After eight years in power the Court Government is facing possible defeat or at least a significant reduction in its present 13 seat majority when Western Australian voters go to the polls on February 10, in the first of a series of State and Federal elections for 2001.
The campaign by the ALP under would-be Premier, Dr Geoff Gallop, has been generally considered lacklustre and uninspired.
The predicted swing to Labor is seen as more likely to result from a general feeling that the Liberals have been in office for too long and it is time for a change rather than from any genuine enthusiasm for a Gallop-led Labor Government.
Apart from a proposed freeze on further privatisation of government enterprises, such as Westrail and public hospitals, Labor is offering little real change of direction from the economic rationalist approach of the Court Government.
In a bidding war for the environmental vote, Dr Gallop has promised an immediate and complete ban on all logging in old-growth forests, claiming that all existing contracts can be filled from regrowth and plantation timber.
This stance has succeeded in further alienating from Labor sections of the union movement (especially the CMFEU which covers the timber workers) already incensed at Gallop’s failure to promise any real winding back of the Court Government’s “Third Wave” industrial relations legislation.
Gallop’s anti-forestry stance has not succeeded in netting Labor the preferences of the Independent candidates associated with “Liberals for Forest”. They seem to have realised that in order to attract the vote of trendy Liberal voters they cannot afford to direct preferences to the ALP. (Left-wing environmentalists will be voting Green or Democrat anyway.)
Combined with the rejection of their application for registration as a party by the WA Electoral Commissioner, who upheld objections to their name from Liberals (including Geoff Prosser, the Liberal MHR for the Federal seat of Forrest) this failure to direct preferences in any meaningful way seems to spell the end of Liberals for Forest as a viable political force.
The Australian Democrats, obviously aware of how low a public profile local MLCs Helen Hodgson and Norm Kelly have after four years in office, are relying on a campaign featuring Senators Meg Lees and Natasha Stott Despoja to get some attention. (WA Democrat Senator and homosexual rights activist Brian Greig is notably not featured in this campaign.)
They are staking out a claim for the balance of power in the Legislative Council, offering legalised prostitution, a trial of medically prescribed heroin, euthanasia and legalised man-boy sex with 16-year-olds.
Although they are only registering two percent in the opinion polls the Democrats will benefit from a three-way exchange of preferences with the Greens and the ALP on the parties’ registered Legislative Council tickets.
Meanwhile, in competition for the much exaggerated “pink” vote, the Greens are boasting that they have four lesbian candidates.
Some Liberal candidates have been running a campaign attacking Labor policy on drugs and prostitution. It is true that Labor policy endorses legalised brothels subject only to planning controls by local government. However, this was the same policy Police Minister Kevin Prince took to Cabinet only eighteen months ago before he was defeated by social conservatives in the Liberal party room.
On drugs, the Court Government has delivered a coherent drug policy favouring drug avoidance over harm minimisation. A trial of a cannabis cautioning system, combined with compulsory attendance at an educational programme has proved successful.
Labor’s claim that its policy of tolerance for possession of 50 grams of marijuana merely extends this system, rings hollow because this is clearly a major step towards decriminalisation rather than effective rehabilitation and prevention.
Likewise, no-one can take seriously Labor’s attempt to downplay their policy on holding a summit to consider the usefulness of heroin injecting rooms or a heroin trial. Those who advocate summits to discuss such things always make sure the summit delivers the desired policy outcome by stacking the invitations.
The marginal seat of Ballajura, held by former Drug Strategy Minister Rhonda Parker (who stood aside a few months ago to concentrate on her electorate) will in part be decided on the drug issue. The Australian Democrats are running Jason Meotti from the Drug Law Reform Foundation in the seat while the Christian Democratic Party have selected Dr Pat Cranley, a well-known general practitioner with a large drug user client base, who is a firm advocate of a tough drug policy focussed on prevention and rehabilitation.
The Christian Democratic Party are running a much stronger campaign than ever before in Western Australia. Having secured second preferences from both the Liberals and One Nation there is a chance that North Metropolitan candidate Dwight Randall, a well-known pro-life leader, could pick up the seventh seat in the Region rolling either Australian Democrat Helen Hodgson or Green Giz Watson. Their preferences may also be decisive in several marginal seats where they have been directed in favour of sitting members who opposed abortion legalisation in 1998.
The Coalition for the Defence of Human Life has endorsed Labor candidates against three pro-abortion Liberals in the marginal seats of Bunbury, Ningaloo and Innaloo. They are also backing several pro-life Liberals in the key marginal seats of Wanneroo, Southern River, Joondalup, Carine and Alfred Cove.
One Nation is running candidates in more seats than any other party and putting sitting members last as payback for Liberal and Labor Party decisions to put One Nation last on all tickets.
This decision by the Liberal Party came after Richard Court and some local candidates had tentatively raised the possibility of treating One Nation on its merits, rather than as a pariah party. This possibility was squashed by a combination of a media campaign of derision and pressure from the National Party concerned about One Nation’s inroads into its heartland.
The National Party is clearly hoping for a reduced Liberal majority in the Legislative Assembly so that the Liberals become dependant on the National Party to form government. Leader Hendy Cowan claims that this would allow the Nationals to exert more influence on behalf of ‘the bush’.
However, the Nationals under Cowan have been notably more socially libertarian than the WA Liberals with key Nationals supporting the abortion law, legalised prostitution and a free heroin trial.
The ALP need to win 10 seats (or 11 counting Pilbara, held by disaffected former ALP member Larry Graham) to achieve government. ALP insiders reckon they may fall two or three seats short. Everything will depend on the distribution of the swing and on any unexpected developments in this so far uneventful election campaign.