THE continued meteoric rise of the Western Australian National party shows the federal Nationals and other state branches what can be achieved from the powerful force of independent political bargaining and branding, driven by charismatic leadership and daring vision.
After pulling off a miraculous coup to win the balance of power at the 2008 election and implement his party’s lucrative Royalties for Regions policy, Brendon Grylls became the closet thing to the messiah that rural WA has probably ever seen.
The WA Nationals leader may have fallen tantalizingly short of that mark - but there’s little doubt the $1 billion per year Royalties for Regions program placed him on a par with Santa Claus.
He was appointed Regional Development Minister and with a bag full of politically empowered cash, set about liberating the regions from years of compounded frustration at being too easily dismissed and ignored at the highest levels of political decision-making.
City folk took a while to warm to the concept of such vast spending in the bush.
But once they absorbed deeper understandings about the years of political imbalance and dwindling regional services, like hospitals and roads, that they take for granted every day, the idea of building better infrastructure and facilities for country people from a percentage of mining royalties earned in the regions, seemed only fair.
But like any daring act or risk, the outcome could have been vastly different for the WA Nationals.
Ahead of the 2008 poll, political analysts declared the rural based party was all but gone and could lose three of their five Lower House seats, following the re-drawing of electoral boundaries and introduction of the one-vote one-value system.
Mr Grylls and current Sports Minister and popular country cricket and sporting identity Terry Waldron, were about to become the only remaining party members in the WA Legislative Assembly, occupying heartland farming seats.
However the party went from boiled lollies to chocolates after the election, with Mr Grylls anointed king-maker of a hung parliament.
The WA Nationals increased their presence in the Legislative Council from one member to five, while claiming the balance or power in both houses of parliament.
History shows that a tense week of negotiations unfolded amid continued media speculation Labor was the preferred option amongst senior party leaders.
But in contrast to federal rural Independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, Mr Grylls cited the electorate’s clear mood for change and tipped out Labor in backing the Liberals to form government in a unique power sharing arrangement, underpinned by Royalties for Regions support.
Unlike other States, there’s no formal Coalition in WA and the Nationals reserve the right to exempt themselves from Cabinet and vote against the Liberals to reflect their constituents’ needs.
They can also run three-cornered contests - but there’s farm more upside to the arrangement than down.
Mr Grylls won the northern mining seat of Pilbara off Labor at the WA election with a whopping 16 per cent swing, after vacating his traditionally safe Central Wheatbelt seat.
Mia Davies ensured the Central Wheatbelt seat remains in National party hands while the party claimed two additional Lower House seats and maintained its Upper House numbers.
On the back of the 2008 election success, Tony Crook claimed the federal WA seat of O’Connor at the 2010 federal election which had been held by outspoken rural Liberal Wilson Tuckey since 1980.
The WA Nationals may now be thinking seriously about capturing Liberal Barry Haase’s seat of Durack at this year’s federal election, given the significant swing towards Mr Grylls in the seat’s north.
In stark contrast to the growing National party vote, Labor was devastated in the WA poll and the Green’s vote was chopped by a third with the party’s parliamentary influence halved, losing two of its four MLCs.
However, WA Country Liberals have suffered the greatest anxiety since the state election as they look into what could potentially be political abyss, especially in the centre and north of the state.
The WA Nationals have a plan to capture all 17 lower seats outside of Metropolitan Perth and the longer Mr Grylls is allowed to play Santa Claus, the more that goal becomes reality.
The Nationals now lead that political race by holding seven rural seats to the Liberals six and the ALP’s four.
One Liberal source said if he had his way, the Nationals would be marginalised and treated like an opposition post-election, to regain regional seats and arrest the avalanche.
But WA Premier Colin Barnett has promised to maintain the power sharing alliance and re-anointed Mr Grylls in his role as Santa Claus when the new State cabinet was announced this week.
That’s despite many rural Liberals urging their leader to tell the boy from Corrigin that he’s no longer the messiah - and nothing but a naughty boy.
Liberal Agricultural Region MLC Jim Chown showed no love’s been lost between WA country Liberals and the Nationals, despite the comfortable victory over Labor and Mr Barnett appointing a Liberal Agriculture Minister in Ken Baston.
“This pork barrelling for the Nationals through Royalties for Regions has to stop,” he said.
“The money needs to be spent appropriately with significant investment in infrastructure and support for other industries, not just mining, which we’ve committed to doing.”
17 WA regional seats
Central Wheatbelt – Mia Davies
Kalgoorlie – Wendy Duncan
Moore – Shane Love
North-West Central – Vince Catania
Pilbara – Brendon Grylls
Wagin – Terry Waldron
Warren-Blackwood – Terry Redman
Bunbury – John Castrilli
Dawesville – Kim Hames
Geraldton – Ian Blayney
Murray Wellington – Murray Cowper
Vasse – Troy Buswell
Eyre – Graham Jacobs
Albany – Peter Watson
Collie Preston – Mick Murray
Kimberley – Josie Farrer
Mandurah – David Templeman