Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why the Liberal government lost so badly on March 11

Forget the ‘It’s Time’ argument that both the Liberal and Labor parties are using to explain the crushing defeat for the Liberal government on March 11. It’s simply not true.

As politicians and political commentators have said for a long time, oppositions don’t win government, governments lose government. Of course, opposition parties have to show they have competent people and relevant policies to do a good job of governing should they win, but I’m not aware of a competent, effective, unified government that has lost an election at state or federal level in Australia in recent decades.

The reason why Barnett and the Liberals lost the election is because, in their second term, they were an inept government:
* Roe 8 should have been started 2 or 3 years earlier, not 6 months prior to the election
* the partial sale of Western Power should have been fully explained to electors over a year or more
* Barnett should have jettisoned Troy Buswell rather than wait for the troubled MP to implode
* the public should have been invited to suggest names for Elizabeth Quay
* Joe Francis should have paid his defamation penalty out of his own pocket
* problems at the new children’s hospital should have been resolved prior to the election
* there was a total failure by government to explain where the $40 billion of state debt was being spent and
* Barnett should have stood down about a year ago to give his replacement time to develop a profile and learn the ropes (and to avoid the spectacle of WA business leaders conducting their own polling and realising that a change of Premier was needed).

The preference deal with One Nation didn’t help, of course. Many Liberal supporters were appalled at Pauline Hanson’s racist attitudes and her temporary opposition to vaccinations. Of the 13% of voters who were intending to vote One Nation 3 weeks prior to election day, the preference deal caused almost two thirds of them to desert the party and, rather than return to the Liberal fold, they voted for Labor in protest at both parties involved in the preference deal. The unimaginative and ill-informed Liberal Party lay party executive as exemplified by president Normal Moore should have ‘arranged’ for individual Liberal candidates to negotiate their own preference deals: the outcome was likely to have been largely similar to the formal deal struck between the two parties but it could have been sold as an outcome determined by the grass-roots of the Party, not the executive.

Two other factors are important in explaining Saturday’s disaster. The first is the lack of lay members within the Liberal Party, the people who work at polling booths handing out How To Vote cards and who attend dinners and other fund-raisers to help their local candidate pay for election campaigns. The low lay party membership base also meant that fewer people were involved in policy development and fewer people provided feedback to the Party and MPs on topical or important issues. In turn, party powerbrokers had an easier task of gaining support for themselves and their candidates because they had fewer people needing to be influenced.

As an example, I shared an office in Parliament with Family and Children’s Services Minister Rhonda Parker for 3 years in the late 1990s. Current powerbroker Mathias Cormann was her chief of staff and I have never witnessed a senior party member as rude, as arrogant and as verbally obscene as Cormann. I remain perplexed how a minister as sensitive as Parker could have allowed someone like him to be on her payroll.

The second factor in explaining the March 11 drubbing is that the Premier had a team of very ordinary, lacking in talent and lacklustre MPs to choose from. In 2008 when Barnett was given the poisoned chalice of Liberal Party leadership, no one in the party anticipated an early election, let alone a Liberal win. Because of Alan Carpenter’s early election call, the Liberal Party chose candidates in a rush, with powerbrokers choosing lots of sycophants and party hacks of mediocre abilities. When Barnett then won the election, he had very few people of talent and energy to choose his ministers from. As Gareth Parker said in The West Australian of March 13, “Barnett was too often asked to do so much because those around him contributed so little.”

As further proof of the low or dubious quality of sitting MPs, look at Albert Jacob, a member of his church’s executive which expels people with mental health issues. And Peter Katsambanis who left an inexplicably arrogant and insensitive message on Rob Johnston’s phone at 2.50am on the morning after the election.

Now, I never thought I would say anything good about Troy Buswell but I’ve been advised that he was the only person in cabinet to argue against further capital expenditure, saying that state debt needed to be controlled. That he was overruled by Barnett without his fellow ministers backing the then treasurer says a lot about the Premier’s dominance over and control of cabinet, something that understandably led to accusations of arrogance.

The one positive to come out of the loss of so many Liberal seats on March 11 is that it will give the party an opportunity to find new, quality candidates and preselect them well in advance of the 2021 election. If the party’s powerbrokers are kept in check and a larger lay party membership involves itself more with policy development and candidate selection, the party will be a stronger, more representative political organisation able to show to the people of WA that it is once again capable of governing well for all citizens.

In the meantime, we have the Mark McGowan Labor government for the next four years. Many of his team have serious talents and abilities. They should be capable of governing well provided they stand up to what are likely to be the excessive claims of the union movement. I was elected to Parliament in 1996 at the same time as the new Premier and I consider him to be an honest and capable person. Whether he has the strength to stand up to the unions is unknown, but here’s hoping that McGowan’s first four years as Premier are better than Barnett’s last four years in the top job.

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