News National Labor’s WA landslide highlights Turnbull’s problem in the west

Labor’s WA landslide highlights Turnbull’s problem in the west

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Questions have been raised about Malcolm Turnbull's absence from the WA campaign. Photo: AAP Photo: AAP
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The last time a Liberal state government was dealt a smashing defeat at the polls, the Liberal Prime Minister at the time became a dead man walking.

So it’s no surprise opponents of the current Liberal PM, Malcolm Turnbull, are spinning similar implications from the Western Australian government’s obliteration at the weekend.

In 2015, Queensland voters up-ended the tradition of giving a first-term premier another go, and threw out the LNP government led by Campbell Newman – a man sometimes referred to as “Tony Abbott-lite” due to their shared love of austerity measures to balance the budget.

Days later, Mr Abbott faced a revolt in the Coalition party room, where backbenchers fearing a similar rout at the federal election spilled the leadership positions – but no one stepped up to challenge the PM.

It was, however, only a matter of time before Mr Turnbull mustered enough party-room votes to bring on the belated challenge, and win.

Mr Newman’s government suffered a primary vote swing against it of 8.3 per cent. At the weekend, its counterpart in Western Australia appears to have almost doubled that record, losing 15 per cent of its primary vote.

But however hard you look, there’s no obvious connection between the Barnett government’s scorching loss and the Turnbull government.

Challenges out west

Labor at the national level and the unions claim the WA result is due to Mr Turnbull’s “lack of leadership” on penalty rates, even though the issue wasn’t prominent during the election campaign.

They would say that, of course, given industrial relations is the issue Labor believes will bring it success at the next federal election.

Yet it’s hard not to conclude the PM is on the nose in WA, given he hardly made an appearance during the campaign, and was conspicuously on the other side of the country on election night.

Betoota Advocate Turnbull
While the WA Liberals braced for defeat, the PM was in Sydney talking with a satirical news website. Photo: Betoota Advocate

Then again, Western Australians aren’t fond of east coast politicians at the best of times.

Even if Mr Turnbull can’t be held responsible for the rout of the WA Liberals, there are plenty of implications from the bloodbath that he should be considering.

The main one is the now apparent risk of flirting with One Nation, particularly at the expense of a long-standing relationship with the Nationals.

With an election due within the next 10 months in One Nation’s stronghold of Queensland, it will be a big test for senior Liberal strategists to find a path to electoral success in the state that keeps the Nats on side without risking retaliation from Pauline Hanson in the Senate.

As a result, they’ll keep refusing to rule out further preference deals with One Nation in the hope that Ms Hanson will make that decision for them.

Senate moves mooted

Speaking of the Senate, it was perhaps coincidental that last week’s latest “exclusive” story about the apparent departure of Attorney-General George Brandis from Parliament also provided a detailed description of who will get what when the spoils are reallocated.

As you would expect, some of the PM’s loyal supporters are apparently slated for promotion.

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WA Senator Mathias Cormann has been flagged for a possible promotion. Photo: AAP

However, two of the Liberal Party’s “young gun” conservatives would also be rewarded, with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann to become government leader in the Senate (essentially the PM’s representative in the other chamber), while Social Services Minister Christian Porter is reportedly likely to become Attorney-General.

Both men are suitably qualified for these roles, so there is no suggestion their promotions would not be on merit.

But it just so happens both are also Western Australian Liberals, with Minister Porter having also served as Treasurer of the state government that was thrown on the pyre last weekend.

Perhaps the very public signal that WA Liberals are being well looked after in the Turnbull ministry was a move by the PM to head off a leadership spill brought on by anxious WA backbenchers wanting a change of leader before the next federal election.

If so, it would be the first smart thing the PM has done in a very long while.

Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communication strategist.

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