the last minute and isn’t included in the preamble to the constitution. It is also only state to have held a referendum on secession, to which the public voted a resounding “yes” in 1933. Today, support for secession is not confined to the old or crazy, but is the popular fodder of dinner parties and business lunches. In 2011 Norman Moore, then a senior minister in Barnett’s government and leader in the upper house, suggested WA should consider seceding over the mining tax, carbon tax and GST. At a business lunch in Perth the same year, Andrew Forrest recalled federal Treasurer Wayne Swan suggesting facetiously that WA secede if it didn’t like the mining tax, prompting a spontaneous round of applause from the room.

The central thesis of the secessionist movement is WA is being ripped off. Even though the state was for most of its history a recipient of federal aid, the current GST distribution model’s returns to WA whips Western Australians into a frenzy. Although the federal government plays no role in determining the distribution of the GST, Barnett has conflated the state’s declining share of the GST with the unpopular federal government, saying he was “vehemently opposed to the Labor Party in Canberra reducing our share of the GST to 55 cents in the dollar and potentially down to 35 cents in the dollar”.

The reason for that low share is of course, the flood of wealth brought about by the mining boom. Mining has changed Western Australia, and its effects have been felt by every resident, whether directly employed in the industry or not. Major urban renewal projects — three currently under construction- –are changing the footprint of Perth CBD, revived by a proliferation of restaurants, bars, and designer stores that service the enriched middle class. Everyone knows someone working in the mines. When the mining tax was announced, WA reacted fiercely.

Ground zero of the anti-mining tax campaign was in WA. Workers in  the heavily unionised mining industry were unmoved by arguments about rapacious mining companies earning untaxed billions, or Kevin Rudd’s foreign ownership lever. They chanted “axe the tax” in unison with their billionaire employers because they saw any threat to the mining industry as a threat to their personal wealth.

Speaking at the WA Liberal’s election campaign launch, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott played to this sentiment. “All of us owe a debt to you. Every Australian owes a debt to Western Australia, and in an important sense, West Australians are the best Australians,” said an obsequious Abbott.

It seems likely that both Abbott  and Barnett will win, with betting agencies and the polls suggesting large victories. Even if that plays out, it remains to be seen if those victories can appease WA’s resentment towards Canberra. The federal Coalition has not been supportive of suggestions the GST distribution formula should change, and analysts say WA’s share of the GST  could be reduced to 33 cents in the dollar.

No matter how appreciative future prime minister Abbott might be of West Australians, that could be enough to keep whispers of “secession” alive.

Peter Fray

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