Some home truths for Labor in WA

Clearly one should ask not the Australian Labor Party how the West was won; following Saturday’s half-Senate election, it is far more appropriate to ask WA Labor and Bill Shorten just how the West was lost so decisively and so humiliatingly. At the time of writing, Labor has managed to attract just 22% of the first preference vote in the Senate, suffering a swing against it of close to 5%, collapsing to its worst Senate election result since 1903. The Greens and Labor together look set to attract less than 38% of the combined first preference vote. On Tuesday, outgoing WA Labor Senator Mark Bishop described the result as disastrous, and it is difficult to disagree. Coming as it does in a period when Tony Abbott’s government is stuck on the back foot, behind in the polls nationally and under considerable political pressure on multiple fronts, Labor members and the general public have a right to wonder just what went wrong on Saturday and what is going wrong with the party more broadly in Australia’s largest and proportionately least populous state.

One thing is clear: this isn’t just about Joe Bullock: Labor has failed in recent years to grasp the nettle on some of the big policy issues impacting the lives of people living in Western Australia. There is a clear sense that both the Rudd and Gillard Governments tended to look first and foremost to suburban Sydney and Melbourne for approval when spruiking their policies, with people in regional Australia, the Queensland and the West left feeling like they are a few faceless men short of having meaningful representation in Labor’s party-room and Cabinet. There is a reason Clive Palmer strikes a nerve when he talks about the eastern states stripping the West of its rightful GST takings: it is yet another reminder of the palpable “us and them” sense that Labor has played a part in inculculating.

The Mineral Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) is arguably the most important policy pain area introduced by Labor that impacts Western Australian voters, whether in practical terms or philosophically. The ABS estimates that in 2010-11, the mining industry accounted for 29% of economic production in WA and by 2012, over 8% of jobs. Despite the fact that the MRRT has in any case failed dismally to generate the annual revenue estimated by former Treasurer Wayne Swan, Bill Shorten has been unwilling so far to permit the Abbott Government to repeal the legislation. Nor has Shorten deigned to offer any alternative policy or even a thought bubble that conceptually tackles the issue of rebalancing Australia’s lopsided economy: Labor (and to some extent, the Greens) currently remain chained mindlessly to an idea that – whilst intellectually well-intentioned – simply has not worked for the country either politically or in practice.

Indonesia is closer to home for most Western Australians than Sydney, and even as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison continues to try his darnedest to “stay mum” on boat matters, Labor has yet to outline a convincing rebuttal to the Abbott Government’s hardline approach to asylum seekers. Polls continue to indicate that the average Australian – and particularly the average Western Australian – is not as far away from the talkback radio consensus as Labor and the Greens would like, and happy to even canvass increasing the “severity” of the treatment of asylum seekers. The Greens have a clear, principled, but unpopular position on the matter: Labor’s position by comparison is just confused. The party that implemented the flawed, draconian and failing PNG solution is also the same party that oversaw the highest numbers of asylum seeker boat arrivals in Australian territory in recent recorded history. There must be a workable middle path that discourages dangerous travel by boat, satisfies the requirements of international refugee laws, encourages regional co-operation rather than conflict and restores Australia’s international reputation as a moral society. If Bill Shorten and Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Richard Marles are even looking for let alone have found this middle path, they are keeping a very good lid on it indeed, to Australia’s detriment.

Finally, there is the “carbon tax”. Labor’s WA Opposition Leader Mark McGowan is on record as opposing the fixed carbon pricing regime currently in force but supporting the introduction of an emissions trading scheme (ETS). This is a position that Bill Shorten has also adopted at a federal level, offering to support the repeal of the current carbon pricing regime on the condition that the Abbott Government introduces an ETS. This is of course a nonsense offer that the government has the moral authority to reject, an offer that makes a mockery of the mandate won by the Coalition parties at the September 2013 election. In a policy sense, Shorten’s position does not advance the debate. In a political sense, it leaves the Coalition with a cricket bat in its hand to thump the Opposition with, as it continues to rail about Labor’s unwillingness to yield to the judgement of voters in last year’s poll. The commentariat might well sniff and scoff, but for the average punter, the current fixed-price carbon regime is as much of a “carbon tax” as the ETS is. If Labor is to continue to support the introduction of an ETS, it needs to work harder at making the case for the complex system to voters, perhaps in combination with a red-blooded industry policy focused on exploding the size and scale of green energy industries across Australia, as our manufacturing sector flounders.

Yes, things may be grim now, but the national political scenario is about to shift for Labor: the sitting of the new Senate in July will break the current legislative deadlock and force Bill Shorten and his team to reconsider their policy positions – even if they do not want to. We can only hope that this change of the composition in the Senate ushers in a new mindset in Federal Labor that considers a bit more carefully what voters in Western Australia and parts of Queensland are telling them. Winning government in 2016 will be hard; winning government without anything more than desultory support in two big states will be bloody hard indeed.

Time to put the miners in charge?

Whichever way you look at it, it is difficult to avoid the fact that the Rudd Government’s botched framing of the Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT) was one of the key factors behind both the Gillard “putsch” and Labor’s poor result at the polls on Saturday August 21. The Minerals Council of Australia, with the help of some of the deepest pockets in Australian business, rivalled the success of the union movement’s anti-WorkChoices advertising during the 2007 federal election campaign. In terms of opinion-making, one could even argue that the mining lobby’s campaign was more singularly effective than that run by either the ALP or the Coalition during the election campaign proper.

Immediately after dethroning Rudd, Julia Gillard was compelled to seek a temporary advertising “truce” with the mining industry, which is testament to the brutal impact the campaign was having on Labor. She then wasted little time brokering an agreement with the big miners on a watered down regime, carving up the RSPT into a 30% Mineral Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) for iron ore and coal projects, and a proposed addendum to the existing 40% Petroleum Resource Rent Tax (PRRT) for oil and gas projects. This deal “stopped the rot” politically and placated the most vocal amongst the mining lobby, but realistically, a lot of damage had already been sustained to Labor’s credibility in the minds of voters. Furthermore, vocal billionaires Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest and LNP backer Clive Palmer continued to publicly attack the government, and the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies, representing many smaller mining companies, quite vocally (and rightly) criticised Labor for not inviting it to the negotiating table for the revised regime.

So with the miners having pretty much dictated play on one of the most hotly contested political issues of 2010, its rather interesting that BHP Biliton CEO Marius Kloppers is evidently now seeking to do the same on climate change. Kloppers, strangely enough, is now making the case for unilateral climate action independent of other countries, and for a local carbon price to be established. It is quite a remarkable intervention, particularly when one considers that previously the mining industry had by and large toed the conservative line on climate change, at best recommending that Australia only act on climate change as part of a binding multilateral agreement.

Given the pussy-footing and focus-group gabbling generally favoured by the major parties with respect to climate change policy during the past year, it really does make you wonder whether we should just cut out the middlemen and middlewomen in parliament altogether, and let the mining industry run the country? When one considers the influential interventions made by the miners during the last six months of politricking and electioneering, once gets the sense they already do, at least in a de facto sense. Perhaps it is time to end the charade and install Mr. Kloppers, Mr. Palmer or Mr. Forrest as our “Prime Miner” in chief?

At least we know they’ll run some killer ads come 2013.