Fool's Gold of mining boom influences WA election

A protest against the Liberals' campaign.
Friday, March 15, 2013

There's a lot of unease in progressive circles in Western Australia in the wake of Liberal Premier Colin Barnett's landslide reelection win in the March 9 WA state election. The expectation is that many things will get worse before they get better.

The minority Liberal government, dependent on National Party support and buoyed by mining royalties, has been restrained compared to the slash-and-burn of public services rammed through by its counterparts in Queensland and Victoria.

However, it still cut expenditure across the board by 2% in its first year, and then by 1% in every year since. It has also contracted out human services to non-profit organisations to take advantage of lower wages and conditions.

While still not touching many, these cuts have already had a terrible impact on some of the most marginalised and oppressed, such as those with disabilities or mental illness. The impact has been worsened by the great WA mining boom — disaster for those on low fixed incomes due to the brutal rise in the cost of housing.

But all this passed largely unnoticed in general political debate and did not really feature in either Labor or Greens election campaign material.

The Liberals are now expected to command 32 votes in the 59 seat parliament, rising to 39 with the National Party seats. It would be fair to expect Barnett to use his position of strength to impose an extended program of cuts, privatisation, uranium mining, gas fracking, and forced council amalgamations, to name but a few.

The lack of proportional representation exaggerates WA’s seeming love affair with the conservatives. The Liberal and National Parties will have two thirds of the seats, but their combined primary vote was a more modest 53.1%.

Nevertheless the election saw swings away from Labor of 2.7% and the Greens of 3.6%. There was an 8.7% swing to the Liberals, and with the Nationals they took at least seven seats from Labor and three from independents.

Labor's only gain was Fremantle, which it took from Green turned-independent Adele Carles. Carles polled 5.5%, well behind Simone McGurk (ALP) who won 38.2%.

Inevitably, the media circus surrounding Carles' bizarre affair with Liberal Treasurer Troy Buswell, infamous for his repeated sexual harassment of female staff, threw a shadow over the Greens campaign. Their candidate Andrew Sullivan gained 18.1%, well above the Greens statewide average of 8.3%, but a big drop on the 27.6% they won in 2008.

Despite the overwhelming swing to the conservatives there were some interesting counter-swings.

In the Kimberley, where the Greens were the only party to fully oppose the James Price Point gas hub, they won 23.5% of the vote on the back of three booths in Broome where they received more support than any other party.

Likewise the Greens scored 16.2% in Warren-Blackwood, thanks to a big vote in Margaret River booths, because of the support sitting National Party member Terry Redman gave to subsequently aborted plans for a coalmine in the district.

Meanwhile, in five seats centred around the industrial zone south of Perth, with a relatively high proportion of unionised blue collar workers and state housing tenants, the Labor vote either remained stable or even significantly increased.

In these seats the Liberal vote also increased, but in four of them the swing against the Greens was greater than the average. It suggests a more general trend in which Labor won supporters from the Greens but lost votes on its right flank to the Liberals.

If true, then why? Surely it was "Metronet", Labor's promise to build an extensive new cross suburban circle railway line linking the airport to all the existing suburban lines, a massive improvement to the public transport system by any measure.

It seems that Labor, equipped with a genuine and progressive point of difference to the Liberals, won a slew of left-leaning voters back into the fold, especially in these southern seats where voters have fresh memories of the previous Labor government building the 80 kilometres Perth to Mandurah railway line.

But the votes Labor won from the Greens were not enough to counteract those who were seduced by the illusion that they have a reserved seat on the mining boom gravy train.

Many workers, including those that have benefitted from the boom, will get a shock to be booted off the train when the mining companies require it, and Barnett and his band of ticket inspectors will be more than ready to do their bidding.

When that happens, who knows what dramatic twists and turns will ignite WA politics.