On August 7, the Western Australian ALP government called an early election for September 6.
This short time frame for the election campaign followed the August 5 resignation of Troy Buswell from the leadership of the Liberal Party and the subsequent election of Colin Barnett as fourth Liberal parliamentary leader since the last state election.
Buswell had faced ongoing uncertainty since his election as parliamentary leader in late 2007 due to a series of scandals and internal strife, including revelations of his sexual harassment of parliamentary staffers and a number of resignations of sitting members from the Liberal Party.
The sudden announcement by the government, while not unexpected, was greeted with widespread scepticism as a cynical act to take advantage not only of the disarray in the Liberal Party, but also the distraction of the Olympic Games, which has been a central focus of the media throughout the election campaign.
In an effort to counter this cynicism WA premier Alan Carpenter has pledged to introduce legislation for fixed terms if the ALP is returned to government
Clearly, Carpenter feared growing dissatisfaction with his government's performance. By calling a snap poll while the Liberals are in disarray, it hopes it can steal victory prior to any deepening economic problems globally or nationally.
On August 16, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Newspoll had found a 7% increase in support for the Liberal and National parties, taking them to 49% on a two-party preferred basis. This makes the 4% swing needed to take government more realisable, should the two parties decide to form a coalition.
This surge in support, despite the ongoing turmoil inside the Liberals, raises serious questions about public perceptions of the performance of the ALP government.
The corporate media have focused on public anger over the early poll, desires to avoid having ALP governments at both the state and federal level and the ongoing issue of corruption surrounding the government, particularly the influence of former premier Brian Burke within the ALP.
These ignore the failure of successive ALP governments to use the resources boom, which has caused the state economy to expand at an average of 5.5% a year since the 2001-2002 financial year, to benefit working people.
There has been an unwillingness by the state government to fund the necessary maintenance and expansion of key public services such as health and education. The government has instead remained committed to maintaining large surpluses, with a projected surplus for the current financial year of $1.86 billion.
The under-funding of the public sector has been reflected in the ALP's hostile attitude to public sector unions during negotiations for new collective agreements. This has contributed to significant disparity in wage outcomes between private and public sector workers, a trend which, although not isolated to WA, is greatest in the state.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Labour Price Index, private sector workers' wages increased at an average of 6.2% in the past year and 5% per annum between 2002 and 2008, compared to 4.4% and 4.5% in the public sector.
However, even those workers who have benefited from the boom are feeling the squeeze, as the rising housing, rental and fuel costs have helped to drive WA's inflation rate to 4.5%. While these price rises have been caused by a number of factors, including rising purchasing power, the state government's approach — to offset rising housing prices by offering to buy 30-40% of the equity in a home of a first home buyer — will only help drive up prices, and does nothing to address the widespread housing shortage.
The only effective solution to the crisis is through the state government investing heavily in the construction of rent-controlled public housing.
Left alternative required
Despite the failures of the ALP government, a Barnett Liberal government would be a significant setback for working people in WA. This possibility reflects both the failure of the ALP and the lack of a party to the left of the ALP that is seen as having a realistic chance of winning government.
Through its candidate Julie Gray in North Metropolitan region, the Socialist Alliance will be attempting to articulate concrete solutions to these problems. However, in such a short election campaign, the ability of smaller parties — who rely on talking directly to people rather than on massive advertising campaigns and intense media coverage — to communicate their ideas are greatly reduced.
The Socialist Alliance strongly believes that an alternative direction for Western Australia is possible, one that puts the interests of people and the environment ahead of profit. The Socialist Alliance will be encouraging its supporters to vote for the Greens and then Labor in seats it is not contesting.
[Chris Latham is the Socialist Alliance WA state convener. For more information on the Socialist Alliance election campaign and its policies, visit http://socialist-alliance.wikispaces.com].