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.