Troy Buswell with Liberal Party candidate Libby Mettam

A long-running battle for the heart and mind of regional Western Australia enters another round tomorrow, as voters in the south-west seat of Vasse choose a replacement for the state’s troubled former treasurer Troy Buswell.

In the absence of a candidate from the locally uncompetitive ALP, the byelection is a contest between the Liberals and the Nationals — whose always-uneasy partnership has been put under increasing strain by the Royalties for Regions scheme, through which a quarter of the government’s mining royalty revenue is earmarked for regional projects.

This policy was largely responsible for an electoral breakthrough achieved by the Nationals in 2008, when the party’s then-leader Brendon Grylls professed himself equally open to doing business with either side of politics to bring it to fruition.

Having secured the balance of power for his party in both houses, Grylls appeared deadly serious about striking a deal with the tottering Labor government after the election. When the Nationals instead opted for the more conventional course, Royalties for Regions was the cornerstone of the agreement that persuaded them to do so.

By the time the next election came around in March 2013, it seemed that every town from Derby to Denmark could boast new sporting facilities or a refurbished main drag. The resulting kudos helped the Nationals extend their electoral empire still further, scoring them another three seats in the state’s north and interior, far from the party’s traditional base in the wheatbelt territories of the state’s south-west.

But it was also a good election for the Liberals, whose gains in the Perth suburbs secured them a lower house majority in their own right. The governing alliance (the Nationals refuse to call it a coalition) has continued, but discontent about its terms has been steadily mounting ever since.
Greatly exacerbating the problem has been the deteriorating position of the budget, and the PR disaster inflicted on the government by ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, both of which have downgraded the state from its AAA credit rating.

For their part, the Nationals have been rubbed the wrong way by council amalgamation plans and the mooted privatisation of the state’s TAB. Such is the backdrop for tomorrow’s byelection in one part of regional WA where the Nationals’ message has never yet quite struck home.

“With the likelihood that minor party preferences will flow heavily their way, it wouldn’t take much of an advance on that for the Nationals to take the fight right up to the Liberal candidate … “

Vasse is centred on the coastal city of Busselton, 220 kilometres south of Perth, from which it extends into beef and dairy farming areas and the northern part of the Margaret River wine-growing and tourism region. The Liberals have won the seat at every election since its creation in 1950, and their grip has tightened further over the past decade. For this it can thank the local popularity of Troy Buswell, curious as that may seem to outside observers for whom his name will forever be a byword for chair-sniffing and mysteriously erratic driving.

The Nationals could only manage single digits when they ran against Buswell at last year’s election, but on the last two occasions when his name was absent from the ballot paper, in 1996 and 2001, their primary vote was around 23%.

With the likelihood that minor party preferences will flow heavily their way, it wouldn’t take much of an advance on that for the Nationals to take the fight right up to the Liberal candidate, former Channel Nine and ABC journalist Libby Mettam.

Certainly the Nationals are putting a lot more effort into the seat than they did last year, having landed a well-connected candidate in Peter Gordon, an owner of local cafes and a former president of the Busselton Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

However, Gordon faces an unexpected obstacle in the shape of the Greens, who have a strong base of support in the Margaret River region, and stand to monopolise the left-of-centre vote in Labor’s absence. The Greens’ stocks in Western Australia have risen considerably since Scott Ludlam’s triumph at the special Senate election in April, and they stand to benefit locally from the Barnett government’s wildly controversial shark culling program. This is a big problem for Gordon, as any plausible path to victory involves him outpolling the Greens and absorbing the bulk of their preferences.

The Liberals seem confident that the hurdle will prove too high. Premier Colin Barnett has spoken of the byelection as a contest between Liberal and the Greens, and an internal poll has purportedly showed Gordon in third place, some 6% astern of the Greens.

Support for the Liberals was said to be in the mid-40s — well down on Buswell’s 57% last year, but assuredly no problem for them if Nationals preferences are distributed and Greens preferences are not.

Nonetheless, the Liberals are not so confident that they’re taking anything for granted. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was in the electorate the weekend before last to spruik Mettam’s cause, which if nothing else serves to illustrate her own rising political stocks.

The government has also discovered its coffers aren’t so bare that it can’t find $2 million for local youth facilities and further funding for a shark barrier at Busselton Beach. The Liberal campaign also appears to have heavily outspent that of a National Party that no longer has donations from Clive Palmer flowing into its coffers.