WA election: A contest between two big-business parties

By Nick Everett

On September 6, Western Australians will be voting in a state election to determine which of the two big-business parties can best manage WA’s resources export boom for the big end of town. WA Premier Alan Carpenter called an early state election on August 7, just one day after WA Liberal Party leader Troy Buswell resigned. Buswell was replaced by former state Liberal leader Colin Barnett, after a controversy surrounding Buswell’s sexist treatment of a parliamentary colleague.

Despite calling the election while the Liberals were in disarray, Labor faces the prospect of a significant swing against it as the WA working people feel the pain of the resources boom-driven, soaring cost of living. Figures from Australian Property Monitors show housing rents in Perth have risen 17% in the year ending June 2008, while rents for units have increased 25%. According to the BankWest Key Worker Housing Affordability report, released on June 2, all of Perth’s 29 council areas were too expensive for WA’s 41,500 nurses, teachers, firefighters and ambulance officers to buy a house in 2007. In areas classified as unaffordable, median house prices are more than five times the average worker’s annual earnings.

In the five years to June 2007, house prices in WA increased 158%. In the same period, incomes for workers covered by BankWest’s survey had increased only 31%. The lowest housing affordability was recorded among WA’s nurses, whose average salary at the time of the survey was $43,915, and teachers, whose salary averaged $54,651. According to the report, the problem is not just confined to Perth, with regional areas such as Broome also experiencing a sharp deterioration in housing affordability over the past five years.

While wages rates in WA increased on average by 5.6% for the year ending June 30, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, public sector and services industry wages have lagged significantly behind. Pay packets for workers in hospitality increased only 2.2% over that period and public sector pay increased by 3.6%. Women’s wages in WA lag further behind men’s than in any other Australian state. In the year to May 2008, WA women’s average weekly earnings were just 73% of men’s (compared to 84% Australia-wide).

While both teachers and public servants have secured better pay offers from the Carpenter government after six months of disputation, both sectors face chronic staffing shortages. According to the WA Civil Service Association, staff shortages had left 1800 children at risk, due to a shortage of child protection caseworkers. In addition, free dental care for children is under threat, because of a lack of government dental technicians. This year’s state government budget allocated $1.1 billion for a football stadium, but could find no additional funds to pay teachers, despite a $1.88 billion budget surplus.

Adding to Labor’s woes has been an explosion at the Varanus Island gas plant on June 3, which cut WA natural gas supplies by about 30%. Supplies were only partially restored on August 7. According to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, WA big business peak body, one-third of businesses in the state had been affected by the crisis as a result of energy supply shortages. The CCI has estimated that the combined loss of profits for WA’s businesses will be $2.4 billion, while total production forecasts have been slashed by $6.7 billion.

The explosion is thought to have resulted from the repeated failure of Apache Energy, the plant’s owner, to test the pipeline. However, investigations being undertaken by the Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority, and WA Department of Industry and Resources, are unlikely to produce any findings until well after the election.

Keen to outdo Carpenter as an advocate for WA’s mining companies, Barnett has advocated an open-slather policy on uranium mining (WA Labor has maintained a moratorium on uranium mining since winning office in 2001). Both leaders have been scrambling to offer assistance to businesses likely to be effected by the introduction of the federal government’s carbon emissions trading scheme. And both Labor and the Liberals have engaged in a law and order auction, each pledging to put more cops on the beat.

The Greens, who are expected to increase their representation in the state’s upper house, the Legislative Council, have developed a state energy plan to achieve a transition to an efficient, low-carbon economy powered predominantly by renewable energy. But the Greens’ formal commitment to “grassroots democracy” does not extend to the exercise of power by working people. Convinced that parliament is where the real decisions are (and should be) made, Greens leaders priotise campaigning for parliamentary seats, rather than building grassroots movements. Their reform-the-capitalist-system orientation through parliamentary legislation results in their adoption of policies that can only tinker with – not end – capitalism’s disastrous impact on the environment and the quality of life of working people.

The Socialist Alliance is standing Julie Gray, a laboratory technician working in the health sector, in the Legislative Council seat of North Metropolitan. According to a statement published in the August 23 Green Left Weekly, SA is campaigning to “increase the ‘social wage’ through rebuilding the school system, improving public hospitals and helping troubled communities to empower themselves.” The statement says that the SA “stands for a genuine workers’ government” adding: “The ALP does not represent this. However, we oppose the election of a Liberal government, which would be even worse for the people of WA.”

SA policy opposes the construction of a new coal-fired power station in Collie and advocates a range of measures to combat global warming, including an increase in public transport and new cycle ways. In addition, SA opposes the extension of federal government’s Northern Territory intervention into WA Aboriginal communities.

However, SA’s statement provides no explanation as to how “a genuine workers government” can come into existence and implement any of the abovementioned policies. By it’s omission of any explanation of how working people might wrestle power from the capitalist class, the statement suggests that such a government can arise simply from the election of socialists to the WA (or Australian) parliament. But the illusion that, through the bureaucratic institutions of parliamentary “democracy”, working people can defend and advance their interests, remains one of the greatest obstacles to winning working people to the perspective of creating their own government.

If socialists are to make effective tactical use of parliament and electoral activity, it must be to aid and consolidate the self-organisation of working people, not to substitute for it. Parliaments, which are based on keeping working people politically atomised, cannot serve as the principal arena even for the struggle for reforms aimed at improving the lot of the working people. The central means of winning such reforms, and for the struggle for a working people’s government, is through the organisation and mobilisation of working people — in their workplaces, in schools and on the streets.