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.