Alert readers in the eastern states may have heard that their neglected cousins in the West are about to go to the polls. So what, I hear you say. It won’t make much difference at the national level, and the whole business is stupefyingly dull in any case.
You might have a point. But while the various campaigns have been a little underwhelming, and the candidates are somewhat lacking in charisma – a good quality in my view, by the way – the entire process has a wider significance, if only for students of comparative politics.
Disenchantment with democratic politics is a famously global phenomenon. It’s hard to think of a single country where the local political class is not regarded with scepticism or outright contempt. Politicians are routinely regarded as self-interested careerists with little time for, or understanding of, the needs of “ordinary” people.
According to a poll published in the Financial Review, Western Australians are no different. No less than 45% of the population described themselves as “fed up with both major parties”. It’s not hard to see why radicals, reactionaries and even racists might flourish in such an environment.
I have always thought that part of Australia’s problem is its antiquated federal system: there are simply too many politicians per person performing overlapping and/or duplicated roles – or doing nothing at all – at enormous and needless expense to the long-suffering taxpayer. And yet given the universal demise of democracy, there’s plainly more going on than just the mediocrity of our local representatives.
Nor is the idea that “they” don’t represent “us” entirely convincing. True, the major parties have to try to appeal to a wide spectrum of beliefs that they can’t hope to satisfactorily represent. But there’s no shortage of niche political products on offer that look to cater for every taste and interest.
The net result is that the traditional parties are losing members to special interests, while the anachronistic idiosyncrasies of our electoral system mean that formerly fringe players can now stop the big parties from actually doing anything.
When the balance of political power is tight – as it always seems to be these days – opportunists, defectors and egoists can add to the picture of dysfunction and incompetence.
WA is no exception to any of this. On the contrary, the political gene pool is a bit on the shallow side.
Whether WA politicians are really that much worse than their counterparts elsewhere is debatable, but what is self-evident is that the much-hyped resource boom has been squandered. WA is also a timely reminder that house prices can go down as well as up.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of this election actually flows from the mining bust. There is a noteworthy spilt within Coalition ranks over how to deal with the overwhelmingly foreign-owned multinationals that dominate the WA economy.
WA Nationals leader Brendon Grylls has bravely broken with his Liberal colleagues – and decades of bipartisan policy – in suggesting that the mining levy paid by Rio Tinto and BHP should be lifted from 25 cents per tonne to A$5.
The reaction of the big miners was entirely predictable: a lavishly funded campaign suggesting that such a tax is unsupportable and unaffordable. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? Such a campaign worked pretty effectively against Kevin Rudd, after all.
Interestingly, despite the miners throwing the political kitchen sink at Grylls, nearly 40% of Western Australians still think it’s a good idea.
Equally interesting has been the reaction of the other parties. The Liberals have criticised Grylls’ policy and even made a groundbreaking preference deal with One Nation ahead of the Nationals in the upper house. Even though the mining boom is over, it seems that Sandgropers are going to have to live with the politics of the “resource curse”.
Significantly, WA Labor’s “Plan for Jobs” makes hardly any mention of policy toward the resource industry, despite its dominant position in the state economy. Perhaps this reflects a recognition that the mining sector doesn’t actually employ that many people – especially now the investment phase of development is over. More likely it reflects an unwillingness to risk the same fate as Rudd.
Nobody seems to know who is going to win next week’s election – or whether the outcome will make the slightest difference to the state’s fate.
Mark McGowan looks to have a sporting chance of consigning Colin Barnett to the political scrapheap. He may be doing him a favour: Barnett increasingly comes across as testy and past his use-by date.
I’m a professor of political science and I don’t know if I can be bothered to go and vote. Not a good example to the students, I know. It’s not just the fact my vote won’t be decisive, but that I wouldn’t know who to give it to if I did.
Living in leafy Cottesloe with the premier as my member, I can’t vote for the Nationals even if I wanted to. Where’s the Socialist Workers’ Party when you need them?