Malcolm, take note…
As the dust settles on the Western Australian election result, and Labor’s Mark McGowan sweeping to office over the solid but tired premiership of the Liberal party’s Colin Barnett, there are a few points on which we of the centre-right need to reflect.
First, Liberal detractors giving Barnett the rounds of the kitchen for staying too long deserve a boot up their collective bum. Instead, Barnett deserves the highest praise. His personal, against-the-odds victory in 2008 took a ramshackle, divided, mediocre, even undeserving opposition into government and kept it there for more than eight years. Back then, when all federal, state and territory governments were Labor, his victory gave demoralised Coalition supporters hope. In the end, Barnett’s problem was the WA Liberals put all their eggs into his basket, and there was no viable successor ready and waiting to take over as the government aged. Had Barnett stepped down halfway through his second term, the government could have renewed, reset and refocused. That he didn’t was due to the dearth of in-house talent. There were just two potential successors in all Barnett’s time. Buswell was one, but he just couldn’t suppress his many personal peccadilloes, and imploded. The other was now federal cabinet minister Christian Porter, who moved to Canberra in 2013. Porter succeeded Buswell as Treasurer, was an able minister and was the man most likely, but being a state premier was not enough to satisfy him. There’s a rule of political thumb that as the best parliamentary talent tends to go federal, state governments contain no more than three fully competent ministers at any one time. In Barnett’s government the premier always was one but the others, Buswell and Porter, were not replaced by ministers of similar ability. The outgoing deputy premier, Liza Harvey, was being groomed to succeed Barnett, but her Pygmalion project started too late.
Second, the Barnett government lost this election more than Labor’s Mark McGowan won it. The WA Liberals foolishly took their emphatic 2013 win as starting a long period of dominance, but failed to justify it by their actions in government. They spent lavishly on big infrastructure and development projects as if the resources boom of the 2000s would never end, but it did. The other states and territories kept ravishing WA’s GST contribution even as it ceased to be the resources goose laying Australia’s golden eggs, yet Barnett got no help from federal Liberals in getting a fair GST go. Instead he muddled through, his government spending into big deficit with no clear unity of direction, purpose or vision. Dissension in Liberal ranks – which erupted into an attempted leadership spill last year – an eventually poisonous relationship with the WA Nationals, and the succession vacuum were exploited ably by Labor and, more recently, One Nation. Disunity, indeed, is death. That Labor had its own unity issues – highlighted by the bizarre failed coup against McGowan that would have drafted in former federal Labor minister Steven Smith as leader – didn’t matter in the end. In its second term, the Barnett government simply ran out of puff, and the ‘I wish I was somewhere else’ body language of the premier in the campaign’s final week showed he didn’t need polling to know what was coming. He was completely over it. Third, the dismal One Nation showing – less than five per cent of the primary lower house vote when they and the pundits were predicting at least double that – showed voters are more centrist that the populists and ideologues on both the harder Left and Right claim. Clearly, many Western Australians voted Labor because they were convinced that McGowan at least had a plan, and played to the centre not the fringes. McGowan, with his naval lawyer’s background, could well have been a Liberal himself. And its One Nation preference deal was the final nail in the Barnett government’s coffin.
Turnbull, Barnaby Joyce and the federal Coalition now must avoid the usual ‘it was a state election decided on state issues’ mantra. Last Saturday in WA has real and urgent lessons for them, and as they frame their do-or-die May budget, they need to heed these. If they don’t seize their last, best opportunity to reclaim their political destiny, the Turnbull government will be done by an undeserving Bill Shorten as the Barnett government was by McGowan.
The biggest lesson is the electorate’s message that Liberal governments must govern, and be seen to govern, from the sensible, mainstream, centre-right. Neither Labor-lite, but not One Nation-lite either. Devoid of vision and direction, the Barnett government drifted towards defeat, and if the prime minister needed any example of what federal Liberals’ own lack of unified direction, purpose and vision ultimately will lead to if they don’t pull their fingers out soon, the WA result surely is it.
On the other hand, the Pauline Hanson-James Ashby bubble bursting, as Sandgropers marked down Hanson’s messianic delusion, One Nation’s incompetent state campaign and its bizarre candidates, may well be a silver lining for federal Liberals and Nationals. It’s now up to them to persuade some of the million conservative voters the polls show the Turnbull government’s lost since last July’s election, that the Coalition is still their natural home, and the only possible party to represent their values in government.
Considering Tony Abbott’s policy manifesto of last month – ending the ideologically-driven RET, reviewing immigration levels, curbing the Human Rights Commission’s power to bully, curbing government spending and breaking Senate obstruction – would be a good start. Bringing Abbott back into cabinet if George Brandis goes to London would help too. The politics of the Liberal leadership aside, Abbott’s instincts for what Coalition voters are looking for from ‘their’ government are sound. Bring it further to the conservative Right, but not too far.
But for now, it’s goodbye and thank you to Colin Barnett, whose generous and graceful concession speech was a mark of the man. He will be missed.
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