Nationals against Liberals in WA

26 February 2017


History might well record Hendy Cowan as the last National to have been Deputy Premier of Western Australia.  The political scene there since his time in that role would suggest as much.

Voters in WA will go to the polls for a state election next month.  This election sees the Liberal Party, led by Premier Colin Barnett, seeking a third term in office, having been there since 2008.  Barnett initially led the Liberals into office with the support of crossbenchers in a hung parliament after an election in 2008, and then won a majority at the next election, in 2013.

It’s worth noting that I describe the Liberals as having taken office.  They’ve been governing with the help of an alliance with the Nationals.  And they’ve freely run against each other at past elections, even viciously at times.  This is quite different from what happens elsewhere in Australia.

Usually, the Liberals and the Nationals govern together in office under a formal partnership – hence the description of their partnership as the Coalition.  And most often the Liberals have outnumbered the Nationals in the Coalition.

But the Liberal-National Coalition, as it’s long been known at Federal level and in the bigger states, doesn’t actually exist in WA.  However, it used to exist there.  And it was during this existence that Cowan was leader of the WA Nationals, as well as Deputy Premier from 1993 to 2001.

In those years, with more Liberals than Nationals in Coalition ranks, Liberal leader Richard Court was Premier, with Cowan directly beneath him.  Court had led the Coalition to an election win in early 1993 over the Labor Party, which had been in office for the previous ten years.  Another election win followed for Court in late 1996, but he lost office to Labor leader Geoff Gallop at the next election, in early 2001.

By the end of 2001, both Cowan and Court had left.  Cowan departed to contest a seat at a Federal election later that year, and he was defeated, while Court resigned from politics altogether after his election loss.

After Court’s departure, Barnett became Liberal leader, and went on to lose the next election, in 2005.  He quit the leadership and was intending to retire at the next election, which was due in early 2009 but actually came in 2008, when Premier Alan Carpenter saw fit to go to the polls early.  Carpenter had been Premier since early 2006, following the resignation of Gallop, who’d been battling depression.

However, Barnett returned to the Liberal leadership ahead of that 2008 election, because the Liberals had been going through leadership problems of various sorts since he’d quit in 2005.  And indeed their problems were thought to have prompted Carpenter to call the election early.

The 2008 election result produced a hung parliament, with Labor falling three seats short of a majority.

But what made the election significant was the position of the Nationals.  It’d always been normal for the Liberals and Nationals to go their separate ways after losing office at elections, and this was what happened in WA in 2001.  However, at the 2008 election, the Nationals weren’t so willing to side up with the Liberals.  Instead, they took an independent stand, to the point where they considered supporting Labor.

They took a firm stand on implementing a policy known as Royalties for Regions, which guaranteed that regional WA would get a large proportion of public spending, particularly from payments to the state from its massive mining industry.  For years there was a perception that regional areas, not just in WA but across the country, got much less than the big cities in terms of public spending, despite being the home of much of the country’s agricultural and mining sectors, which have long served as the backbone of the national economy.  And concerns about this perceived lack of a return in the regions were major.

Eventually, the Liberals agreed to implement Royalties for Regions, and were able to get the Nationals to support them.  Therefore the Liberals and Barnett took office, with a promise of directing more spending to the regions.  But unlike previously, the Nationals only had some ministerial seats in the Barnett Government, and the job of Deputy Premier went to a Liberal.  Even though the Liberals later won an election outright and no longer needed their alliance with the Nationals, they maintained it.

Now an election is coming up, and like at previous elections, we’ll see Nationals going against Liberals in WA.  There’s doubt about whether the Liberals can win again under Barnett, who’s been around for so long.  But doubts also loom over whether voters have warmed to Labor, now led by Mark McGowan.

Support for controversial political figure Pauline Hanson is also strong in WA, so she’ll muddy the waters a bit.

But the days of closer ties between the Liberals and Nationals seem so long ago, when you consider the political scene now.  The Nationals now show more of an independent streak than they showed when Cowan was leading them.



Voters fatigued in northern Sydney

12 February 2017


Voters in part of Sydney’s inner north face their fourth visit to election booths in barely two years.  Having already been twice for general elections and once because of a politician who decided to leave early, they’ll soon be going again because of a politician’s early exit.

The general elections were expected.  Indeed the timing of one of them was decided more than two decades ago, whereas the other one could’ve happened at any certain time.  But the politicians deciding on early exits weren’t expected.  As such, you’d be forgiven for thinking that voters in this neck of the woods resent having to keep going to the polls in such a short space of time.

In terms of these visits to the polls, the first of them was for a state election in New South Wales in March 2015.  The date of this election was known long ago.  The NSW Parliament, like its counterparts in most other states, has fixed terms and election dates.  Since 1995, state elections in NSW have been held every fourth year, during the month of March.  They were subsequently held in 1999, 2003, 2007, and 2011 – hence no surprise in the coming of that election in 2015.

The second of the visits to the polls in this part of Sydney was later that year, for a by-election in the Federal seat of North Sydney.  This followed the resignation of Joe Hockey, who decided to call it quits after being dumped as Treasurer in the wake of a leadership challenge which saw Tony Abbott dumped as Prime Minister in favour of Malcolm Turnbull.  A Federal election was due the following year, but Hockey got out early, forcing the by-election.

That Federal election was the third of the visits to the polls for voters in this part of Sydney.  It was due in the second half of 2016, with the previous election having occurred three years earlier, in September 2013.  It ended up coming in July, which was perhaps earlier than expected, but voters would’ve known that it was coming.

Three visits to election booths in sixteen months might annoy voters, especially if any or all of them should result from politicians deciding to quit early instead of waiting until the next general election.

But before long, voters in this part of Sydney will face another by-election, following the departure from the NSW Parliament of former minister Jillian Skinner, who holds the seat of North Shore.  This will be their fourth visit to the polls in just two years.

NSW voters don’t face a general election for another two years – it’s already fixed for March 2019.  But with Skinner deciding against waiting until then, another visit to polls looms for some voters in northern Sydney.  They might well be fatigued after visiting the polls yet again.

Having said that, I think that Skinner mightn’t have gone at this time if not for something else happening first.  That other thing was the resignation last month of Mike Baird as leader of the Liberal Party, and therefore as State Premier, as well as from Parliament altogether.  Baird’s exit from the top job was a surprise, and his decision to exit Parliament immediately was even more so, notwithstanding health issues affecting his family at the moment when his exit was announced.  There was talk for some time about Baird possibly reshuffling his ministry and either demoting or dumping Skinner, who’d been Health Minister since the 2011 election and previously handled the health portfolio when she was an Opposition MP.  She didn’t want to go, and had apparently threatened to quit politics if she lost her job.  Baird’s decision to exit might well have made it easier for Skinner to be dumped, if that’d been the wish of new Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

The Liberals mightn’t have wanted a by-election at this time, particularly amid public anger over issues like merging of local councils.  Perhaps this scared them out of moving Skinner on from the health portfolio.  But with the exit of Baird triggering a by-election, in the seat of Manly, the loss of Skinner and another by-election didn’t matter as much.

Sometimes, several by-elections can take place at once.  Indeed I read that the Labor Party lost several MPs around the middle of 1983 – the first of them had passed away, meaning that a by-election was coming for the seat of that deceased MP, so other Labor MPs chose to resign soon after that passing, thus bringing about several by-elections at once, all of which Labor won.  This makes the coming by-elections in Manly and North Shore less problematic to some degree.

Labor has no chance of winning either of those by-election, and I even doubt that it’ll contest them.  And while both Manly and North Shore have fallen to Independents for long periods in the past, I don’t know of any well-known Independents running in them.

The Liberals will probably win both by-elections, however early it might be to make such a call.  There might be fatigue or resentment over arguably needless visits to the polls, especially in Sydney’s inner north, but nothing surprising looks like coming out of them.