The political dance that commences a year out from each state election has parallels with the origins of the term ‘Cargo Cult’ which emerged across the pacific during the Second World War.
As a result of the conflict, village communities had become conditioned to looking to the sky, awaiting poorly targeted parachute drops which ended up supplying local villages with all manner of war goods.
Following the war, villagers then began to see strange people dropping in and out of their communities stopping briefly to promise endless salvation and great things if only they agreed to place a tick against a name at an upcoming election.
But these strange people were fair weather friends, often not seen for many months and their promises generally failed to eventuate. When they did return, they would make yet more promises or demand increased taxes before roaring off in their cars and aeroplanes into the night.
It’s surprising how little things have changed.
It must be cargo cult time because the first of the 2021 state election pork is starting to fall out of the sky. The Nationals are the first into their planes this year, dropping on Geraldton their commitment to fund a local rescue helicopter at a cost of $30m over four years.
Obviously, it has nothing to do with attempting to help Ian Blayney to retain the seat for the Nationals.
Come the next election the lacklustre performance of the Liberals could easily see the seat of Geraldton go the Nationals way, particularly if they obtain the ALP and minor party preferences.
As a result, Geraldton voters can expect to be showered with cargo over the next nine months as the bidding war for the seat heats up.
Of course, according to the Nationals, the offer to spend $7.5m a year on a rescue helicopter is just good policy, helping to save lives of the good folk living in the Mid West.
The only problem is the good folk in other National Party seats including Central Wheatbelt, Warren Blackwood, Moore, North West Central, and Roe – the five country electorates covering the triangle from Carnarvon to Augusta to Esperance would say that they too deserve a rescue helicopter.
That’s five more helicopters that we can look forward to being announced by the Nationals as they fly around the state on their cargo cult run, rolling out their full Royalties for Regions state emergency plan.
Being the party of the people in the bush, they have built a solid reputation on ensuring regional Western Australians are treated as fairly as the souls in the city.
With this reputation to maintain they will not be out there picking winners and losers and letting some electorates miss out just because they are safe seats. No Liberal or ALP blatant pork barrelling of select marginal seats for them!
The Nationals have been masters of crying political foul when the major parties played the marginal seat game of promising billions for rail lines designed to weave their way out to the most marginal of seats – think Mandurah, Ellenbrook and Burns Beach.
Mind you during the last big tier three rail debate in 2010, the Nationals failed to invest one dollar towards sweetening the deal to get more grain on rail, instead preferring to lavish a billion dollars a year across the state on their other pet political projects.
Out of that they did find $30m to fund the Bunbury emergency helicopter in 2016 as they geared up to have a crack at the seats of Vasse and Collie Preston, so maybe they are just as politically self-serving as the other two major parties after all.
Although, one can understand the logic of a rescue helicopter being based in Bunbury. A town double the size of Geraldton with a further 100,000 people within 100km radius, along with huge holiday traffic.
However, to target just Geraldton for the state’s third emergency helicopter over say Albany, a town with a similar population and a big tourism industry raises questions of motivation and fairness. Not that we know which towns are also on the list for a 4th, 5th 6th etc emergency helicopter.
What we do know, is there is more pork to fly before the election rolls around in April next year.
If the Nationals are preparing to roll out similar commitments to all the other regional centres, then it will be seen as a major policy drawcard that places many country people on an equal footing to their city cousins when it comes to being within the arc of an emergency helicopters.
Such a commitment while not cheap would be adding to their long list of signature Royalties for Regions policies which has funded big ticket items across the state including over 300 mobile phone towers, the massive Ord Stage II project and many country town sporting facilities.
But back to the one helicopter in Geraldton.
Any analysis of the cost benefits of funding helicopters vs Royal Flying Doctor Service Planes vs improved local hospital emergency services, needs to factor in the importance of getting patients back to a full tertiary hospital as fast as possible.
Simply flying patients back to the long promised upgraded Geraldton Health Campus, versus being flown to Fiona Stanley Hospitalis a quantum difference in health care for patients that need complex emergency care.
The alternatives to a helicopter in Geraldton would be to invest $30m in either more planes for the RFDS or upgrading country hospital staffing levels to lift their on-call emergency capability with more country town doctors and emergency trained nurses. Or even better do both.
But maybe this is already on the list of future National party election announcements. We will just have to look to the sky and await the next plane flying in with a cargo of goodies.
As a suggestion of a balanced election commitment for all political parties to consider, a far better spend would be to invest $30m in basing another helicopter in Perth but make it a big long distance machine capable of flying 1100km at over 300km/hr with 4 stretchers and 4 medical staff.
This is the new standard for large fast rescue helicopters around the world.
While they don’t come cheap, they do have the duration to go to the edge of the Wheatbelt and back without refuelling, effectively covering an arc stretching from Kalbarri to Kalgoorlie to Augusta.
Such a helicopter would complement the two new PC-24 jets that the RFDS has recently purchased, and by being run out of Jandakot would be fully supported by an existing resource of skilled doctors and nurses. Far cheaper than attempting to establish a new base out of Geraldton or one in each of the southern regional electorates.
This would be an easier and more credible political sell that buying one small helicopter for a town that lacks the mix of tertiary hospital specialist doctors that are required with any serious life-threatening accident.
As a voting community, we need to get far more critical of political parties attempting to buy marginal seats at the expense of the rest of the community. A $30m pitch for a single emergency helicopter does not make for good or fair policy unless the Nationals are prepared to also roll them out to key towns such as Albany, Esperance, Kalgoorlie and Merredin.
But at around $15m a year it would be far more cost effective and offer a better emergency outcome to contract the big local helicopter operator CHC to provide service out of Perth. They currently operate 43 helicopters across the state supporting the NW Shelf and providing emergency support for the Army, Navy and Airforce. With that sort of capacity they would always have one on standby.
A dedicated 24/7/365 long range helicopter to cover the Wheatbelt and Great Southern would be a cargo country people would be happy to see flying through the sky, far better than just saving the souls of Geraldton.