After the Western Australian elections, what now?

The elections in Western Australia have had their almost predictable outcome — not just the re-election of the Coalition, but the perception both within and outside the Gillard government that the wheels are falling off the Labor cart, and the pursuit of federal Labor politicians by the media asking them what is to happen inside their party. Those of us who think that a media pack in pursuit of anyone is not an enjoyable sight might reflect that, like film stars, politicians love the attention of the media when it suits them, and have to put up with the same attention when they would like to be left alone.

Western Australia is not a political system whose events one ought to generalise from. Distance lends disenchantment to the view from the West, and a lot of Western Australians have traditionally seen themselves as the hard-working people who support eastern voters in the comfort they have come to expect. The Federal Government is rarely popular there, and given the Rudd and Gillard Governments’ pursuit of a mining tax, whose proceeds were not going to be spent in Western Australia, it is understandable that it is on the nose. That wouldn’t help the State Labor Party at any time, and it is generally agreed that it ran a good campaign, distancing itself from Julia Gillard, who was asked not to appear.

So why did Colin Barnett and the Coalition do so well? On the whole, he had nothing going against him. He had narrowly won the last election, and had been able to win the support of some independents in order to govern. As do most Western Australian premiers, he ran an anti-Canberra line, and had made it clear that he was for Western Australia despite everyone, and that he would look after it. Mining has done very well over the last four years, so economic conditions are better in the West than anywhere else. He and his coalition ought to have won, and they did, handsomely. It was just not an electoral situation in which the Labor opposition could do well, any more than the Greens or independents could.

Some focus-group work reported in On Line Opinion suggests it was not the Prime Minister but the Labor Party itself, federally — the Labor brand — that was the problem, which reinforces the view that even when you run a great campaign, that’s not much use unless you have a good product to sell. And that is very much the problem with the Labor party: it doesn’t have a good product. Indeed, you could argue that it doesn’t have any product, other than that it is in government, and can speak for the moment with that authority.

One aspect of the WA result that the ALP should take seriously (though it is too late for it to do so before September 14th) is the outcome in Albany, where Peter Watson, the sitting Labor MLA, did well against the anti-Labor tide. He explained the outcome as the consequence of his being a well-known local with strong roots, and pointed to the relative success of other local-known candidates — compared with those foisted on communities by the party machine, unions and the factions (at least that was the inference I drew from his remarks on radio).

It is true that ‘community’ in the suburbs of Australian cities is a chancy thing, and doesn’t fit neatly with electoral boundaries, but when the tide is against you, you need every bit of momentum you can produce. Labor has developed a system for choosing candidates where things are decided far from the constituency. There are deals: it is somebody’s turn, or a particular union has waited long enough, or X’s bright young staffer should learn about campaigning the hard way.

I would agree that our country has grown too big for ‘local’ to mean much in federal elections, but even suburbs can have collective issues that need voicing in Parliament, and to tell locals who their new candidate is, when they have played no part at all in choosing him or her, starts you off with some saddlebag lead. The amount of lead is even heavier where there were local identities who could have done a decent job.

And Labor has lost sight of one of the most important values of our representative system: Parliament as a whole is representative of our society, and therefore (the feeling goes) can be trusted to do what is right for the whole society. It is analogous to a jury, which is also composed of those representative of the society. I think that there is now an assumption within the ALP — and the Liberals too, to a smaller degree — that the ordinary people can’t be trusted to know who would make a good MP, as though the business of government is too difficult for an ordinary person to grasp.

If there is such an assumption inside the ALP, the sooner it loses it the better. I don’t think that there will be too many Peter Watson outcomes in September, and when the ALP sets up yet another grey eminence group to tell it what went wrong in September, I hope that the party returns to the feeling that the people, not the party, are the true purpose of its existence.

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