The smashing of the WA Liberals

15 March 2021

On Saturday night after the Western Australian state election, the remnants of the Liberal Party faithful gathered in a Perth bowls club to hear from their leader, Zak Kirkup. It wasn’t an ordinary election concession speech—Kirkup had already conceded two weeks before polling day. The Liberal leader was resigning from political life entirely after an absolutely devastating defeat.

The state election was a bloodbath. The Liberals have been reduced to two lower house seats (three, if the remaining count goes their way) and have lost their official status as a party, along with the parliamentary resources that provides. Kirkup lost his seat, the first major party leader to do so in Western Australia since 1933, just three months into his term as party leader.

Watching this odious party reduced to an irrelevant rump is immensely satisfying. The last Liberal government tried to shut down Indigenous communities, bulldozed Perth’s precious wetlands to try to build a highway, sacked thousands of public servants and froze wages for the rest. For decades, they have been the sworn enemy of the union movement and the oppressed.

Mark McGowan’s Labor Party is victorious. The ALP is set to win 53 of the state’s 59 lower house seats, the greatest election win of any political party in Australian history. And McGowan is the most popular politician since Newspolls began, having an approval rating of 88 percent. What’s behind this unprecedented result?

Western Australia’s success in keeping COVID-19 out of the state is a huge part of McGowan’s popularity. Everyone has watched the devastation in Europe and the US—the hundreds of thousands agonising deaths so that greedy bosses and politicians could keep the economy running and profits flowing.

And if Australia looks like a paradise on Earth amid this terrible pandemic, Western Australia appears a paradise within paradise. This was accomplished largely by keeping the state borders shut, against the objections of the federal government and interstate capitalists. When a single case of COVID-19 entered the community earlier this year, the state government responded with a rapid and hard lockdown that shut down most non-essential business.

Labor doesn’t deserve all the credit. Its initial pandemic response last year was no better than other Australian state governments. And our geographical isolation has made the task of keeping the virus out much easier. But Western Australia has avoided an outbreak of the virus, and life has been pretty normal here since the initial lockdown ended last year. Lockdowns and border closures saved lives, and everyone recognises it.

This doesn’t mean all the sentiment backing McGowan is left wing. He also has the solid backing of big business, particularly the mining industry. Partly this is because the state’s capitalist class knows that a virus-free state is a state in which it can continue to do business without the disruptions seen elsewhere.

And the pandemic responses from the government—border closures and a short-term hard lockdown—have been relatively inoffensive to bosses here, since they had only a small effect on their operations. The mining bosses have also been able to restore brutal workplace practices, like doubling the length of FIFO rosters, under the guise of COVID safety. In this favourable environment, combined with increased demand for iron ore from China and disruption to global supply, the mining industry made a record $172 billion in sales.

So McGowan has been able to take the necessary measures to keep the pandemic at bay with the support of the state’s big businesses and the corporate media. By contrast, the extended lockdown in Victoria last year was met with a vicious assault from business and the media, which tried to drum up opposition to “dictator Dan” Andrews for interrupting economic life with a life-saving lockdown.

The bosses in Western Australia are fully behind Labor. Nine days out from the election, McGowan schmoozed with the billionaire class at a $1,500-$3,000-a-head ALP fundraiser organised by a property developer and former Liberal. The guests included Woodside CEO Peter Coleman, who recently expressed sympathy for Myanmar’s military dictatorship, billionaire mining magnate Chris Ellison, whose riverside mansion is Australia’s most expensive residential property, Michael Chaney of Wesfarmers and Fortescue Metals CEO Elizabeth Gains. Labor’s electoral strengths coincided with a weak state Liberal Party that hasn’t recovered from its last deeply unpopular term in office and has been wracked by internal squabbling. Kirkup’s cynical attempts to outflank Labor to the left by promising net zero carbon emissions and more emergency accommodation for the homeless probably backfired with the Liberal Party base and failed to fool left wing voters.

This combination of circumstances explains why Labor has cleaned up, not only in its historic working-class heartlands, but in the richest of Perth’s Western suburbs, and in relatively conservative rural areas. The seat of Nedlands, for example, includes the suburb of Dalkeith, home to Gina Rinehart, where the median annual income is more than $200,000. Nedlands has been a safe Liberal seat since it was created in 1930. This year it swung 9.5 points to elect a Labor representative for the first time.

Unfortunately, the union movement and the left have nothing to look forward to from another McGowan government. As a recent Australian Financial Review article put it: “In the past four years, the McGowan government has privatised public assets, abolished the stand-alone Department of Aboriginal Affairs and sucked it into a super department, neutered the Environmental Protection Authority when it upset the oil and gas industry, imposed a four-year public service wage rise cap, lifted a moratorium on fracking, and flatly refused to suspend the decision-making mechanism that allowed Rio Tinto to blast Juukan Gorge. Any one of those decisions, if made by the previous Liberal-Nationals government, might have provoked protests in the streets and a huge backlash from the likes of unions and green and Indigenous groups. But such opposition has been muted with Labor in charge.”

The government is running a $2.2 billion budget surplus on the back of the iron ore boom and skyrocketing housing and building markets. But essential services remain underfunded. Workers in the public sector, including frontline healthcare workers, are having a three-year-long wage freeze extended for another two years. Our hospitals are severely under-resourced. Ambulance ramping—the time ambulances spend above 30 minutes waiting outside a hospital before a patient can be treated—was already at high levels before Labor took office. Ramping ballooned from 9,795 hours in the 2017 to more than 3,000 hours per month from September last year.

Labor is pushing ahead with plans to build a new mechanised port in Kwinana, phasing out the publicly owned union stronghold Fremantle Port against opposition from the Maritime Union of Australia. The new port will be a “public-private partnership”—a partial privatisation of Perth’s ports.

Housing prices in have jumped by 10 percent and rents by 20 percent, driven by people returning to the state because of the pandemic. But while taxpayer dollars are subsidising private construction projects, only 831 social homes are being built in the 2020-21 budget. There are 14,000 people on the public housing waiting list. While other states provided shelter for thousands of homeless people during the pandemic, Western Australia barely cracked 70.

Earlier this year, the desperate situation of the homeless burst into the public when more than 100 homeless people erected a camp that became known as the “tent city” in Fremantle’s Pioneer Square. After a weeks-long standoff, during which McGowan denounced the homeless camp as a stunt by anarchists and professional protesters, the police smashed it up. Some former residents were temporarily housed in local hotels, but they’ve since been evicted because the government refuses to foot the measly $37,000 bill.

Fossil fuels have continued to expand under Labor as well. Australia is on track to overtake Qatar as the world’s largest LNG exporter, with Western Australia’s north-west providing by far the largest share. Western Australia is the only state in which carbon emissions have increased above 2005 levels, and 40 percent of the increase is driven by LNG. Woodside’s Burrup Hub LNG project will produce more emissions than the notorious Adani coal mine in Queensland.

It’s gratifying to see the decimation of the Liberal Party, but we have no reason to expect anything positive from Labor. We need to fight for more.

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