I know it’s a cliché but a lot can happen in a short period of politics and in Western Australia, indeed it has. In fact, I would go as far as proclaiming the last few weeks a watershed period for the future of the Barnett Government.
During that time the New Labor Opposition proved that its decision to replace their nice guy Leader Eric Ripper with the much more politically ambitious Mark McGowan will serve them well in the lead up to next year’s election. Today’s Newspoll results show Mr McGowan has secured a massive 12 point increase in the “preferred Premier” stakes.
But even worse for Premier Barnett, for the first time since the ALP’s messy and demoralising 2008 defeat, the Opposition has inflicted a 16 point drop in Colin Barnett’s preferred Premier status through the use of genuine political strategy, planning and teamwork.
Having worked in the Office of two Leaders of the Opposition, I know it’s not easy to achieve what Mr McGowan has done since he took the job a couple of months ago.
Indeed in politics, the Opposition is a tough animal for anyone to tame. The Leader has a relatively small staff of only 10 or so, hardly any access to non-public information, no warning of upcoming government announcements and he is typically criticised for not wanting to release details of opposition policy this far out from an election. And all that happens while he tries to keep a handle on a bunch of ambitious backbenchers who are all running their own races at top speed – often in very different directions.
Needless to say with all these challenges facing opposition parties, ‘strategy’ and ‘teamwork’ are words that rarely get used to describe a fortnight of their work. However in this case, those words are most appropriate.
During the last month the Labor Opposition actively targeted disaffected conservative voters by announcing a myriad of right-of-centre policies. Mr McGowan pledged to implement harsher penalties for knife crimes, abolish the Potato Marketing Corporation and promised to streamline planning and housing approvals if they are elected in March. Some commentators dismissed these announcements as merely ‘stunts’, but by making these statements Mr McGowan has committed to substantive policy changes designed to strategically broaden his Party’s voter-base – and encroach on the Liberal-National Government’s core constituency.
And while he was busy aggressively stretching the New Labor net to the right, he didn’t forget his more traditional friends on the left.
McGowan’s team continued its union-supported strong anti-privatisation campaign and in doing so, successfully smeared the brand of the Water Corporation, New Children’s Hospital and Department of Housing. He also stoked a fire under the traditionally left-leaning social services sector by casting doubt over the Government’s critical Mental Health agenda and reminded the Arts sector they were still close by slamming the Royalties for Regions process for not funding a proposal for the Goldfields Arts Centre.
But the Opposition didn’t stop there – proving they are willing to fight the forthcoming election campaign on all fronts, Mark McGowan’s New Labor even threw some bait to those backing their current Parliamentary partners. Green voters might have noticed the Labor Party starting debates on the likely demise of Carnaby's Black Cockatoos under the Government’s plan to extend the Roe Highway and the definition of free-range eggs, as well as promising to ban clear felling of native forests and plastic bags in the future.
However, it wasn’t only the content of the announcements that should be seen as sign of things to come. New Labor also touted its wares in a new way - to a new constituency that is very foreign to this Government and its slow-moving elders.
While Minister Buswell was taunting the Opposition in Parliament for their 'Stop Perth's Sardine Trains' social media campaign, MPs sitting on the comfy couches opposite were busily squirreling away on their mobile phones and ipads strategically Tweeting and Facebooking their way into the hearts and minds of a new generation of voters. The problem for the Government is that apart from one guy who spends a lot of time Facebooking about his cat, no Government Minister is engaging with these very mobile voters – many of whom already resent being told by a fuddy-duddy old Premier they should buy smaller houses and consider air-conditioning a luxury.
As proven by the incredible global response to the Kony 2012 campaign, these voters are not only mobile, they can become spontaneous and potent activists with one click of the “Like” button on a Facebook page or “RT” of a controversial Tweet. As I disclosed in Cantankerous Col Pot and his nervous nannies, the Premier has only owned a mobile phone since he became Premier and sent his first email just a year before that. The Luddite-like mentality of the Premier and his leadership team is in stark contrast to that of New Labor who have entered the void of social media electioneering with vigour.
Innovative policy and engagement methods aside, perhaps the biggest game-changing success McGowan’s New Labor appears to be closing in on is that of retribution. And if they land what they have hooked, Labor’s fishing expedition will cause serious damage to the Government and Colin Barnett’s leadership.
Mr McGowan and his team of tech-savvy tweeters have done something truly amazing – found a way to make Minister John Day look grubby.
This is indeed a miraculous feat because everyone agrees that Minister Day is one of the nicest, most ethical people in Australian politics. For anyone who has ever met Minister Day, it’s obvious that his failure to declare a potential conflict of interest regarding a planning decision near a property he owns was nothing more than an honest stuff-up.
Because of that, the Opposition’s attacks in Parliament have been fruitless, being all but shrugged off by the Minister and his boss. However, during question time on the last sitting day of the last sitting of Parliament, the Premier opened up some wiggle room and put this on the record:
Colin Barnett: If the minister erred, he erred only in failing to, I guess, question either myself or the Cabinet Secretary whether he should totally exempt himself from that issue.
Tony Buti: Which he should have.
Colin Barnett: He probably should have. It is a technical breach, but that is all it is. In my view it is not a conflict of interest, either perceived or real… It was not on his mind. Yes, he should have sought my advice on whether it was appropriate to make even that administrative decision. He did not do that; that was an error, but that is all it was.
Once again, the problem isn’t Minister Day. No one thinks he has done anything wrong, other than accidentally create a situation that doesn’t look great.
And that is the problem for the Premier.
As a grumpy backbencher planning his retirement while Alan Carpenter presided over the last Government, Colin Barnett watched the Labor Party brand get decimated by claim after claim of Ministerial corruption and mismanagement. The rest is history and Mr Barnett was thrust into Government with the unenviable task of having to reassure Western Australian tax-payers that he would have a zero tolerance to anything that even remotely smelled dodgy. He sacked Treasurer Troy Buswell for actions that were eventually proven to be above-board and he sacked one of his senior media advisers for doing something the Public Sector Commissioner recently said shouldn’t have led to a dismissal.
Deep down, the Premier knows that Minister Day’s actions look just as bad, if not worse, than those that led to a number of others being demoted or sacked. John Day is a good Minister and will be a sad loss to the State if he loses his position but given the Premier’s predicament in the precedents he has set, his choice of words in Parliament last Thursday were truly prophetic. The Premier has form in using language like this to back away when he sees the writing on the wall and I’m certain I wasn’t the only one to notice his change in terminology. New Labor must be very excited to smell the same odour that plagued them in their final years of Government.
I’m no fan of Mark McGowan. But even as a biased political commentator, it’s clear from his first couple of months in the job that the Labor Party has made the right decision and the Barnett Government has a difficult 11 months ahead of them.