Liza Harvey
WA Liberals leader Liza Harvey with former leader Mike Nahan (Image: AAP/Rebecca Le May)

Now that the need to maintain a united front ahead of a federal election has been dispensed with, a season of house-cleaning has commenced for struggling state oppositions.

Labor’s process to find a new leader in New South Wales is proceeding in a manner that illustrates the wisdom of having kept it on hold until the federal election, and now the Western Australian Liberals have undergone a swift transition to a new leader following the resignation last night of Mike Nahan.

The WA Liberals assembled this morning to anoint Liza Harvey as Nahan’s successor. Harvey emerged unopposed after a number of potential rivals counted the numbers and saw the writing on the wall.

Harvey’s status as a likely future leader was established in early 2016 when she was made deputy to an increasingly unpopular Colin Barnett, who indicated he would hand over the reins mid-term if his government was returned at the March 2017 election.

This reflected not so much a regard for Harvey’s talents among state politics watchers — the general view being that Christian Porter’s well-judged move to federal politics in 2013 had left the state party’s talent pool all but dry — as an urgent need to rectify the Liberals’ reputation for being socially reactionary and male-dominated.

In the event, the Barnett-Harvey tag team led the state Liberals to the most crushing defeat in their history, and Harvey subsequently declined to put her name forward for the leadership, citing family reasons.

The unhappy task of leading what remained of the parliamentary party instead fell to Nahan, the American-accented former treasurer and one-time executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs. Since Nahan will be 70 at the time of the next election in March 2021, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that he was merely there to keep the seat warm.

On announcing his resignation last night, Nahan plausibly claimed he had never intended to lead the party to the election, although reports suggest he was forced out sooner than he would have liked, owing to his colleagues’ desire to have a new leader bask in the limelight of Scott Morrison’s appearance at next month’s state conference.

Despite the feeble state of the WA economy, Harvey has her work cut out if she’s to get the party in a position to seriously threaten Mark McGowan’s government.

Scott Morrison’s win seemed to reinforce the point that voters in Australia are less likely than those in larger and more powerful countries to blame their governments for a weak economy, which instead gets attributed to international forces beyond the government’s control.

That should be doubly true at state level — perhaps especially in Western Australia, where a resource-driven cycle of boom and bust is deeply ingrained in the state’s psychology.

Voters will, however, hold governments responsible for the state of their own balance sheets, as illustrated by Liberal internal polling that reportedly showed voters were more impressed by Scott Morrison’s “back in black” rhetoric than perhaps they should have been.

So it was particularly helpful for the McGowan government that ratings agency Moody’s last week upgraded its credit rating to AA1 from AA2, to which it had been reduced after two downgrades on the watch of Colin Barnett and Mike Nahan.

Better yet, the agency’s report noted the “strong fiscal resolve of the state government following the March 2017 election”, providing a ready-made riposte to suggestions it had merely lucked out from a spike in iron ore prices and a generous deal on GST revenue from a federal government concerned for its hold on the state’s marginal seats.

The Morrison government might now have done McGowan an even bigger favour by unexpectedly being returned to office.

Of the 32 state elections held in Australia since 2000, 24 have been won by the party of the opposite complexion to the one in Canberra — including all five of those held in Western Australia.

Twenty one months may indeed be an eternity in politics, but it would be a brave punter who took a bet on the next Western Australian election being added to the short list of exceptions.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey