The train was pulling back into East Perth station, from Kalgoorlie, mid-afternoon, phone reception had returned about 10 minutes earlier, and I was still ringing around trying to scare up some actual parties doing some actual campaigning, and not having much luck. Two days before the election, one in which control of the upper house might turn on a few hundred votes, and no one seemed to be out there drumming them up.
There was no word from the Micro Business Party, a shadowy outfit with full-page ads in The West Australian and business cards in dispensers in taxis. “The boss likes them,” one cabbie had said, “but he’s crazy”. No word from Daylight Saving Party, an outfit entirely dedicated to having this newfangled invention come to Western Australia, a move that farmers have resisted for decades. The light hits the window at 5am in WA, and it’s dark at seven in high summer. As God intended. I would vote against.*
The Fluoride Free Party told me they would be devoting the remainder of the time to training people to hand out at polls. “Is that um, that complicated?” I had asked Fluoride Free over the phone. “It’s very complicated,” I was told.
Daylight Saving and Fluoride Free are minor parties, part of a five-district voting carousel nutted out by our old friend, preference whisperer Glenn Druery. The other members are the Liberal Democrats, the Family First and a mob called Flux. WA has six six-member districts in the upper house, ticket voting and another tablecloth ballot paper, thanks to the ghosting in of dozens of independents to bulk out the lists. “Speak to the Lib Dems! Do you want David Leyonhjelm’s number?” said Glenn over the phone, a man who, with no time to spare, will still give you 10 minutes, three libelous stories about candidates, and never goes off the record. Never. If Glenn broke down and said yeah, he pushed that one model off that one Sydney cliff once, he’d still stay on the record. “Leyonhjelm? Oh uh, no thanks.” Four days in the desert I didn’t have the energy for the Lib Dem comb-over squad.
We love Glenn, but this may be the preference whisperer’s last ride, but one or two. That great Aussie institution, the ticket voting Hare-Clark modified D’Hondt upper house extravaganza is going the way of the old upper houses, which consisted entirely of squatters named Sir Roderick, elected for a 32-years term by the members of their close family. Western Australia might be one of the last places to deliver a good old 11-party train wreck.
Should that happen then WA might be in a spot of bother. For many Sandgropers, the truth of the mining boom is starting to dawn. It has come and gone, and left little behind except $36 billion in debt, and a $3 billion deficit.
“Took a while to twig,” William Bowe, the Poll Bludger, told me, as, off the train, I joined him at Gino’s cafe, a Fremantle coffee house whose staff have a finely honed arrogance and disdain, real old school, that you don’t get in the east anymore. “But they see ships full of iron ore leaving Port Hedland all day, every day, and suddenly realise that the money’s going with it. That’s why Grylls [Brendon Grylls, WA Nats leader, member for the Pilbara, and fighting off a challenge from One Nation nasty David Archibald there] is proposing a mining tax, he had to jump.”
Grylls’ proposal is for a 40-fold increase in the lease rental rate for BHP and Rio Tinto in the Pilbara, but not on local companies. It’s a stunning move for a National Party, but this is no normal election: the Libs are preferencing One Nation ahead of the Nats, One Nation preferencing the Libs and then denouncing their own preferences, Labor putting One Nation last, and the Nats and Greens doing a limited preference swap.
They have to do something. They should have done something before. When the red dust settles and the tallying’s done, the verdict on the mining boom in WA will be a harsh one. No Norwegian-style social fund was established — Norway now has a trillion dollars under management from North Sea oil and gas, and the whole country could retire — and much of the money that did come in served principally to inflate prices to, well, Norwegian levels. FIFO was imposed on people who wanted settled jobs, and no government stepped in to oblige the companies to give their workers more options. Men and women of modest skills and earning capacities were suddenly pulling in huge wages, with little advice as to how to invest it. Many bought houses in regional FIFO towns at prices approaching capital city levels — and then saw them halve in value as the boom died away. Meanwhile, the towns that became FIFO bases — from Singleton in NSW’s Hunter Valley to Kalgoorlie to Bunbury — were drained of the communal stability that makes life possible. “How can you organise a footy team? How can you even get a picnic going,” a woman had said to me in Singleton, two years ago, “when you never know who’s going to be here? The shops are empty, the town’s bled dry.” Two days ago, someone said the same thing, near word for word, in Kalgoorlie. In both towns, and many others, the miner’s mansions have “for sale” signs in front of them, directed at a market that isn’t there.
Some didn’t even make it to the bad-investment stage. A lot of people were drawn to FIFO by the idea that it would allow them to make big bank, on the simple principle that once you’re in camp, there’s nothing to spend your money on. But that scheme misses the effect of 14-day, 21-day, 28-day stints of 12-hour shifts on the human psyche. Beyond a certain point of such punishing, inhuman labour, it is all but impossible for most people not to blow their money in the first days off, especially if they’re young. Everyone who’s done night shifts, continuous shifts, back-to-backs knows this. The money spends itself, burns its way out of your pocket. Potlatch, the old tribal custom of wanton destruction, takes over. You stride into a bar and fuck it, you’re not going to drink beer, or Red Label, you’re going to drink Chivas! A double! Chivas for everyone! For some people who just came to do a couple of years in the mines and party up, that’s probably no great tragedy. Others have worked years at grinding, dirty, dangerous work and have nothing to show, a fact that must be part-cause of the suicides, depression, domestic violence and addiction that has broken through FIFO communities like a long wave.
Given a free kick by 4 billion years of geology, and a chance to reinvest, Western Australia appears to have created a situation in which Wake in Fright and The Unknown Industrial Prisoner serve not as dystopian warnings, but as HR manuals. Now a state that has spent a decade chipping bits of itself off and floating it northward for silly-money prices cannot pay for its most basic services, pay down its debt, and is proposing taxes that should have been being levied since the 1990s and scrambling to fill the gap with infrastructure projects it can’t afford to start. Services cut include those to Aboriginal people, which in turn has produced unwilling population movements, pressure on centralised and reduced services, and a resultant and distinct fraying of white-black community relations in a range of towns, a fall away from such detente and mutual understanding as has been achieved in recent years. What looks like a racial political issue, is, in reality, a product of the state’s fiscal crisis, and its panicked efforts to plug the gap.
The gap has been plugged, instead, with meth, a drug that has boomed out of control in WA, simply because it has become so cheap, easily made from base chemicals, in suburban labs springing up in every city and town. Those looking to explain its reach in WA by its occult power to turn people into speedfreak zombies are ironbarking up the wrong tree — meth hit the big time when it became cheaper than dope. Its popularity is a product not of addled obliviousness, but of the judicious application of rational choice theory by substance abusers, looking to maximise their investment. It’d make the Institute of Public Affairs proud.
All that, in overlapping bits and pieces is the conversations you get into across the state — with everyone. Miners, ex-miners, civic boosters, NGO officers, emergency services, journos, snappers. In WA, everyone’s become an amateur political sociologist, hot on the trail of where it all went wrong, and what the solution might be.
Still at Gino’s, and Alex Brownhill from Flux floated by, with handful of their schmick, stylish leaflets. Flux, which got an outing in the last federal election, is a WA first, a new-style party, which wants to guide the voting of any of its MPs by polling its members. Such notions have a long and inglorious history, but Flux has a new take on it.
“You use blockchain to track a vote, and you can proxy your vote to someone who’s an expert, or simply another organisation,” said Alex, a likable young man with sandy hair who looks a little like Dennis the Menace, but is apparently a mortgage broker, nudging 30.
“So if there’s a bill on say harbour management, we’d send the bill out, but if you don’t care about that, you can trade your vote off to someone else. You can even trade it off to another party — the ALP, Libs, whoever — if you want. That way,” Alex becomes little more excited, “the parties get feedback on which of their positions are popular, and it shifts the party’s politics. So essentially our system encompasses their system.”
Not Dennis the Menace, who …? Assange! He looks like Assange.
“We’re a WA first. No one else is doing this.”
Quite so, but in the pursuit of new politics, they’ve had to indulge in some old skool, following the preference whisperer’s advice to bulk out their named upper house candidates, with independents preferencing the Flux team, something that may have been a little too clever by half — since many of the people attracted to the idea that politics must be changed structurally, now feel they’ve been dogecoined, are not happy about it, and are letting Flux know, on Facebook, where they sort of live.
“I’ve got a new found … well, understanding of people like McGowan and even Barnett,” said Alex, a little wanly. “The things people are saying about us … and they won’t listen!” He leans in: “The thing is, if you know they’re with us well you vote for them or not, but if you don’t know well, they’re independents, so, um …” Conceding his point that you can’t get in to change politics without working the existing system, I nevertheless did not understand that explanation at all.
“So are we going to do some campaigning?” I said.
“Oh, uh, what?”
“I was hoping you could, you know, hand out a few leaflets, talk to people, while I observed.”
“How many leaflets have you got?”
He holds up three.
“We’re mostly on Facebook.”
Still, compared to most of the other mobs, Flux is on point. Compared to One Nation, they’re the German eighth panzer division. To a degree they’re the mirror opposite of One Nation, a party for the post-political knowledge-class hardcore, who don’t see why this wholly dysfunctional centuries-old system can’t be re-invented entirely, as One Nation struggle to change the spirit sheet on the Gestetner. “Work, you bastard! I’ve had a gutful!” Paradoxes abound.
One Nation wants a unitary politics, an end to the division, yet every candidate appears to have their only entirely separate policy matrix, from resources socialism to libertarian no-governmentalism. Flux appears to celebrate the diverse and catallactic, but, uh, the technology that would run the Flux app is owned by the party’s two founders, and housed in a separate commercial venture. So the Flux model is both a bold ultra-democratic proposal, and the plot of a corporate dystopia flick starring Will Ferrell. In either case, trying to kick it off in WA is courageous, minister.
“They’ve got Buckley’s,” said Bowe later, grinding his teeth at the thought of a Flux balance of power. “Maybe a shot in Mining and Pastoral (the upper house districts all have descriptive names: Agricultural, Mining and Pastoral, A-Bomb Test Site, MethLabia, Skimpies, etc, etc). To a degree, the Flux model fits WA politics, the ultra-local, where the seat of Broome has turned into a torrid tussle over differing plans for the new boat ramp, and a sign greeting the train in from Kalgoorlie read “Yes to Progress and Increased Density in Bayswater/Melham!”, which would do Kim Jong-un proud.
Whatever happens on Saturday, the state’s dilemma concentrates the mind wonderfully. Kalgoorlie stands as a metonym for Western Australia; Western Australia for Australia itself. We are all aware that we have not stored away for the lean years, and the fat years come to an end. The prospect, delicious for pundits, less for the public, is that either major party will fall short of a majority, and have to cobble together government in both houses of Parliament. Looked at clear-eyed, this often delivers good government, but the public rarely thinks so, and the golden west exemplifies the decay of political legitimacy and effectiveness in Australia, and if that occurs here, it may not be too long before the state is back at the polls once more.
What WA needs is the Unflux, the many nations in one — a party with a realistic and integrated program to deal with the reality of resources-led states, not the fantasies they offer. As goes the state, so goes the nation.
*The great social historian ES Turner has a whole book on the torturous journey of minor reforms such as abolishing the law that forbade marrying your deceased wife’s sister (that took 40 years) and daylight saving (35 years). An early proposed compromise measure was that all clocks would go forward 15 minutes each Sunday for four Sundays in a row, and back the same way, an adaptation of an earlier proposal of one minute a day forward for 60 days from late spring, and then take the reverse journey in early autumn.