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This Saturday, West Australians head to the polls. While the Barnett Government can point to many successes, its biggest obstacle may be voters who think it’s time for a change, argues Ron Edwards.

In many ways WA Liberal Leader, Colin Barnett became the “accidental Premier” in September 2008 when Labor's Alan Carpenter called an early poll. 

Barnett was halfway out the door when the Liberal Party called him back to replace the controversy-prone Opposition Leader Troy Buswell. 

Carpenter then ran the most inept campaign since Liberal Prime Minister Billy McMahon against Gough Whitlam in 1972 and Barnett was elected Premier. 

The early years of his Government were marked by significant progress. 

Barnett also built strong ties with the business community, especially the resources sector and at the height of the Labor Party dominance in politics across the nation was the only conservative leader to attend COAG Meetings.

His Partnership Forum with the not-for-profit-sector  was ground-breaking as a social partnership and delivered $650 million including increasing salaries to staff to achieve parity with other sectors. Barnett also reached agreement with teachers, nurses and the Police Union.

A key flaw in the Liberal hegemony emerged with the departure of Troy Buswell from WA politics and Christian Porter to Federal politics. These were the two most likely successors to Colin Barnett and following the truism of State Government that most Governments are lucky if they bat with any depth beyond four or five ministers.

The departure of these two talented Ministers weakened the succession in the WA Liberals.

However, all of this was off in the future when Colin Barnett was re-elected at the 2013 election. The WA economy was flush with money from the mining boom and the Federal Labor Government was hugely unpopular. 

The Liberal two-party-preferred vote came in at 57.29%, a record for a state election in WA. 

The one Labor policy that struck a chord with voters was the Metronet project, which put a great emphasis upon extending public transport. 

The Liberals responded by promising a rail link to Ellenbrook in the north east metropolitan region. 

However the Barnett Government failed to deliver on this promise choosing instead to focus upon Elizabeth Quay, an artificial inlet in the Swan River – a poor man’s Circular Quay. This was seen by many as the Barnett Government buttering up the property speculators and toffs and turning their backs on to everyday commuters suffering the daily traffic congestion on Perth’s roads.

Nevertheless, the newly-returned Barnett Government achieved some important successes in infrastructure and developments in education such as the independent public schools initiative. 
The Government completed the Fiona Stanley Hospital in the southern suburbs but this was contrasted with the disastrous build of the Perth Children’s Hospital. Setbacks occurred with panels falling off, asbestos in building materials and lead in the water supply.

The Government and construction company John Holland have been locked in disputes and the project was never going to be ready before this election.

Elizabeth Quay itself proved to be a public relations disaster. The water park, consisting of fountains for children to play in, is great in concept however due to pressure from within the Premier’s Office the opening was rushed to coincide with the summer of 2016. This meant the plumbing system was not properly trialled and the water supply failed, becoming contaminated when the pumps broke down. Its popular success was to prove its public relations failure. So ironically the aspect designed to appeal to the broader public did not deliver. Further, the retail outlets at the Quay are perceived by the public as being rarely open for business. 

Perth has always suffered from a sluggish retail sector and the Barnett Government has been very positive in relaxing retail trading hours and slowly killing off the protectionist English-style closed shop mentality. 

The decline in the resources sector has seen an increase in demand from parents for their children to attend public schools and the Government investment in education and the initiative of Independent Public Schools has proven popular and successful. However, due to a lack of foresight and planning the Government failed to provide sufficient places for children in inner-city public schools and is now scrambling to rescue the situation. Labor has responded by proposing a high rise opportunity school in the CBD to attract high performing students. This has been well received in the business community of the CBD. Another element in the reduction in activity in the resources industry has reduced cost pressures in other industries where during the boom wage pressures were extreme.

Going in to this month’s election, Labor Leader Mark McGowan has pitched his approach around a strategy of not frightening voters by being consistent on policy and presentation. He is working on an assumption that after eight years voters believe it is time for a change. He is reinforced by high levels of unemployment. Adding to the Governments woes are the failures of the Perth Children’s Hospital construction and a general lack of direction in the Liberal campaign.

Behind the scenes the Liberal campaign has suffered from excessive interference in the daily running from within the Premier’s Office creating tensions in Government ranks. To some extent this has been driven by a view of the Premier that delegating to others may not produce the outcomes he wants. 

A clear sign of the dire internal polling of the Government was the Liberal Party preference deal with One Nation, which means that in exchange for Liberal preferences in the Upper House One Nation will preference the Liberals in key Lower House seats. The Nationals have retaliated by directing their preferences in two key Upper House seats, the Mining and Pastoral Region and South West Region, to the Greens.

Significantly the Government has been relatively scandal free which is an important factor given the toxic electoral reaction to WA Inc of the Burke era. There have been no matters related to corruption to derail the Government. 

A big challenge for Labor is to gather any antagonism towards the Government into votes for its candidates. A number of voters I have spoken to have expressed their discontent with the state of affairs and at some point say something along the lines of “ I think I will vote for that woman (Pauline Hanson) so she can straighten them out”. In this context the Liberal preference deal may prove crucial in some key seats.

The McGowan team has campaigned hard on jobs and opposition to the partial privatisation of Western Power being pushed as the centrepiece of the Government’s future budgetary strategy. Ironically the Liberal Party has gone into the preference deal with One Nation whose centrepiece is opposition to the privatisation of Western Power. Set against the power blackouts in South Australia there is no compelling appetite for privatisation.

Of further concern to the Government is their failure to gain any ground in fixing the WA share of the GST. The Turnbull Government in spite of having a strong Federal Ministerial representation from WA – Julie Bishop, Christian Porter, Mathias Cormann, Michaelia Cash and Michael Keenan – has been unable to achieve any change in what is considered in the community to be an unfair distribution.

The Liberal campaign has been steady and predictable focussing on their deserved record as builders of infrastructure and reformers in education housing and health. Labor is focussing on its strength of jobs, education health and a refusal to sell of Western Power. Both parties have committed to stronger policies on crime and law and order.

The National Party, which has gained a lot of ground in the last two elections stands to lose ground as it is attacked on different fronts by One Nation, the Liberals and Labor. Their best voice in cutting through, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is staying away from WA because of his opposition to Grylls policy on mining royalties.

The nature of the electoral pendulum is such that on the night of 11th March if the swing is on we can expect to see a tranche of seats fall early to Labor but as the count goes on it may well come down to preferences in the extra seats needed by Labor to form Government. The Upper House is expected to be somewhat like the Senate, a mix of smaller parties with One Nation, the Greens and the Shooters Fishers and Farmers vying for seats.

The new Government will inherit a debt of around $40 billion, new infrastructure and improving resource prices in iron ore, oil and gas and a strong gold price along with a thriving agriculture sector in the grains and pastoral sectors and a strong fisheries sector. Given these factors it may seem to some strange as to why the Barnett Government is in trouble. It may come down to it being time for a change as it was with Kevin Rudd taking over from John Howard.

Ron Edwards was the Labor Member for the Federal seat of Stirling from 1983 -1993. He is Wells Haslem’s Western Australia affiliate.