WESTERN AUSTRALIA by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Barnett election wipe-out delivers WA to Labor
, March 25, 2017
The West Australian state election on March 11 followed the trend of recent elections in which the incumbent Liberal Party was overwhelmingly defeated by the resurgent ALP. The ALP in WA is led by a former Navy lawyer and Kim Beazley protégé, Mark McGowan.
Incoming WA Premier Mark McGowan
Although the defeat of Colin Barnett’s Liberal government had been widely predicted, the extent of Labor’s win had not. Although counting had not finished as News Weekly went to press, it was anticipated that Labor would secure about 40 seats in the 59-seat Parliament, doubling its representation.
The Liberal vote collapsed from about 47 per cent in the last election to just 31 per cent, and it is expected to have just 13 seats in Parliament.
While part of the result was due to the rise in unemployment in WA – where the end of the mining boom has forced up unemployment from the lowest in the country to the highest – there were other factors at work.
The end of the mining boom in WA had a dramatic effect on the state’s economy and the government’s budget. WA currently has a state debt of over $33 billion, due to the collapse in mining revenue and high levels of spending associated with the previously growing economy.The only daily newspaper in WA, The West Australian, had campaigned hard against Mr Barnett for the past year, since Mr Barnett’s colleagues unsuccessfully attempted to persuade him to step aside in 2016, arguing that he had lost popular support.
In a pre-election statement, the WA Treasury warned that the state’s debt would rise above $40 billion by 2021.
To resolve the debt crisis, the Barnett government proposed the sale of half of the distribution assets of Western Power, the state’s electricity supplier, and the sale of the Port of Fremantle. Proceeds from the sales would have yielded over $11 billion.
However, there was widespread public opposition to the privatisations, and Labor made an election issue by promising to abandon them. WA unions bankrolled a massive campaign against the plan.
Separately, the incoming premier, Mark McGowan (pictured), has promised to expand the Perth rail network at a cost that Labor puts at $2.5 billion, and the Liberals have costed at $10 billion. With these commitments, the new premier, who is factionally unaligned, will have a hard job cutting government expenditure.
Mr McGowan has promised to save money by abandoning the Freight Link project, which was designed to get heavy transport vehicles going to the Port of Fremantle off city roads. But he will have to pay compensation to contractors for work already undertaken, and will lose $1 billion in federal funding earmarked for the project.
A burning issue in Western Australia has been the proportion of GST revenues going to the state. The Goods and Services Tax, introduced by the Howard Government in the late 1990s, is distributed to the states according to a formula recommended by the Commonwealth Grants Commission and endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments.
It is not distributed on the basis of population, but rather on the basis of what sources of revenue are available to each state. Because WA has traditionally received large mining taxes and royalties, it has received far less from the GST than other states and territories, particularly South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
Former WA Treasurer Mike Nahan argued last year that WA was receiving only 30 per cent of the GST revenue raised in the state. However, other states have effectively vetoed an adjustment of the GST distribution, and the formula is unlikely to change any time soon.
In the area of education policy, former Liquor Trades Union official Sue Ellery will be the new WA Education Minister.
Ms Ellery is a member of the Labor Left faction, and while at university in the 1980s, was national women’s officer of the Australian Union of Students. During Labor’s last term in office, she was minister for child protection, and after Labor’s defeat in 2008, she became shadow minister for education.
When in opposition, she was an outspoken advocate of the divisive and dangerous Safe Schools program.
During the election campaign, it seemed that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party would have won support from a significant share of disenchanted voters. However, a preference deal with the Liberals, together with unrehearsed off-the-cuff comments by the One Nation Leader on issues such as vaccinations and Vladimir Putin, led to fierce criticism in the press and a late fall in the party’s vote, which apparently shifted to Labor.
This criticism in the press over the Liberal-One Nation contrasted with a media silence over ALP-Greens preference deal.
One Nation ended up with about 5 per cent of the overall popular vote, rising to 9 per cent in the Bush.
Some media pundits have declared that Labor’s WA win is bad news for the Federal Liberal Party and for Malcolm Turnbull in particular. However, history has shown that Australians generally like to have different parties in government at state and federal levels.
Despite this, the WA election outcome now means that most governments in Australia are now Labor. The message to Malcolm Turnbull could not be more ominous.