OPINION: The Bidding War for WA Votes That May Save the McGowan Government

By: Dr Ian Cook, Murdoch University Senior Lecturer In Global Politics & Policies.

Malcolm Turnbull’s promises to give $5.4 billion dollars to fund transport infrastructure and health services in WA must have been the sweetest music that Mark McGowan has heard since his government came to power.

There’s simply nothing like the smell of an electoral disaster to get a federal government spending money to buy votes they look like losing.

But McGowan must be hoping that the commitments Turnbull made are just the start of an extended bidding war for WA votes. He’s still a couple of billion short of the money he needs to deliver on his election promises.

And McGowan had made promises to improve infrastructure and increase social services that he knew the state couldn’t afford.

Let’s not be naïve, though. McGowan had to make those promise during the election and to say he could deliver on them without increasing taxes. Even when he knew that the money wasn’t going to be there to fund those promises.

Does anyone really think you can win an election by telling voters that you’re going to increase taxes, introduce new taxes and not do very much until the budget is back in surplus? Even if it is good economics, and it might not be, it’s bad politics.

So it’s standard practice, even during periods of economic decline.

Newly elected state governments adopt a variety of strategies in this situation. Anyone who knows politics knew they were coming.

And they did.

Strategy 1 is to wring their hands and declare that they can’t deliver on election promises because the state’s financial situation is much worse then they’d been led to believe. (I call it the “Old Mother Hubbard” gambit.)

“It’s all the preceding government’s fault that we can’t deliver on our promises!” they cry.

And they did.

Strategy 2 is to blame the federal government.

This is easy to do, given that WA taxpayers get 34 cents back for every dollar we contribute to the GST pool.

And McGowan and, Treasurer, Ben Wyatt did.

Strategy 3 is to go back on promises not to increase existing taxes or impose new ones.

They tried that with the tax on gold miners. But it was blocked in the Legislative Council.

So, in a way, they didn’t.

Strategy 4 is not to move on projects that were promised during the election. But this means that they end up looking like a “do nothing” government.

And they have.

Strategy 5 is to reduce government spending. Such as making cuts to school funding and closing the School of the Air.

And they did.

And then they didn’t. (As an educator, I thought those were bad decisions and was happy to see the decisions reversed.)

So Mark McGowan is lucky that an impending election whitewash for the Federal Government means that Strategy 2 is paying off.

And he’ll be hoping that it’s not over yet and that federal Labor will keep the pot growing until he can keep promises that he couldn’t have kept if Turnbull wasn’t desperate and Shorten couldn’t be drawn into the bidding war that Mark McGowan needs.


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