State politics, regional governance and Western Australia

JS discusses the importance of strong state governments to continued economic prosperity.

Over the New Year period, sandgropers were treated to the farcical spectacle of the Western Australian Labor Party engaging in a flyweight tussle over the state opposition leadership.  On one side, there was current leader and former state treasurer, Eric Ripper pitted against shadow treasurer, Ben Wyatt, the 'man of the future'. 

Wyatt announced his challenge but within 48 hours, he'd withdrawn, not even getting his pitch into the party room.  It's hard to describe the battle as fierce.  There was no philosophical division between the two competing Labor tribes.  Ripper and Wyatt seem equally qualified.  Instead, the attempted decapitation emerged from perceptions among the Labor caucus as to which candidate possessed better presentation skills.  

But did this attempted and rather pathetic challenge actually matter?  Yes, unfortunately.

Broadly, what it showed is the policy and political vacuum that emerged under the State Labor Governments over the past ten years.  This vacuum has meant that State Labor lacks the policy resources to respond to economic and social change at the regional level.  This failure is nowhere more evident than in Western Australia, where State Labor is facing a historic test arising from fundamental economic and social changes taking place. 

The State Labor Governments of the 2000s

Since the Whitlam era, there has been a process of centralisation, which accelerated during the Hawke/Keating/Howard years.  This has had a combination of causes including the:

  • aggressively centralist policy prescriptions adopted by the Federal Government buttressed by the High Court’s expansive interpretations of the Commonwealth Constitution, culminating with the Workchoice decision;
  • willingness of State Governments to avoid their constitutional responsibilities through voluntary 'co-operative federalism agreements';
  • unchallenged consensus amongst 'policy professionals' and the Canberra Press Gallery that national approaches are preferable; and
  • intellectual and managerial weaknesses at the heart of the State Labor Governments that confronted the Howard governments in the late-1990s and early 2000s. 

The adoption of the so-called 'Carr Model' of state governance from the 1990s lead to state politics becoming concerned with 'twenty four hour news cycles', 'band aid solutions' and 'damage control'.

The stunning decline of New South Wales since the Sydney Olympics illustrates how poor regional government can damage a regional economy even though the national economy is broadly strong.  International examples such as Shanghai, Alberta and Texas provide similar albeit positive lessons of strong regional governance.  Chris Christie, the new, Tea Party-endorsed, Governor of New Jersey has demonstrated how a reformist regional government can reinvigorate a declining regional polity 

As a result, state opposition leadership struggles have become ritualistic quarrels over personalities not policies because the stakes have been seen as low.  A leader is elected, a new messiah promising salvation, but generally delivering more chaos, more division and certainly, nothing new. 

The Western Australian Liberals were not immune to the syndrome during their time in opposition (although the syndrome was cured by turning back to the talented Barnett).  But what distinguished Western Australian Labor's New Year outburst is that it arose in the broader context of potentially historic decline in its fortunes west of the Nullarbor Plain.

Labor’s defeat

Between 2001 and 2008, Labor dominated Western Australian politics, following a similar pattern to the east coast.  Although Western Australia has always had longer periods of conservative government, Labor maintained a formidable base in Perth's eastern and southern suburbs and in the Goldfields.  Brian Burke and then, Geoff Gallop, in particular, built on this base, appearing unassailable.  This period ended in 2008 with Gallop's successor, Alan Carpenter, calling an early election followed by the Liberals appointing Colin Barnett as leader at their last opportunity.  The Liberals ran a smart election campaign, emphasising that Western Australians had little to show for the massive resources boom. 

Despite four years of opposition disarray, Labor emerged with a hung parliament.  Barnett negotiated an alliance with the Western Australian Nationals leading to his eventual appointment as Premier.  Over the past two years, he has evolved a statesmanlike persona, completely dominating the state scene. 

This result could indicate that state Labor's troubles were 'only on paper' (especially as the numbers in Parliament are so close).  I suggest that the better view is that Labor's abysmal performance should be seen in the context of a weak opposition performance for the majority of Labor's final term in government.  In this respect, the outcome can only be explained as indicating structural changes to the composition of the Western Australian electorate. 

The Federal angle

The signs of Labor's decline in Western Australia were already present at the Federal level.  Western Australia bucked the national trend in the 2007 Federal Election, being the only state where the Liberals gained seats.  Labor lost a key marginal seat, Cowan.  This seat, which the Liberal hierarchy had written off in 2004, had always been a classic marginal outer metropolitan seat, embracing semi-rural and newer suburbs.  It emerged from the 2007 election as a fairly safe Liberal seat.  Overall, Labor returned a mere four lower house members out of fifteen.  In 2010, Western Australian Labor lost a further seat to the Liberals and its candidate, Ken Wyatt

What has happened is that voters are not distinguishing between Federal Labor, which is seen as essentially hostile to the state's long term interests, and Western Australian Labor, which is seen as hopeless at best and complicit at worst. 

It is trite to observe now that the proposed mining tax and carbon trading scheme appear to have alienated Western Australian voters, perhaps fatally.  Earlier, Labor's 'rollback' of the Workchoices legislation aligned with a public perception that Labor is hostile to the west's interests as this legislation was seen as necessary and popular in a 'boom state' which continues to endure labour scarcity. 

The growing awareness that Western Australia is disproportionately carrying the burden of propping up the 'debtor' eastern states while Western Australia struggles with stretched infrastructure also assists the conservative side (The celebrated 'Cash Cow' advertisement from the 2010 Federal election played to this theme).  Labor's asylum seeker policies, its unionised leadership and the ancient mistrust of 't'othersiders', create a picture of a distant and over-mighty Federal Government which does not understand the west.  Labor's capture by the trade unions, public sector and electorate officer class further undermine its ability to credibly respond to changing economic conditions. 

Structural change

But there is a longer term story too of economic, political and social evolution which pre-dates the acts of the first term of the Rudd/Gillard government. 

When my family first moved to Western Australia in 1986, Perth was a city of around 800,000 people.  It was insular, there were few major corporations, China and India were just beginning their marketisation policies and it still took ten minutes to travel anywhere.  The workplace, especially the mining sector, was heavily unionised.  It was the city of Alan Bond and Brian Burke, propped up by transfer payments from New South Wales and Victoria.  It was derided as a 'backwater'. 

In the twenty five years that passed, Western Australia has become one of the major economic centres in East Asia and the Indian Ocean region, powered by the insatiable demand for its natural resources.  Perth is identified in the same league as Houston and Dubai as a major resources and infrastructure centre.  Nowadays, its skyline is dominated by Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and the other big mining houses, the four major banks, Wesfarmers and so on. 

Around the resources industry, a dynamic service centre has grown up.  Mining services companies, global law firms, shipbuilders, scientists, engineers and the largest number of publicly listed corporations in the country now call Perth home.  Outside the city, the southwest coast is second to the Gold Coast as the fastest growing region in Australia.  George Megalogenis and Simon Jackman have previously noted that Western Australia's housing prices have risen higher than the rest of the country.  Population growth is the highest in the country (2.2%) and the highest growth amongst the working age population.  Western Australia has the highest percentage of residents born overseas.  

Where does this leave Western Australian politics?

The political consequences of Federal Labor’s policies coupled with demographic changes are that Labor is seen as a real threat to the prosperity of the most dynamic regional economy in Australia. 

The challenge for Western Australia's Liberal-National government is to preside over the continuing development of the local economy, removing restrictions on business so it can diversify the sources of prosperity and open up new parts of the state for development. 

The problem for Labor is that its model of big government economic management has no reverberation in a region whose voters perceive economic activity as deriving from a pioneering private sector, strong links to Asia and visionary entrepreneurs. 

Western Australians have too much invested in the success and growth of this regional economy.  As Megalogenis first argued, the demographic story of the 2010 Federal election is that Australia has three political zones: conservative, progressive and in between.  According to Megalogenis, the bedrock of Liberal support at the 2010 election is 'super-majorities' in Western Australia and Queensland.  Unlike the so-called 'progressive' states of South Australia or Tasmania, Western Australian families cannot afford any deterioration in the state's economic position as their economic security now depends on high wages, rising property prices, foreign investment and Asian demand for resources instead of government hand-outs

Strong state governments do matter and ensuring that these governments are competent, honest, functional and small ought to be high on the conservative policy agenda.  The bottom line is that Labor has left the field so conservatives need to occupy this space.

Compulsory Union Hooliganism!

Geoffrey-Bondson Voluntary Student Unionism has given students more benefits than compulsory unionism ever did, writes Geoffrey Bondson.

With the demise of Compulsory Student Unionism, university students suddenly have money. When my parents were at UWA in the late 1980s, the Guild Fees were higher and the services poorer. 

Nowadays, with voluntary membership, the Guild actually has reason to provide decent services. Also, given inflation, the Guild fees now should be HIGHER than 20 years ago – but they're actually lower. 
What does this say about CSU? 

It says it's a money-leeching, fraudulent policy that wastes time and resources. In the 21st century, with VSU in action, it is really only the bastions of old-world unionism (ie, prominent Young Labor members) in control of the UWA Guild that cause it to hold a pro-CSU position. 

There is no need for CSU, as is evidenced by higher, more enthusiastic members of university Guilds across the country, post-CSU. Why should people pay for services they do not use? The answer is, they shouldn't have to.

As a result, cashed up students don't have to rummage through the stocks of local op-shops for clothes as they did 20, 30, 40 years ago. Higher rates of pay for casual and part-time workers enable more people to live out of their own pocket, and hence we see many people on campus in high fashion. Or, at least, not charity-bin fodder.

Voluntary Student Unionism is the only way for student Guilds to keep modern and up-to-date. In an age where trade unions are slowly becoming less relevant, to the despair of many of my student colleagues – and indeed many other people in the nation who aren't students – Compulsory Student Unionism is an out-dated, inefficient way of providing for students. 

If the Guild(s) didn't spend so much time and money campaigning in favour of CSU, and instead spent their time working out how to spend that money on services students actually require, then CSU would be unnecessary.

Geoffrey Bondson is a right-wing student at the University of Western Australia who's tired of Guild leftism. He believes that it is time to retake the campuses from the radical left and replace these people with moderate, reasonable people.

“Supreme Overlord” Barnett more historically accurate than once thought

Kevin-WilkinsonThe resignation of Troy Buswell leaves open the possibility of a post-budget shake-up on the Barnett Government's front bench, writes Kevin Wilkinson.

As the fallout over the sacking of the Western Australian Treasurer, Troy Buswell, continues, a debate has sparked whether the Premier adopting the portfolio of Treasury is an attempt by Mr Barnett to demonstrate complete control over his government. 

It should be considered a loss to any government to lose its Treasurer three weeks before a budget is released; however it is made worse by the fact that there is no natural successor for the role in WA. One can derive this simply by looking at the university degrees of the members of Cabinet (Although a degree shouldn't be the only merit on which portfolios are allocated for the purpose of this blog I will assume that they enhance the holder to the position). There are only three current Ministers who hold a Bachelor of Economics. The obvious one is Buswell; however he has been disposed for the above mentioned reasons. The other two are the Premier, Colin Barnett and the Attorney General and Minister for Corrective Services, Christian Porter.
Now, it would be ridiculous to pass on the Treasury onto Porter, and although he may be a fine candidate, he has already shown himself to be perfectly competent in the role of Attorney General and to laden him with Treasury would probably see him buckle under the weight. So that leaves Barnett.
Now, Colin Barnett has had a rather stable first term, and this seems to be the first major blip in his Government. So would taking on the Treasury make him "Supreme Overlord" Barnett? Well historically, no it wouldn't. For at least three decades before the Gallop Government, there is a startling amount of Premiers who took on the dual role of Premier and Treasurer. Richard Court, Carmen Lawrence, Peter Dowding, Brian Burke, Ray O’Connor also played the vital role of Treasurer, as did Sir Charles Court.
It was only ever since 2001, when Geoff Gallop came into power have the roles been separated, (when he gave the role to Eric Ripper). As Alan Carpenter was thrust into the leadership 5 years later, the separation continued as it did once stand under Barnett.
As there are no constitutional regulations or conventions that prohibit whether the Premier can fulfil both roles simultaneously (Only that they must be members of the lower house, something which is currently ignored by NSW) then there is only logistical reasons why the Premier shouldn't be the Treasurer as well.
Firstly there is the idea that they become too over powerful. Seeing as the Treasury is one of the 5 big portfolios for State Governments (Treasury, Attorney General, Health, Education and Police), one can hardly suggest that the Premier has become over powerful as they wield very little power over cabinet decisions. This also gives the Premier an area of responsibility and is therefore more accountable to the Parliament, as is determined through the separation of powers.
Secondly, as I mentioned above, history seems to suggest that the Premier and Treasurer are designed to be combined in Western Australia, which seems to imply that Barnett taking Treasury is a sound decision as it has been tradition for the roles to be combined in the past.
In conclusion, the loss of Troy Buswell is a tragedy to the Barnett Government, as he is a talented and extremely competent Treasurer who had been rebuilding his profile since his dark days as Leader of the Opposition. Even though the rest of Buswell’s super portfolio has been passed on to the Member for Nedlands, Bill Marmion MLA, as the Premier took up Treasury, he will most likely not hold the portfolio for the rest of his term, just taking it for the State Budget due to be released in three weeks, which leaves the Cabinet open for future cuts. This leaves the future uncertain for many Ministers as Barnett could possibly bring the axe down on those who fail to perform well for the next few months.

Kevin Wilkinson is an 18 year old student at the University of Western Australia, currently studying a Bachelor of Arts/Economics majoring in Political and International Relations.

Liberalism in Western Australia


The WA Division is setting the example for Liberals across the nation, writes Jeremy Sher.

The Liberal Party in Western Australia has selected Mr Ken Wyatt to stand as
the Liberal candidate in the very winnable marginal seat of Hasluck.

If elected, Mr Wyatt will become the first indigenous Australian to sit in the
House of Representatives.  Mr Wyatt has had a distinguished career in
Aboriginal health.  Most recently, he is working as the Director of
the Office of Aboriginal Health in Western Australia. 
Indigenous Australians, Neville Bonner (Liberal) and Aden Ridgway (Democrat)
have previously sat in the Australian Senate. 

It is appropriate that Mr Wyatt has been selected for a seat, named in
honour of the Western Australian Liberal Party's most distinguished leader, the
late Sir Paul Hasluck, the former Governor-General and Minister for Foreign
Affairs, as it is a timely reminder of the Western Australian party's
strong contribution to the national Liberal story. 

The Liberal Party in Western Australia is sometimes criticised for being
'too conservative', 'extreme' or 'unelectable'.  

Yet, the record is quite the opposite. 

In recent years, the Liberal Party in Western Australia has become the most
electorally and organisationally successful state party.  Having put aside
the history of factionalism which bedevilled the party in the 1990s,
it now holds 11 out of 15 House of Representatives seats.  The Deputy
Leader, the Hon Julie Bishop MP also comes from the west as well as outstanding
future leaders like Michael Keenan MP, Senator Mathias Cormann and Menzies
House contibutor Senator Michaelia Cash. 

Not only did the Western Australian party break Labor's stranglehold on
State Parliaments (under the leadership of Colin Barnett and State Director,
Ben Morton) but its also successfully retiring debt, making significant
investments to build its long term asset base and it has started preselecting
candidates of the high standard of Mr Wyatt.

At a state level, Colin Barnett's team is re-imposing fiscal conservatism
and managing the challenges of a massive and unprecedented economic
expansion.  It has also started the process of turning Perth into a
city capable of supporting and encouraging this expansion (My favourite example
of this last change is the excruciatingly slow deregulation of
Perth's, frankly, socialist trading hour regime).  

What is evident is that Western Australia is the state most welcoming of the
modern conservative message, which emphasises fiscal rectitude, individual responsibility,
entrepreneurialism and strong, common sense values. 

Certainly, more needs to be done but the Western Australian party is setting an
example for the whole country.

Jeremy Sher is a solicitor and tutor in law at the University of Western Australia.  He has recently completed postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics focussing on globalisation, democratisation and regulation.