WESTERN AUSTRALIA: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
WA Nationals opt for partnership, not coalition
, October 11, 2008
The WA state government is not a traditional Liberal-National coalition but a conditional partnership, reports Joseph Poprzeczny.Western Australians had to wait 17 days after their September 6 2008 state election before a new government could be sworn in. This was because of drawn-out negotiations between the Liberals and Nationals over funding non-metropolitan regions and allocating portfolios.
The new WA government that was sworn in on September 23 consists of a Liberal premier Colin Barnett heading a cabinet of 13 Liberals, three Nationals and one independent Liberal.
However, it is not a traditional Liberal-National coalition, but has instead been billed as a partnership - a conditional partnership.
Nationals leader, Brendan Grylls, refused the deputy premiership, unlike his predecessor, Hendy Cowan, in both Richard Court-led coalition governments during 1993-2001.Talks
Another reason for the delay was because Grylls held talks with Labor leader and former premier, Alan Carpenter, on the prospect of forming WA's first Labor-National Government.
The significance of this Nationals-inspired bidding for funds for non-metropolitan regions cannot be over-emphasised since this indicates that, if the Liberal-Nationals partnership stumbles, Grylls could still team up with Labor.
An unprecedented WA Labor-Nationals Government therefore cannot be ruled out before the next state election due by February 2013. Election 2008 was therefore a turning point in WA's 118-year parliamentary history.
Also not to be ignored is the fact that Carpenter-led Labor won more seats than the Barnett-led Liberals. The final tally was Labor winning 28 seats, the Liberals 24, the Nationals four, the Liberal independents two, and one Labor independent.
Despite Carpenter calling an election six months early - and Labor compounding this panic move by running what was its worst ever campaign - Labor is the biggest party in the new parliament.
Even if one adds both independent Liberals - who back Barnett - that still leaves Labor two seats ahead - 28 to 26.
Only when the Nationals agreed to conditionally become Barnett's partners could the state governor, Dr Ken Michael, be advised that a government could belatedly be formed. That overall seat break-down therefore suggests the Barnett-Nationals conditional partnership is far from firmly ensconced.
This contention is further reinforced by the voting statistics. Although the Liberals outpolled Labor for the state's 59 lower house seats - 432,081 votes to 390,944 - this reverses when adding Nationals and Liberal votes and comparing those to the Greens and Labor total.
The four Nationals members won just over 53,000 votes to gain four seats, while the Greens - Labor's de facto
allies in election contests - registered 129,924 but failed to win a lower house seat. The Labor-Greens left-of-centre bloc registered nearly 521,000 votes to the Liberals' and Nationals' combined 485,000.
Despite this 36,000 state-wide vote lead, Labor lost government because of the emergence of what is called a "hung Parliament", which only the Nationals could transform into a workable arrangement.
How and why had this happened? Two words - South Australia. There, the sole lower house Nationals member, Karlene Maywald, is minister in the Mike Rann-led Labor Government. This arrangement followed an identical one in the first Rann Government.
On becoming Nationals leader in 2005, Grylls assessed Maywald's approach and decided to copy it. That meant re-orientating the Nationals' electioneering strategy by demanding that 25 per cent of WA's mineral royalties be outlaid in non-metropolitan regions.
Grylls dubbed this plan "royalties for regions", and unveiled it at a special function in 2006. Among the special guests were former Flinders University politics academic, Professor Dean Jaensch, a long-time sympathiser of "independents" and hung parliaments, and maverick Queensland Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce.
Two and a half years previously, in an ABC television panel discussion, Jaensch said: "I don't think it's a case that minority governments cause those sorts of economic malaises. When you look around to other states, for example my own state in South Australia, it's been a hung parliament in both houses for a number of years and we don't seem to have an economic malaise. These are arguments that major parties will put up because they want control of the parliament in their own right."Hung parliament
Jaensch argued that hung parliaments were good for democracy. He said: "Having a hung parliament gives more opportunity for Government to be questioned, to be put on the spot. Equally, I think a hung parliament also gives more opportunity for discussion, for debate, for compromise.
"I see nothing evil about hung parliaments simply because many houses of parliament in Australia have hung parliaments - the Australian Senate, the Tasmanian upper house. They're hung parliaments which seem to work quite well." (ABC TV's Stateline
, Tasmania, March 10, 2006).
It therefore seems fair to contend that Grylls and his South Australian-based political adviser, Professor Jaensch, crafted WA's new political direction.- Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance writer.