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Nationals know how west was won

By Peter Van Onselen - posted Tuesday, 16 September 2008

For the hitherto retirement-bound Barnett, this is one of the most remarkable comebacks in Australian political history. The week of uncertainty in the west, while votes were being counted and deals done, will now be followed by all the uncertainty that comes with minority government.

The last minority government to cobble together so many divergent forces was in NSW in 1991. Nick Greiner was forced to govern with the support of a gaggle of independents. They used their numbers to remove him from office mid-term and his successor, John Fahey, lost the 1995 election to Bob Carr.

Barnett's administration is barely ready for government. The frontbench line-up will include some talented performers: names such as Christian Porter, Mike Nahan and Troy Buswell come to mind. But for the most part the Liberal Party has spent the past 3 1/2 years as a rabble.


However the soon-to-be-minted premier is a substantial figure and will now carry the all-important gravitas of incumbency to stare down factional opponents, allowing him to reform the Liberal organisation and the state.

Nationally, all eyes will be on the new Liberal government. Federal party colleagues will look forward to the fundraising opportunities incumbency in the mining-rich state will bring, and out-of-work federal ministerial advisers will look to a sea change in the west to continue their political involvement.

Despite being in minority government, observers should not expect Barnett to govern timidly. He was set for retirement and came back into the leadership with nothing to lose.

Yesterday's decision, while the most likely outcome, was by no means a done deal. In the days leading up to the announcement, Liberals were starting to seriously worry that Grylls had morphed from king-maker into suicide bomber. And that's what he would have been if he had backed a minority Labor outfit.

The Labor Party suffered a big swing against it at this election - 6 per cent on the primary vote - and in the months ahead Corruption and Crime Commission reports will no doubt put more pressure on Labor. It is unlikely a minority Labor government would have survived very long.

However, at a personal level, Grylls wanted his team to support a Labor government led by Alan Carpenter. He was out voted by his Nationals colleagues, a reality check for the rising star of WA politics. The young leader was wooed by a significant slush fund for the bush offered by the Labor Party, the details of which were put in writing by Carpenter and are expected to be released for public viewing today alongside an offer Barnett put forward.


Carpenter's offer included an amount of money almost twice the size of Barnett's, the distribution of which would have been put in the hands of Nationals MPs given portfolio responsibility for the regions, effectively creating a two-tiered government structure: one set of  ministers for the regions and one for Perth.

The mobile slush fund looked conspicuously like the Howard government's Regional Partnership Scheme, labelled by federal Labor as blatant pork barrelling. Offering such a scheme was a sure sign the WA Labor Party was prepared to do whatever it took to form government.

The party that stripped the bush of political representation with its one-vote, one-value legislation was suddenly pouring money the way of the regions. That kind of political opportunism is exactly what caused voters to view them cynically and turf them out of power.

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First published in The Australian on September 15, 2008.

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About the Author

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

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