A journey into the ALP’s western heart of darkness
There’s a Liberal campaign ad running frequently on Perth television that seeks to remind voters how reliant the rest of the country is on the Western Australian mining boom:
“Labor = Labor’s cash cow” goes the punchline.
This plays into a common perception in the west: we’re the backbone of this economy and the bludgers over in the east are milking us dry.
In Western Australia the sense of injustice about the state’s disproportionate contribution is being channelled into a broader discontent with the Labor Party. Nowhere else in Australia do you feel this level of antagonism towards the ALP.
WA could be a bigger problem for the Government in this election, it’s just that they don’t have that much to lose out here anymore. But there is still Hasluck, and they can’t afford to lose that.
The highly marginal Labor seat held by Sharryn Jackson, takes in outer suburban Perth to tree changers at the base of the Kalamunda national park. Think Penrith and the Blue Mountains suburbs in Sydney or Dandenong the suburb and the mountains in Melbourne.
In an election that looks like it could be closer than any in the post war period, there is no such thing as an expendable seat for the Gillard Government. With Labor sources saying they’ve all but given up on winning neighbouring Swan, holding Hasluck is a serious concern with the ALP pumping in resources by the mining truck load.
The Punch spent a couple of days trudging around talking to the people of this electorate, and views such as 27-year-old labourer and some time mine worker Darren Wiley of Maddington are not uncommon:
“We seem to be making all the money, and being hit with the most crap from Labor Government. I’m not sure but I think the mining tax can really hurt us, me and my friends have spoken about it. Boat people too, they won’t stop and we seem to have to do everything about that as well.”
There’s a common perception in this seat that the West gets the rough end of the stick. It’s a victim complex of sorts, but it’s one hurting the ALP.
Add to this the strength of the Liberal candidate in Hasluck Ken Wyatt.
A former primary school teacher he was also a senior public servant, a director of Aboriginal education and health in Western Australia and New South Wales Governments.
Wyatt told The Punch that people he spoke to felt they were tired of being the whipping boy for eastern Labor Governments, an anger crystallising itself in the mining tax and boat people.
“There is an acceptance that the companies have indicated that they are willing to pay tax, but they are not keen on the quantum of the money leaving Western Australia to cover the needs of other jurisdictions, especially the south east corner.
“With boat people the impact is greater in WA because their first point of contact is Christmas Island or then on-shore, which means we have to provide resources and infrastructure that we hadn’t planned for,” Wyatt told The Punch.
Wyatt argues, unsurprisingly, that the watered down Gillard mining tax hasn’t done much to allay the fears of voters.
“I’ve already had a significant person in the mining sector tell me as late as three days ago that he is writing references for employees that he knows, that no longer have jobs and will need to apply to positions in other companies.”
Wyatt is also aboriginal and has a good chance at becoming the first lower house indigenous federal MP in Australian history (the Greens candidate Glenice Smith is also aboriginal). He his fiercely proud of his heritage and cites his role models in indigenous policy as Lowitja O’Donoghue, Noel Pearson and former ALP President Warren Mundine:
“They are people who can talk on the strength and breadth of impact on any issue for Australians, but can also talk about the specific impact on indigenous people.”
Mundine recently criticised the ALP for not running any aboriginal candidates in winnable seats, and Wyatt is bemused as to why Mundine wasn’t elected long ago.
“I would’ve chosen Warren for a safe Labor seat, given that he was national president, given that he has led the debate around Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander issues and Warren has a practical and common sense approach to many of the issues . . . Labor are great on the rhetoric but terrible on delivering pragmatic action on indigenous affairs issues.”
A way over from Wyatt’s industrial Maddington headquarters is the pretty little mountain suburb of Kalamunda.
Thursday is the young mothers group at the local café and the group spoke to The Punch about what was concerning them. Immediately and unprompted the mining tax is raised:
“I reckon it’s wrong and it’s going to put such a strain on our economy. Pretty much everyone in WA is connected with mining one way or the other. My mum worked in the mines and so does my partner,” says 20-year-old Isabelle Hayim-Langridge.
“I’m a geologist and have worked all through WA and know how important mining is,” says fellow mum 28-year-old Heidi.
The conversation about the taxes bounces among the group, with 35-year-old Linda Whibley’s final statement gaining a head nodding consensus:
“WA relies on the money from the mines so much more than any other state. I mean Queensland is too but they have more development and tourism infrastructure that WA just doesn’t have.
“Margaret River is really the only place that we market, so WA is the only place that is really solely reliant on the miners.”
As young mums hospitals and schools are also high up on the list of concerns, and despite concerns over the mining tax nobody seems particularly enamoured of Tony Abbott:
“I hate him (laughter) . . . well hate is a bit harsh. I don’t know him,” says 30-year-old Michelle Priest
“But you’ve just answered your own question. We don’t know him,” responds Linda.
“You just see that big scary face on the TV,” Michelle says in a display of the effectiveness of Labor campaign ads.
But then again, nobody holds Julia Gillard in a great deal of esteem here either:
“I don’t like the way she came into power,” responds Isabelle when asked about Gillard.
“But it’s not just her, it’s the whole party,” Shana Jonstone, 27, chimes in.
“Yea but I don’t mind it, it’s got balls if you know what I mean” Michelle concludes.
There’s no real pattern emerging in voting intention either when I ask around the room:
Isabelle: “I dunno I’ll probably vote for one of the minor parties, probably not the Greens, more likely Family First. I don’t know too much about politics but I don’t really like either of the two that are in the running.”
Linda: “I’m still undecided. If we went through another recession who would be the most capable of carrying us through? I don’t know if Tony Abbott has the strength. I don’t know. I’m waiting for him to say or do something that would encourage me to have that courage in him.”
Michelle: “I’m undecided too. My husband is Liberal but he doesn’t like Tony Abbott. He thought John Howard was the best. I don’t’ quite know if I would vote for the Liberal Party with Tony Abbott’s as its face. And it’s a scary face that’s all you so on TV. But at least they’ve proven up until GFC that they are responsible with the economy.”
Over at the shopping centre 63-year-old Jeff Best says as a Liberal voter he’ll back Abbott, but isn’t happy with him as leader:
“I think if Turnbull was there they would have romped home. He’s got the gift of the gab and that’s what you need as leader. But I don’t like the Coalitions broadband policy, it’s a bit backward from what I understand. And I think their parental leave is a bit over the top. In my opinion neither Abbott or Gillard will last too long.”
Sharryn Jackson at least knows something about sticking around. She won Hasluck seat in 2001, lost it in 2004 and came back to win it in 2007.
Julia Gillard was in town again yesterday campaigning with Jackson, and she seems unperturbed by Perth’s supposed anti-Labor intentions.
“Hasluck is always a tough fight, that’s my job and this my fourth election . . . Hasluck doesn’t always follow national trends either. I won in 2001 when the rest of the country stayed with the Howard Government, and I won it in 2007 when WA was the only state that stayed with the Liberal Party,” Jackson said.
But she accepts from the outset that some of the major concerns of people were those that the blame federal Labor for, the mining tax and asylum seekers.
“When the tax was first announced there was an extraordinary amount of misinformation around . . . but there is an understanding that yes the mining industry is important to Western Australia, yes we need to ensure that we do what we can to ensure there is a sustainable industry important to the national economy. But people know you can only dig this stuff up once.
“I get a lot of contact from people who say that we’ve been too harsh, especially with the Afghan and Tamil asylum seekers. And there are the other views of people who believe there is a quick fix or quick solution. There are a lot of myths out there, like that asylum seekers get more than pensioners. That’s just not true,” Jackson told The Punch.
Still there’s a pretty audible “que sera sera” in Jackson’s tone when she talks about her chances of hanging on:
“People like me in marginal seats will be the beneficiaries or victims of the general tide, whether it’s on the way in or the way out . . . tough fight though and I’m used to it. I just need to be able to walk away win or lose with my head held high knowing I did the best I could.”
Postie Peter Gardiner, 46, and his wife Sarah have a son with a disability and are headed to a forum for carers hosted by the two candidates. Peter says he actually wouldn’t have minded the mining tax going ahead in its original form:
“I think they should have gone ahead with the tax. I’ve worked out there and I know that they make squillions. So much is free to them out there, like water is free. Services are provided to them free and they’re making a squillion. They should have presented it better to the public.”
Inside the forum organised by Developmental Disability Council of WA all the candidates for Hasluck are present.
Jackson, Wyatt and Smith all have a pretty amicable relationship, with Wyatt and Jackson working on different indigenous projects in the past.
At the head of the hall four candidates sit in a forum that quickly develops into more of a group therapy session.
One woman in tears tells of a rural doctor who labelled her a “bitch” for wanting a diagnosis of her daughter’s illness.
A 72-year-old man rages at a bureaucracy that won’t allow him to be accepted as the legal guardian of his severely disabled 42 year old daughter, because he and his wife are divorced.
It’s the kind of forum that reminds you that despite elections being seen through the prism of headline issues, for most people, especially those in need, politics occurs at the point when Government can or cannot provide them with a basic service – like a stable education for their disabled child.
In an election that many find vapid, there is something reassuring that in this marginal and pivotal seat that it could be a small clutch of votes from people like this that decide the thing.
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