Milking the West Australian cash cow becomes hot state election topic

By Greg Ansley

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott at Pearce air force base. He will see winning any less than three 
WA seats as a defeat. Photo / AP
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott at Pearce air force base. He will see winning any less than three WA seats as a defeat. Photo / AP

The first thing to remember about today's rerun of Western Australia's Senate election is that this state sees itself almost as a different country.

Many wish it was its own sovereign land, with a long-running and persistent undercurrent of secessionist sentiment believing the rest of Australia is feasting on the fruits of its resources and labour.

In the contest for the six Senate seats the big contenders have been pitching directly at this core belief.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have been accusing each other of "anti-WA" policies, and mining magnate Clive Palmer is claiming Canberra is "taking bread from WA babies' mouths" by excessive GST collection and promising the impossible with his pledge to hand it back.

All have been hitting the theme hard since the High Court ordered the new poll following the loss of almost 1400 votes during a recount after last September's election.

The reality is that whatever strings the various parties pluck, little will change in the greater scheme of things. Abbott will not gain control of the Upper House, although his chances of dumping the carbon and mining taxes would improve if Palmer's United Party (PUP) won a third seat and, in alliance with the Motoring Enthusiasts Party, held the balance of power. Palmer has confirmed he would support Abbott to defeat the roadblock rigidly maintained by Labor and the Greens. They will lose their hold on the Upper House when the new Senate sits in July.

There are fears a large number of the state's 1.5 million electors will not turn out - Shorten has urged them to vote regardless of preference - and there are about 200,000 postal and pre-poll votes to count.

There are also preferences to distribute, a task complicated by the plethora of micro-parties. These push views from civil liberties and small government to the Christian far right, smokers' rights, animal rights, anti-Green outdoor enthusiasts and voluntary euthanasia.

They are as varied as the Pirate Party, advocating free speech, internet freedom and an end to censorship, the Hemp Party seeking the legalisation of cannabis and the anti-big business Australian Voice, demanding Australian control of farmland. Where their preferences flow could affect the outcome.

Most analysts believe that when the dust settles the Liberals will hold three seats, Labor two and Greens one, although there is a chance that either one of the Labor seats or the Greens' could be lost to PUP or a micro wildcard.

For the major parties, the real issue is credibility. Abbott would see three seats as confirmation of his claimed mandate, any less an electoral blow. A defeat would cost him a minister. The same holds for Labor and, even more so after their drubbing in Tasmania and South Australia, the Greens. Another PUP wipeout would be a big hit for Palmer who has been pumping money hand over fist into the campaign to have his candidate, Dio Wang, elected as the party's third Senator. Abbott says Palmer has been "spending like a drunken sailor": the monitory agency Ebiquity said PUP has spent 14 times more on advertising than the Liberals, and 11 times more than Labor.

On the hustings the campaign is playing to the west's prejudices. Abbott is hammering hard on the already-unpopular "anti-WA" carbon and mining taxes and his claimed success in stopping refugee boats from Indonesia. This week he held a Cabinet meeting in Perth and sent his ministers out campaigning. He announced a WA trial for the national disability insurance scheme and A$56 million in extra funding for rural health services, and has topped local news bulletins with the search for the missing Malaysian airliner being conducted out of Pearce air force base north of Perth.

Shorten has focused heavily on likely cuts to health, employment and education. A Newspoll in the Australian said the Coalition's primary support in WA had risen to 46 per cent as Labor slipped to 29 per cent.

- NZ Herald

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