Greens winners as Labor, Liberals slump in WA poll

Greens activists at a rally against education cuts in Perth on April 1. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The Western Australia senate election re-run has resulted in a big drop in support for the major parties and significant swings to the Greens and the Palmer United Party (PUP).

Greens, PUP and Labor have won one seat each while the Liberals have won two seats. The final seat will be decided by preferences and is expected to go to either Liberal or Labor.

Prime minister Tony Abbott has sought to play down the swing against the government, claiming it was a “typical by-election result”. This ignores months of consistent bad polls for the new government, which has been the “least popular incoming administration in four decades”.

Following the March in March, the result is a further demonstration that there is a strong mood to resist the Abbott government's agenda.

In this context, the dramatic swing against Labor — which scored its lowest vote in a WA senate election — reveals it is not just the Liberals who are on the nose. It can't have helped that the day before the election it was widely reported that Labor's lead senate candidate Joe Bullock claimed that Abbott had the “potential to be a good prime minister”.

He also claimed that Labor members were mad, that the party can't be trusted and he made offensive comments about the sexuality of his running mate Louise Pratt.

This demoralised ALP members on the eve of the election and has resulted in significant public criticism of Bullock, including a call for his resignation by United Voice secretary Carolyn Smith on April 10, who was one of the unions that guaranteed his preselection at the top of Labor's ticket.

However, much of the comment within Labor has focused on Bullock's role as a former trade union official rather than his conservative political views. Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten immediately reacted to the senate result by vowing to sever the link between unions and the parliamentary party.

Popular local member Alannah MacTiernan has argued a similar view.

This is essentially an organisational response to the political problem that Labor has moved so far to the right. Senator Mark Bishop and state Labor leader Mark McGowan are advocating political change by putting forward right-wing views, such as arguing against Labor’s mining tax.

The truth is that none of these versions of looking to the right will fundamentally solve Labor's problems, which are much bigger than just Bullock.

More interesting is an examination of the support base of the PUP. Abbott accurately claimed just before the election that Palmer was trying to buy seats in parliament. Palmer reportedly spent ten times the advertising budget of the major parties.

In the final week of the campaign, a number of other establishment figures came out to warn people not to vote Palmer. The West Australian ran a front page article one week before the election titled: “Sold a PUP: Palmer cannot deliver on absurd promises to WA voters”.

The front page editorial the day before the election argued: “The state will be best served by electing credible candidates from either of the major political parties'” and encouraged voters to elect the Liberals.

The editorial said Palmer’s electioneering style “is all about slogans but has little substance and most of his promises do not stand up to scrutiny”. On election day, the Liberal party produced posters for polling booths that read “Clive is in it for WA” with “WA” crossed out and replaced with a handwritten “Clive”.

These interventions, while generally accurate, amount to an admission by the establishment that they are worried by the Palmer phenomenon. This arguably enhanced Palmer's standing among people who are dissatisfied with Labor and Liberal.

The Greens were the stand out winners of the campaign, winning a 6% swing or a total of 15% of the vote. Senator Scott Ludlam easily won his seat in his own right without the need for preferences flowing from other parties.

The Greens' campaign was characterised by an impressive mobilisation of members and supporters who felt that they had something at stake in Ludlam's seat. This campaign is worth studying by all socialist and progressive activists — both to try to replicate it during future election campaigns, but also in extra-parliamentary campaigns as well.

The Socialist Alliance result was small, but it was nevertheless a campaign worth waging. The size of its vote confirms that the socialist movement in Australia is speaking to a very small audience at the moment. But the fact is that the audience we were speaking to in this election was much larger than just the people who voted for us.

The Socialist Alliance was saying something that no other political force was saying — that we need to decisively break the power of the big corporations in this country if we are to solve the pressing social justice and environmental problems that we face.

It was the only party that ran explicitly on a platform of breaking the power of the big corporations — starting with the public ownership of mines and banks. Running in the election made it possible to spread this message further than if we didn't.

We are still at the initial stage of popularising these ideas and winning an audience to the idea that these apparently radical policies are both feasible and necessary.

[Alex Bainbridge was a Socialist Alliance candidate in the WA senate election re-run.]