Given he is one of the longest-serving premiers of Western Australia, it’s easy to forget how close Colin Barnett came to being an also-ran in the 2008 state election.
The September election resulted in a hung parliament with neither the Labor incumbent nor the Barnett-led Liberals gaining a majority.
The notoriously independent-minded WA Nationals became kingmakers and under their leader Brendon Grylls, they flirted with the idea of going into coalition with Labor.
In the to-and-fro, as the ALP and the Liberals separately duchessed the Nats, The West Australian produced an infamous front page, identifying the state parliament as the “best little whorehouse in Australia”.
Mr Grylls was eventually brought to heel by the more conservative sections of the WA Nats, but not before he had extracted from Mr Barnett and the Liberals a promise that 25 per cent of mining royalties be spent in the regions.
In what looks like a bitter bookend to the Barnett era, Liberal attempts to wind back the Royalties for Regions programs were described by Mr Grylls as a “final betrayal”.
A forced marriage has ended in acrimonious divorce.
Compared to tumult of the 2008 election and the rancour surrounding this year’s poll, the 2013 WA election was a cakewalk for Mr Barnett.
Consider the economic and political times: the mining boom was still going strong, Julia Gillard was prime minister, then-Liberal leader Tony Abbott was at his most lethally on-message, and Labor’s mining tax was being depicted as an anti-WA raid by those filthy eastern states.
In these circumstances, Mr Barnett would’ve won even if he’d been caught poisoning pigeons in the park.
It’s another world now.
End of mining boom left WA in shock
Those school-leavers who not so long ago could go and earn high six-figure wages in the Pilbara are now being told they will have to make do with salaries of $70,000-$80,000 back home in Perth.
That’s if they’ve got a job.
Plenty are saddled with big mortgages, struck when they were enjoying the generous compensations of a fly-in, fly-out lifestyle.
Many West Australians are either in shock at the speed with which the mining boom receded or grumpy.
They are looking for someone to blame. Who better than an old government and an unpopular premier?
Which is why the WA Labor’s barrier to snatching government — taking 10 extra seats in the 59-seat lower house — no longer seems so great.
And why the Liberal Party so desperately lunged at a preference deal with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
The thinking behind the preference deal was plain: if there were grievances out there, better to have the party of grievance politics inside the tent.
But senior Liberals are deeply dubious about the value of the preference deal, which will see the Liberal Party preferencing One Nation above the Nationals in the upper house in exchange for One Nation preferences in the lower house, where government is formed.
If the preference deal somehow, miraculously, gets Mr Barnett across the line it will look like a genius survival tactic.
But few inside the Liberal Party believe this will happen.
Juggling the challenge of One Nation
A state branch which has long fretted about being slowly taken over by Christian fundamentalists, or “people obsessed by God, gays and guns” as one Liberal put it this week, now fears the preference deal with One Nation has only licensed voters to walk away.
This sentiment echoes the comments of Ron Boswell, the former Nationals senator who led the fight against One Nation the first time around.
“I said to my colleagues last week, ‘you stupid bastards, you are governing for two weeks out’,” Mr Boswell told Guardian Australia’s Gabrielle Chan this week.
“All you are worried about is getting your next piece of legislation through. You’ve got to do that but when [Arthur] Sinodinos said she is nice and she is better than she was, I thought you’ll rue that day.
“Because all you are doing is legitimising people voting for her. Making it safe for people to vote for her.”
Though broader lessons from the WA election need to be discounted by its own particular factors, the Liberal Party will have to reconsider its handling of One Nation.
Some senior Liberals are dubious of the preference deal with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. (ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)
If the conservative vote has fractured, how does the Coalition contain the damage?
In Queensland, for example, there will undoubtedly be louder calls to demerge the Liberal National Party, to allow product differentiation among the conservative partners.
The reintroduction of compulsory preferential voting in Queensland by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk not only improves One Nation’s prospects in the state election, due by next year, but also makes an LNP demerger appear more attractive.
And Malcolm Turnbull will increasingly have to push back against Ms Hanson, as much as his Government might want to nurture One Nation support in the Senate.
Perhaps we saw the start of this earlier in the week, when the Prime Minister rightly chided Ms Hanson for her admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin and her ignorant comments about immunisations.
In dealing with One Nation, the PM might want to keep Mr Barnett’s recent discomfort in mind: a legislative win will be a Pyrrhic victory if the trade-off is brand damage.
10 March 2017 | 3:14 am
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