It is nonsense to argue that the toxicity of the federal Labor Party played no part in the enormity of the swing suffered by the Labor Party at the weekend’s WA election. Perth federal MP Stephen Smith, who was a panellist on ABC television on election night, sensibly acknowledged — however delicately — the federal party had been “a drag” on state Labor and had “not been helpful” to its prospects.
The truth is Prime Minister Julia Gillard and federal Labor played a major role in the devastation wreaked upon state Labor. Newspoll’s exit polling showed that 51% of voters placed the federal government as the most important issue in influencing their vote. Outside the metropolitan area, 54% of voters placed federal Labor as the most important issue influencing their vote.
Overall 33% of voters identified the carbon tax as their most important issue, with 30% picking the mining tax. These issues were surpassed only by the cost of living and the cost of housing at 34%. Federal Labor’s effect at the ballot box is clear; Barnett campaigned on the carbon tax and the mining tax. Barnett was unquestionably out-campaigned by Labor leader Mark McGowan but was seen as a steady, reliable and competent premier who had overseen strong economic growth in the state.
McGowan had asked Gillard not to visit WA during the campaign, but he could not keep her out of the lounge rooms of WA voters. Gillard was in effect campaigning during the state election. Her excursion into western Sydney in the final week of the campaign led the evening news each night. McGowan’s timidness in dealing with Gillard was unhelpful. He should at the very least have openly attacked her and said publicly she was not welcome in WA.
The Greens vote fell by 4%, and it seems at very best it might hold two upper house seats. The one seat in which the Greens polled well was Kimberley, where it attracted 25% of the primary vote entirely due to the controversy over the James Point gas hub. The final result of Kimberley is not yet clear; however, Labor, which has held the seat since 1980, attracted just 21.6% of the primary vote. It would appear much of the Greens vote came directly from Labor. The Greens attracted 7.2% of the upper house vote, down 4%, which would cause them to lose their WA Senate representation at the federal level.
In a nice sense of irony, the National Party’s candidate for Kimberley had to resign her ALP membership to allow her to join the Nationals, and the ALP candidate for Pilbara had to resign from the Greens to stand for Labor.
At the 2008 state election the National Party held the balance of power, and leader Brendan Grylls, in showing his real colours, agreed to a coalition with Labor. A condition of National support for Labor was Labor’s agreement to a National Party royalties for regions scheme, whereby 25% of all royalties were to be spent in country regions, with Grylls as the responsible minister. A number of Grylls’ colleagues refused to serve with Labor, and the agreement collapsed, only to have it taken up by Premier Barnett, who entered into a coalition with the National Party which was given ministries with the right to vote against cabinet decisions.
The royalties for regions fund received $1.2 billion in 2012, of which the seat of Pilbara received $254.5 million for that year alone. At this election Grylls abandoned his seat of Central Wheatbelt and successfully contested the seat of Pilbara, 1650 kilometres to the north.
As Minister for Royalties for Regions Grylls has frequently visited the Pilbara, flying into towns within the electorate in the government jet to announce huge payments for various conspicuous purposes. Labor had previously held the seat for many years and in losing it, suffered a swing of 13.3%.
Grylls, who has no connection with the Pilbara save for “his” royalties for regions money, made it clear during the campaign he had no intention of leaving Perth to live in the electorate.
The wheatbelt region received $130 million in royalties for regions money in 2012. Central Wheatbelt, unsurprisingly, was retained by the Nationals. The National Party also won the mining electorate of Kalgoorlie, with the Labor Party receiving just 19.2% of the primary vote in this traditional Labor stronghold.
During the campaign the National Party was the only party to refuse to have its promises costed, stating that its costings were irrelevant because they would simply be paid for from royalties for regions funds whatever the cost.
Labor gave its preferences in these traditional Labor seats to the National Party, and it will have a great deal more difficulty regaining them from the Nationals than it would have from the Liberal Party.
During the campaign Barnett pledged that whatever the outcome, if he was returned to government he would “coalesce” with the Nationals. The Liberal Party has now won enough seats to govern in its own right. To what extent Barnett takes some control of the royalties for regions fund is to be seen.