View from The Hill

Labor’s WA rout puts Defence Minister’s seat in the firing line

Colin Barnett’s big WA win may have federal implications. AAP/Alan Porritt

After the latest state defeat for Labor, the tumbrel rolls on towards Canberra. Saturday’s West Australian election saw a swag of seats taken out in a landslide 6 per cent swing against the ALP, which had a primary vote in the low 30s.

What impact this will have on federal caucus thinking is the big unknown. But former state minister Alannah MacTiernan has made sure the leadership question is put up in lights. “From a West Australian point of view… you would plead with Julia Gillard to stand down”, MacTiernan said, declaring this was the only way Labor could dig itself out of its “Greek tragedy”.

Defence minister Stephen Smith was upfront about federal factors hurting state Labor. The ALP was never going to win against a well-regarded first term Barnett government but Smith said the swing was bigger than he had expected. Given the tough time federal Labor had been having, it was certainly a “drag” on state opposition leader Mark McGowan’s campaign.

Smith’s mind would be concentrated by his own situation. His seat of Perth has a margin of just under 6 per cent. In the state seat of the same name, an inner city, trendy area mostly within Smith’s electorate, the long-time well-connected Labor member was swept out. This loss has been a particularly sharp psychological shock for the ALP.

Labor holds only three of the 15 federal WA seats; the others are Fremantle (parliamentary secretary Melissa Parke, on 5.7 per cent) and Brand (Special Minister of State Gary Gray, on 3.3 per cent). Given the bitter disconnect between federal Labor and Western Australia, all three members must be very nervous about September 14.

There will always be argument over impact of federal factors in state elections and the role of the local this time should not be overlooked as everyone - naturally enough given the febrile atmosphere in Canberra - concentrates on national implications. WA rides high on mining; the Barnett government hasn’t upset people. The WA Nationals have ensured the regions are looked after (their leader Brendon Grylls has pulled off his gamble in switching seats, winning the ALP’s Pilbara, part of a big knock to Labor’s regional bases).

But it is notable there is wide agreement that the Gillard government’s unpopularity was significant. McGowan is acknowledged (even by the Liberal side) to have run a pretty good campaign. He would not let Julia Gillard across the border, however the ban wasn’t enough to stop voters mulling on their discontent.

In an exit poll done for Sky TV, 51 per cent said the performance of the federal government was very important in the way they voted (30 per cent said the mining tax; 33 per cent the carbon tax).

As one-time WA premier Geoff Gallop says, it’s part of the general problem with brand Labor. “At every election part of the consideration of electors is that they are unhappy with Labor as a political party. They don’t like the way it is operating.” There is a lack of consistency – for example on climate change - and the general public has the view that too few people have too much influence, Gallop says.

Every effort Gillard makes to change people’s attitudes, or switch the conversation (whether onto positives or negatives) has little result. The party has no reason to believe she will be more successful in the few months between now and the election.

Striking out on another path by changing to Kevin Rudd is so fraught with hurdles (the hatred of him by key ministers, his pledge not to challenge, Gillard’s apparent determination to fight on, the uncertainty of the numbers) that many caucus members are still not sure how it could be done.

Some numbers have drifted towards Rudd. But how many and how solid are they? As they gather in Canberra before tomorrow’s start of a fortnight-long parliamentary sitting, Labor MPs will be looking ahead to tomorrow’s Newspoll, which will play into the volatile mood of an uncertain party.

Contemplating the bleakness, the ALP MPs might leaf through former leader Mark Latham’s Quarterly Essay, out today. Latham argues Labor must re-conceive its identity, answering two questions. Which parts of society does it seek to represent? What are its passions and ideas for them?

He finds hope for the future in the relatively recent past. Labor should recapture “the Keating economic legacy” (none of this current whiff of protectionism). This would help it appeal to the aspirational voters and pursue fairness and equity.

Labor’s “burning passions” should be for education reform, though Latham’s blueprint is different from Gonski (“simply writing a cheque to schools is not a solution”) and alleviating poverty (which involves tackling “the debilitating impact of underclass culture”). Climate change is the mega issue for the future. “Labor should recommence its campaign on the public importance of global warming. To be mute on this subject in the 2013 election year would be a failure of leadership”.

Latham writes: “The logical way to approach Australian politics in the twenty-first century is through a two-phase strategy: in the short term, re-establishing the party’s dominance in economic and social policy, while in the longer term, preparing for the transformative impact of global warming”.

The essay is titled, “Not Dead Yet: Labor’s Post-Left Future”. Of course, despite all its present troubles, the party does have a future. But many federal marginal seat holders fear they are not going to be part of it.