Labor looks to have lost its monopoly on power at a state level in the WA election.
Despite the extent of the boom in the WA economy, which has been stronger than most of the country, due to the expansion of the mining sector, many people have not benefited.
Inflation and price rises have hit workers hard. According to the WA Council of Social Services one in five Western Australians, or 400,000 people, have needed recent welfare assistance.
Liberal leader Colin Barnett opportunistically tapped into concerns about cost of living pressures, saying “The most common comment made to me is that it’s a lot harder to balance the budget… The mining boom doesn’t insulate West Australian families.”
The need for increased spending on education was a key theme of the campaign, with the Liberals trying to capitalise on under-spending by the Labor government.
Labor’s gamble in calling an early election to catch the Liberals unprepared backfired, and lingering scandals for the government were also a factor.
With a six per cent swing against the government, Labor and the Liberals have won an equal number of seats in the lower house, giving the Nationals the balance of power. The Green vote rose to a record 11.5 per cent across the state.
The Nationals went to the election promising not to form a coalition with the Liberals, and are driving a hard bargain in exchange for supporting a Liberal government.
They campaigned promising to demand a quarter of the state’s income from mining royalties for regional areas—amounting to $700 million, and picked up an extra seat.
The WA Nationals decision to be more independent was seen as a response to their merger with the Liberals in Queensland and the party’s loss of support due to coalition with the Liberals at a federal level.
Federally the party now has just nine seats in the lower house, thanks to the loss of Lyne in NSW to independent Rob Oakeshott on the same day as the WA poll was held. He won a commanding 64 per cent of the primary vote. Lyne has been held by the Nationals for almost 60 years. Oakeshott is a former Nationals and Independent state MP who quit the party in 2002.
His victory continues a trend of voters in regional areas deserting the Nationals as a result of their embrace of economic rationalism in partnership with the Liberals. It has seen other former Nationals quit the party and successfully win re-election as independents, such as Bob Katter and Tony Windsor.
The control of Labor over state governments has been widely credited to the public trusting them over the Liberals in delivering basic services like health and education.
The Liberals’ economic rationalism at state level such as under the Kennett government in Victoria had destroyed their credibility in providing public services and improving living standards.
But as crisis for the NSW Labor government and the WA election result shows, people will only put up with lack of progress in fixing these problems for so long.
None of this will be of any comfort to Kevin Rudd, who won power on the basis of “easing the squeeze” on living standards but has done little to improve people’s standard of living. If he sticks to a neo-liberal program of “wage restraint” and miserly government spending, his government too will lose public support.
The left needs to try to turn this disillusionment into struggle, the beginnings of which we have seen over privatisation in NSW, and not simply allow the Liberals to benefit.
By James Supple