West Australian Liberal leader Colin Barnett is suffering from a severe case of “Hewsonitis”. That is, he runs the risk of losing an election most political commentators thought he had in the bag six weeks ago.
Just as John Hewson lost the unloseable 1993 federal election peddling a GST he couldn't adequately explain to voters, Barnett's canal has become a millstone around the Coalition's neck. Uncosted and without a feasibility study, the canal has been a veritable feasting ground for Labor Party advertising.
Before Premier Geoff Gallop called the state election the Coalition was ahead in all the polls, by as much as 56-44 per cent on a two-party-preferred basis. The betting agencies also had the Coalition pegged as the favourite. Federal Labor wasn't doing the Premier any favours, with uncertainty surrounding Mark Latham's leadership dogging a government trying to time its run to polling day.
However, the latest Newspoll and Westpoll figures have the Government in front, albeit marginally. The betting agencies, with a good record of predicting election outcomes, now have Labor as an unbackable favourite to win tomorrow's election.
Federal Labor's leadership transition to WA-born-and-bred Kim Beazley was a welcome relief for the State Government. Gallop called the election once Beazley's accession was certain. On the other side of the spectrum, Barnett appeared to panic, just as Hewson panicked in the summer of 1991-92 when Labor's leadership transferred from Bob Hawke to Paul Keating. Hewson had Hawke's measure, but the injection of Keating began the turning of the tide.
Barnett must have been worried a Gallop-Beazley state and federal Labor duo would erode his winning election lead. He needn't have. Advantages associated with rural malapportionment, energy supply problems and Gallop's broken promise not to increase taxes should have been enough for a well-run Coalition campaign to get him over the line. And it still might. Particularly so given Gallop's 2001 victory was a surprise win on the back of One Nation preferences.
But in his panic, he looked for an election-winning hook. Instead he came up with the Kimberley-to-Perth canal. West Australians agree we need solutions to water shortage issues in our capital city and its surrounds. But why commit to one particular method of solving it without first studying the options? Barnett's answer to that question was that he had to look decisive. Liberal internal polling revealed voters were concerned about Gallop's indecisiveness. They wanted a leader prepared to make a decision. Hence the Coalition's advertising slogan "decisions not delays". However, implicit in such polled responses is not just decision-making, but good decision-making. Undecided voters may well cast a vote of no confidence in the lack of detail surrounding the canal proposal. If they do, it would be the difference between victory and defeat for the Coalition on Saturday.
Just as Hewson's GST was formulated with little input from party colleagues, so too was Barnett's canal proposal. On the night of the election debate, the forum in which Barnett announced his plan, Liberal MPs received an SMS message five minutes before the debate started informing them their leader would be making a significant policy announcement during the debate and nobody was to comment on it publicly.
The day after the debate, the only detail that existed about the canal proposal was two pages worth of press releases. Little more has emerged since then. On this point, Barnett differs from Hewson. Afraid of putting out too much detail about his planned canal too long before the election - if indeed the canal was planned - Barnett didn't want the idea to be mauled by the Government the way Hewson's GST had been.
This week the Prime Minister has been in Perth campaigning on behalf of his state Liberal colleagues. Meetings of the Council of Australian Governments can be a very lonely affair for him with every state and territory under Labor's control. He would dearly like to be joined at the table by a Liberal premier. However, his Wednesday speech to the party faithful, perhaps Freudian-like, may have given an indication as to what he really thinks of the canal idea. He described it as a "courageous" decision. This is the same term Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey Appleby used to describe his minister's idea when he thought the idea terrible. Perhaps John Howard is a Yes Minister fan.
Canal or not, tomorrow's election will be close and Barnett is by no means dead in the water. But he has lost the campaign, and he is behind. If he loses, "Colin's canal" will be right up there with "Hewson's GST" and, for that matter, "Latham's Medicare Gold" as a textbook example of how to throw away an election-winning lead. And if he somehow wins? Implementing the canal proposal within the parameters he laid out during the election campaign will be quite a task indeed.
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