Just before the Western Australian state election in March 2021, the then leader of the Liberal Party did an unusual thing. He conceded defeat – but then asked voters to stop premier Mark McGowan’s Labor Party from achieving “total control” of the state.
The appeal failed spectacularly. McGowan won 53 of the 59 seats in the legislative assembly and a majority for the first time ever in WA’s upper house, the legislative council.
The Liberals, shattered, were reduced to just two seats in the assembly. The Nationals, with a grand total of four seats, became the official opposition, and a Nationals MP, Mia Davies, was elected opposition leader. The question immediately arose: could parliament operate effectively in these extraordinary circumstances? Would sufficient democratic scrutiny be applied to the government?
Just over a year later, the federal election provided another crushing blow to the WA Liberals. The party lost not only four lower house seats and a senate seat to Labor, but also the seat of Curtin to independent Kate Chaney.
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WA has 122 state and federal MPs. Currently, 89 of them – almost three-quarters – are Labor. Less than six years ago, the comparable figure was 41, or a third. By contrast, the Liberals have just 19 MPs or 16% of the total, compared to 64, or just over half, six years ago. Perhaps we need to take the fears of “total control” seriously?
Senator Linda Reynolds, the former Liberal defence minister, seems to think so. She recently argued that “without substantial change, we risk condemning Western Australia to a one-party state and the WA Liberals to an electoral abyss”.
So far, so good?
Everyone would agree democracy works best when a strong opposition can keep the government accountable. So what is happening in WA? Is democracy in danger?
So far, the answer would appear to be no. Take parliament. Parties with a majority of MPs can, in principle, run roughshod over their opponents in parliament. In practice, most don’t. While governments will occasionally force through legislation or resist pressure to reveal information, rules and conventions enable non-government parties to participate in debates and committees, and to scrutinise the executive about its actions and proposed legislation.
Governing parties know one day they will be in opposition, and parliament should at the very least let the opposition have its say, even if the government prevails.
Despite the vast disparity in numbers, this attitude seems to be holding up in WA. Question time is still operating, unchanged. The parliamentary schedule continues to allow non-government MPs to bring forward debates on matters of public importance, private members’ business and grievances.
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Estimates hearings continue to be held, as are meetings of parliamentary committees. As in the past, the opposition chairs one committee in the assembly, two in the council, and the joint audit committee. The deputy Liberal leader chaired a prominent select committee inquiry into sexual harassment in the resources sector.
Of course, with so few seats, the workload of non-government MPs is very large. The government has a majority on most committees – but this was true in previous parliaments. One potential area of concern is that the standing committee on education and health – the two areas of greatest expenditure – has only Labor members.
Clearly, the government is not going to lose any votes on the floor of the house. Overall, though, the structures and operations of parliament look much the same as before.
But given the huge imbalance of resources and power within the political system, it is important other players keep the government under scrutiny. WA retains a full complement of independent integrity agencies – ombudsman, auditor-general, information commissioner, corruption and crime commissioner.
The auditor-general’s office has been particularly active. It recently produced a transparency report on the progress of major government projects, arguing the government could and should update parliament more regularly on whether these projects are on time and on budget – and vowing to do this itself, if government refused.
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Another crucial player is the media. WA’s press and broadcasting landscape is dominated by Seven West Media, which owns the state’s only daily newspaper and its most popular TV station. While Mark McGowan received generally positive coverage for his handling of the pandemic, his government has not escaped media criticism, on hospitals and health in particular. Other media outlets have also been active in scrutinising government.
A Coalition fightback?
With the federal election out of the way, what might we look forward to in WA politics? Three things are worth noting.
First, the WA Liberal Party holds its annual conference in July. This will be an important indicator of whether it has done the thinking it needs to turn its fortunes around.
Second, a state by-election is due soon after a Nationals MP, Vince Catania, resigned his marginal seat of North-West Central. If Labor were to win, the number of non-government MPs would fall from six to five – a much bigger deal than Labor increasing its representation from 53 to 54.
Intriguingly, if the Liberal Party managed to win North-West Central (which is not completely out of the question, as they have held the seat in the past), then they and the Nationals would each have three MPs and would need to work out who would be the official opposition.
Third, no election is due in WA, state or federal, for almost three years. (The state poll is in March 2025, followed by a likely federal poll two months later.) Can Liberal and National MPs maintain their diligence in parliament? Can their parties form a viable alternative government? And can Labor avoid the malaise that commonly strikes second-term governments in WA, where no party has won a third term since 1989?
It seems inconceivable that Mark McGowan and Labor could lose office in 2025. But can he govern well in the meantime? And can the non-government parties, the integrity watchdogs and the media keep him and his government on their toes? For democracy’s sake, let’s hope so.