In recent weeks, New South Wales and other states in Australia have seen lockdowns due to a rise in covid infections. However, in Western Australia covid infections and deaths are low. This aided the state’s ruling party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), to win a huge majority in state elections that were held last March.
John Gowland, from Militant Left in Perth, looks at reasons for the discrepancies in covid cases across Australia and asks what an Australian Labor Party victory in Western Australia means for the working in the state.
In the Western Australian (WA) 2021 state elections, held in March, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), led by Mark McGowan, won a huge majority, gaining 53 seats in a 59-lower house. This represents the biggest state or federal election victory in the history of Australia (That is a 90% majority, almost unheard of in any election). WA has a history of being led mostly by the conservative Liberal Party. They were relegated to two seats, with four going to a conservative National Party.
This result was predicted well before the election date, and the reason why was obvious months before. Media outlets spoke about “WA’s rock star Premier” in the months prior to the outcome. The single most important issue was that McGowan was seen by many voters to have kept WA safe from the Covid-19 because he closed the borders.
Up until fairly recently, Australia has had less than a thousand covid deaths, with just nine in WA. Only around one thousand have been infected with covid in WA, and almost all from cases were travellers from outside WA. A single, state-wide, lockdown from 31 January till 5 February was imposed, impacting two million people in the state, which was like a ghost town for a few weeks.
Some small businesses and charitable organisations were effected but compared to the rest of Australia or internationally, WA has not gone through the full nightmare of Covid. In a world racked by horrific cases, WA has had little of it.
But for a few months at the beginning of the pandemic, WA has not needed to adhere to any of the restrictive prevention measures seen elsewhere. Public signs to social distance, and other measures, such as contact tracing, are everywhere. But with many people believing there is no need for all these measures, they are often ignored. Other than regarding very large public events, life is as it was in WA, before Covid.
It is easy to understand why such a huge majority was gained by McGowan. However, the reasons for the very low infection rate of Covid in WA have little to do with the state’s Premier.
Like all infectious diseases, Covid is mainly transmitted in areas of high human density and due to poor governmental, medical intervention. In general, density is closely related to poverty because the poor have to live where accommodation is cheaper and more crowded in urban areas.
Australia is a vast continent, and the only dense areas are in a few cities. Perth has a very low density; it is a flat and a huge area, with very few dense areas. This means it is less easy for a virus to be transmitted from one person to another.
McGowen followed scientific and medical advice, such as closing all borders. He carried out an immediate lockdown within WA, for a short period, following the start of the pandemic.
But what made the low infection rates possible has nothing to do with McGowan. The pre-existing conditions in WA resulted in the almost zero Covid spread.
There was also a rapid response in preparation for Covid infections. Hospitals and other medical facilities experienced massive injections of funds, which were left for weeks and sometimes months with less staff because there was not a Covid spread.
One of the reasons for the ability of medical preparedness is because Australia, and particularly WA, is a more wealthy part of the world, including a high wage economy for many, though by no means for all. A higher-wage economy means that taxes paid by workers allow WA to fund and maintain government services, such as health, education, and transport at a higher level. All of these conditions allowed the state government to intervene on a large scale and rapidly.
Alarming rise in poverty
However, although poverty is relatively low in WA it is growing at an alarming rate. There is a growing section of the poor who are experiencing homelessness and food scarcity. As of the 2016 census, about 9,000 people were homeless in WA, with approximately 1,000 sleeping rough and without shelter. The situation has worsened since 2016. Tent cities of the homeless, never seen before, have grown over the last few years. McGowan’s response was to send in the police to tear down the tent cities rather than address the issues of homelessness and poverty.
Such social problems could be solved in an instant if the recourses of WA were utilised. The state has some of the richest billionaires in the world. According to the Financial Review, Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest are the two richest people in the country, worth a combined $52 billion. These mine owners have made massive profits during Covid. But these “ore-ligarchs” pay next to zero taxes.
According to ABC News, in July 2020, “There were 73 Australians who earned more than $1 million in the 2017-18 financial year that did not pay a cent of income tax.”
The McGowan government is protecting the super-rich from paying their due taxes by leaving them to swell their already massive bank balances. This is the true nature of the McGowan and the ALP in WA – leave the super-rich to get even richer and to punish the poorest. If these billionaires were made to pay their taxes, and the huge sums were used for the benefit of the poor and the working class, poverty and homelessness could be seriously tackled.
Militant Left in Australia calls for a new mass party of the working class, with bold socialist policies. Such a party with roots among the working class and youth would strenuously campaign for the nationalisation of the main planks of the economy in WA and across the country, under democratic workers’ control and management. A democratically drawn-up economic plan would transform the lives of working people, permanently ending poverty and homelessness and class exploitation.