11 March 2017
Lots of political eyes face west today. They’re watching with interest a state election in Western Australia, where Colin Barnett seeks a third term as Premier, with his challenger being Mark McGowan. Whatever the result, people will argue over whether there are any implications for the Federal Government and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
WA isn’t in good shape at the moment. After years of riding high on a boom in the mining industry, the end of the boom has brought hard times, with both budget deficits and high unemployment causing major concern.
The Liberal Party, led by Barnett, took power in the wake of a close election result in September 2008. They actually needed the support of crossbenchers to govern, because nobody had a parliamentary majority after the election. And Barnett went on to gain a majority with a comfortable election win in March 2013.
Now Barnett looks like losing today, after almost nine years as Premier. Various opinion polls suggest a swing of around 10-11 per cent against him, which is very big. His time in office and the state of the economy will work against him. There are also concerns about plans to privatise electricity distributor Western Power, and to build a major freight link, both of which the Labor Party, led by McGowan, will oppose.
That said, McGowan hasn’t exactly won over voters as Opposition Leader. He was in this role when Barnett won comfortably in the 2013 election, with Labor losing plenty of seats in that. Even though he’s remained in the leadership, many doubts have loomed over him over time – to the point where there was talk of bringing former Federal minister Stephen Smith into State Parliament to take over as Labor leader, which didn’t happen. It seems like McGowan appears more popular simply because voters want Barnett gone.
To be fair, although opinion polls predict a big swing against Barnett and the Liberals, this will be some sort of correction to 2013. They had a big win then because Labor was very unpopular, albeit due to factors outside WA. Voters were very angry with Labor at the national level, when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister and had policies which made Labor unpopular. And as State Labor leader, McGowan bore voters’ anger over Gillard. With Gillard now gone and Labor more popular at the national level, McGowan no longer has the external factors from 2013 to worry about. And regardless of what the opinion polls were predicting for today’s election, there was always going to be a swing back to Labor after the big swing away from it in 2013.
The other surprise factor in the election has been controversial politician Pauline Hanson, whose popularity in WA is stronger than in any other state except Queensland. With her own political party fielding candidates, she’ll have some sort of influence on the election outcome, although her support won’t win her party more than the odd seat at today’s election. The Liberals will swap preferences with Hanson’s candidates in places, even at the expense of the Nationals, who formed an alliance with the Liberals in the wake of the 2008 election, which enabled Barnett to take power. Labor, on the other hand, has no tolerance of Hanson whatsoever.
Hanson’s presence gives this election a “wild” feel, on top of the poor shape of the WA economy and voter dissatisfaction with many things. It’s fair to argue that WA might look like the wild west, and today the state looks like electing McGowan.
In terms of the last election, the result was a comfortable win for the Liberals, who won thirty-one seats out of fifty-nine in the Lower House, where governments are formed, while Labor won twenty-one seats and the Nationals won seven. But these numbers have changed following an electoral redistribution, which came about to ensure as near as possible to an equal number of voters in each electorate. Population changes naturally bring about electoral redistributions after elections. This latest redistribution gives the Liberals an extra seat at the expense of Labor. Today, Labor needs to gain ten seats to win the election outright, without needing crossbencher support to govern.
I’m tipping Labor to win thirteen seats from the Liberals, mostly in suburban Perth. Two seats, West Swan and Collie-Preston, have Labor members but are notionally Liberal-held because of the redistribution – I tip Labor to take both seats. My other Labor gains are Balcatta, Belmont, Forrestfield, Joondalup, Kalamunda, Morley, Mount Lawley, Perth, Southern River, Swan Hills, and Wanneroo. This result would give Labor thirty-three seats over nineteen for the Liberals. However, the Liberals should regain Hillarys from an Independent who’s quit the Liberals.
The Upper House will be more interesting. Last time, the Liberals won seventeen seats out of thirty-six, ahead of eleven for Labor and five for the Nationals and two for the Greens, while the Shooters and Fishers also won a seat. While I’m tipping some chopping and changing among the established players, I also tip one of Hanson’s candidates to win a seat here, in either the state’s south-west or the agricultural region east of Perth.
The wild west looks like turning to Labor, and this could hurt Turnbull and the Federal Liberals. But should the result be close, the lessons might be less clear.