The Politics    Monday, March 13, 2017

One angry state, inept One Nation

By Nick Feik

Western Australians have spoken, and loudly

Western Australian voters were in a punishing mood on Saturday, and it’s easy to see why. Colin Barnett’s Coalition government had presided over the state’s biggest ever mining boom, and what was left from it? A $35 billion debt and $3 billion deficit. A raft of incomplete infrastructure projects. Rising unemployment and collapsing house prices.

Ships are still leaving Port Hedland daily, loaded with iron ore, yet Pilbara councils can barely afford the upkeep of their own facilities and the towns are emptying. Western Australian LNG projects are producing more gas than ever before, but the state certainly isn’t getting wealthy from them.

The Barnett government paid the price. The swing against it was around 15% across the state, and the result for One Nation was also poor. In the post-election recriminations, some Liberals attacked their own party leadership for swapping preferences with the toxic One Nation, while One Nation supporters blamed the poor result on the decision to swap preferences with the unpopular Barnett Liberals. Both criticisms are reasonable, though they neglect the fact that Liberal and One Nation stocks were already on the slide by the time they did their sordid deal.

Pauline Hanson acknowledged that the swap was a bad idea, but you don’t need any particular psephological abilities to see why else One Nation failed to make an impact. Its campaign was hilariously inept. Hanson herself made headlines pandering to the anti-vaccination lobby and praising Vladimir Putin, and telling her own candidates to quit the party if they didn’t like her preferences decision. Several did quit, accusing her of running a dictatorship, while others made headlines for different reasons. Two former One Nation officers claim that Hanson moved them on Hanson because they were too old. Regardless of whether 87 and 79 (the ages of Ron McLean, the former state president, and his wife, Marye Louise Daniels, the former state secretary, respectively) are too old, it’s not as if they were significantly younger at the start of the campaign. Another One Nation candidate was forced to deny that she accused the gay community of getting people to support same-sex marriage with “Nazi-style” mind control techniques. Kalgoorlie One Nation candidate Richard Bolton’s campaign hoarding misspelt Kalgoorlie. We could go on, but it’d seem gratuitous.

Hanson has a long history of blowing up her own political organisations and affiliations, making a hash of explaining her few actual policies, and recruiting unreliable candidates – and there’s no evidence that she’s learnt anything about running a professional party. Indeed, an integral part of Hanson’s support is that she’s not like a professional politician, but it’s fairly clear (again) how this might become a problem – when you’re a politician trying to run a professional party in your own image. As a model, hers is inherently limited.

Speaking of professional parties, both the ALP and the Greens ran some decent candidates in solid, unfussy campaigns that cited local concerns. They weren’t rewarded – the latter especially – with much media coverage as a result, but this didn’t seem to harm their electoral results at all. It may seem counterintuitive, but this aspect is probably worth further consideration.

Plainly the Western Australian public didn’t buy the line that One Nation is now more mature and sophisticated, as claimed by federal Coalition MPs such as Arthur Sinodinos. Nevertheless, Malcolm Turnbull has refused to rule out doing a similar deal with One Nation at the next federal election.

Federal Coalition MPs have been quick to point to “local issues” for the poor WA result, but this must have been a terrifying result for them too. For one thing, it demonstrated that the right-wing vote in one of its two stronghold states has splintered, and that even playing footsies with One Nation or other lunar-right parties couldn’t shore up their vote. Consider this: the Turnbull government was returned last year because the Coalition held 32 of the 46 federal seats in the two mining states, Western Australia and Queensland. Post-boom, large parts of each state are now hurting badly. And each of their Coalition state governments was tossed out with historic swings against them. If there is any remaining loyalty to the Liberal and National “brands” in these key states, it’s well disguised.

Federal Coalition MPs should probably have a think too about the long-term economic consequences of allowing the resources sector to dictate policy preferences and tax arrangements. Just a thought.

The incoming WA premier, Labor leader Mark McGowan, claimed that “Western Australians voted for hope and opportunity over desperation and division … Today we showed we are a state of decency and intelligence, not a state of stupidity and ignorance.”

It’s hardly an original sentiment for an election winner to make, but it’s one that the federal Coalition might well heed. As an aspiration, it’d make a nice change too.

Today’s links

  • Updated WA results are here. Analysis by Katharine Murphy here. And by Michael Gordon here. And there’s discussion of the challenges facing the incoming government here.
  • George Brandis is still refusing to release his ministerial diary, despite court orders, so Labor is now trying to push contempt of court proceedings.
  • Late last week, we heard of an extraordinary offer by Tesla founder Elon Musk, to solve South Australia’s energy problems within 100 days (or your money back!) using a large-scale battery farm. Yesterday Mr Musk was talking Malcolm Turnbull through his proposal. It is a bizarre way to formulate public policy, but it can’t be worse than the federal government’s current approach.
  • Ross Gittins discusses the ongoing disaster of the Centrelink robo-debt program.
  • The Australian is running a smorgasbord of tributes to cartoonist Bill Leak, who died on Friday. Elsewhere, debate about his cartoons has focused less on his role as a warrior for free speech and more on the racism of many of his late-era cartoons. If we could be so bold as to summarise the rhetorical landscape: Bill Leak was a man who was much loved, and who loved free speech, but who also sometimes created racist cartoons.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.


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