Sunday, September 7, 2008

How the West was lost

When the Western Australian State government visited Broome earlier this year for a Community Cabinet, all was not rosy but it seemed that Alan Carpenter was over the worst of internal party division and the Liberals were divided and discredited. What went wrong between then and now? This is a view from the east, tempered by 15 months in Broome and 8 years in Northern Territory ALP politics.

Firstly the obvious: the timing of an early election was a major miscalculation. it isn’t clear whether the Premier received bad advice or it was his own idea. There does not seem to have been much political nous amongst either the government advisers or the State ALP apparatchiks. It would have made more sense with Tony Buswell as leader, but trying to pull a swiftie on a retreaded Colin Barnett was courting disaster. He was Mr. clean, all good-humoured innocence fighting the evil manipulators in the government.

Secondly, West Australians seem to like their politicians as colourless and non-threatening as possible. Carpenter is not a typical Australian leader. He is very serious and intense. Moreover, despite his journalism background he seems to relate poorly with the voters, perhaps because of an unlikely shyness. He does not come across as a warm, natural character like Peter Beatty whom some compared him with. Ironically during his Broome visit, I found him a genuine straight talker, to borrow John McCain’s slogan. He has the capacity to make an important contribution to Australian politics but it seems fate might have it otherwise. He has a vision for WA but it is not one that is understood by the public.

The Brian Burke factor was not of Carpenter’s making though he naively ignored it when he took over, to his lasting detriment. His later attempts to clean up the party had considerable success. But this was at the cost of public support which only a Beatty could have retained. This was reinforced by his inability to fully unite the Labor Party behind his leadership.

The old cliché that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them had a strange twist. The official opposition in the guise of the Liberal Party had been worse than dismal before the election was called and used the time-honoured tactic of taking no risks during the campaign. However, the real opposition came in the form of West Australian Newspapers whose traditional antipathy to Labor, as evidenced during the 2007 Federal election, had taken the form of a vendetta against the State ALP. The feud between them and Jim McGinty, Heath Minister and Attorney General, far exceeded any other government/media stoush I can remember. Carpenter seemed either unwilling or incapable of negotiating a truce. He paid the price in a State where WAN own the only daily and nearly all of the weekly regional papers.

The State ALP head office must also be held accountable. Last year’s Federal campaign was poorly managed with the West being the only State to go backwards for Labor. Let’s hope that State Secretary Bill Johnston will be more successful as the member for Carrington. I’ll save any other comments for internal party forums.

Finally voters across Australia are angry. It is more than just a climate of change in politics. Voters are hurting and they will not tolerate perceived failure, weakness or arrogance from their politicians. It is not just a case of protest voting. If you’re not delivering or are consumed by internal strife then you'll be punished. The same lesson has been delivered in the Northern Territory, Mayo and Lyne.

Alan Carpenter may yet form a minority government. Let's hope that if he gets another chance to fulfill his potential, it is not wasted.

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1 comment:

Lorenzo said...

despite his journalism background he seems to relate poorly with the voters
While the rest of your post (as someoe not following events in WA from the other side of the continent) all seems reasonable, that made me smile.
Oz journalists tend to be somewhat removed from public opinion, according to studies of their opinion.

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