The Unshackled’s Western Australian Election Preview

The Unshackled is hosting its first ever livestream this Saturday night to cover the Western Australian State Election results which will be broadcast live on Facebook and YouTube from 8pm AEDT. We aim to offer analysis of the results as they come in with a focus on the results of the minor parties and the makeup of the new upper house. In the lead up to Election Day The Unshackled has prepared a comprehensive election preview to offer readers from the rest of Australia a guide to what are the key issues in this election, the nature of politics over in the west and our predictions on the likely results and political implications.

The Performance of the Barnett Government

Colin Barnett has been a political giant in Western Australian politics. First elected as a state MP for the seat of Cottesloe in inner Perth he served as a Minister in Premier Richard Court’s government which was in office from 1993 to 2001. Following the defeat of Court in 2001 he was elected Liberal leader and led the party into the 2005 state election which he lost to incumbent Labor Premier Geoff Gallop. Following that loss, he resigned as leader and sat on the backbench but after the implosion of three Liberal leaders during that term of Parliament he was returned to the leadership just before the 2008 state election.

The result of the 2008 election was a hung parliament with the National Party holding the balance of power who do not have a formal Coalition agreement with Liberals in Western Australia. The Nationals ultimately decided to back the Liberals under Barnett who then became Premier, it was a stunning political resurrection for a politician who only 6 months ago, was intending to retire.

During his first term Barnett was able to portray himself as fierce advocate for the interests of Western Australians who at the time were propping up the rest of the nation during the global financial crises with the mining boom. When the Rudd/Gillard governments introduced the carbon and mining taxes they were deeply unpopular in the West and it was believed these policies would hit their economy the hardest. That and an increasingly unfair GST distribution led to the state being staunchly anti-Labor both at the state and federal level. At the 2013 state election six months before the federal Labor government was thrown out Barnett won a thumping victory and it looked as if Western Australia for many years would be the jewel in the Liberal Party’s crown.

Four years later the tables have turned dramatically. The mining boom has come to an end, unemployment and cost of living has increased and housing prices have depressed. The state budget has gone into deficit and rightly or wrongly the state Liberal government has been blamed for the current economic downturn. Colin Barnett has blamed the state of the budget on the unfair GST distribution which now sees Western Australia gaining only 30c in the dollar although it appears that the public are not completely convinced of this reasoning.

There is a feeling that the Liberal Party has taken Western Australia for granted and this has affected their performance in government. Barnett is no longer seen as the voice of Western Australian people and voters are now prepared to give Labor a go.The consistent poor polling of the Coalition government and Colin Barnett’s personal ratings came to a head in the form of a spill motion for the Liberal leadership in September 2016. The motion was sponsored by two MPs and was triggered by the resignation of two ministers but ultimately failed 31-15. It is likely due to the fact that Barnett has a long record in politics that he was able to survive the spill motion as other state and federal leaders have found themselves deposed.

Colin Barnett however is 66 years old and says he will retire before the next state election due in 2021 if he is returned for a third term. Barnett is classified as a moderate though is certainly a friend of the conservative voter with tough stances on law and order, border security and Aboriginal welfare. His likely successor is the Deputy Premier Liza Harvey who is firmly a moderate within the Liberal Party.

The Labor Alternative

The Labor leader is Mark McGowan who has held that position since 2012 when he replaced Eric Ripper who was widely seen as a placeholder Labor leader while a more suitable alternative Premier was found. McGowan led the party to the landslide 2013 defeat but given the unpopularity of the federal Labor government at the time the loss was not put down to his leadership and he remained.

The Western Australian Labor Party is more politically pragmatic than its counterparts in the rest of country as it distanced itself from the unpopular mining tax. In this campaign Mark McGowan has ruled out introducing a state based renewable energy target given public opinion is turning against it. McGowan and Labor have played it reasonably safe in this election avoiding any bold new policies that are likely to draw more criticism than praise.

They have attacked the Liberals’ plan to partly privatise the state’s electricity network Western Power as public anxiety still runs high on the issue of privatisation. However, McGowan made a major blunder by expressing support for the controversial Safe Schools program therefore inviting criticism that his Labor Party is still committed to radical left wing policies.

This election is not so much a contest between ideologies but who would be the better economic manager. This was the theme of the leader’s debate which was a debate about who can best fix the budget and deliver key infrastructure projects and government services. Key election issues that are somewhat unique to Western Australia is that it is the state where the ice epidemic is at its worst. The state also has a high Indigenous population which results in issues facing that community obtaining more prominence that perhaps in other states.

All the available polling points to a landslide Labor victory with Mark McGowan consistently being the preferred Premier. The ‘it’s time’ factor is also weighing heavily with voters with the mood being that the Liberals have had their chance and it’s time to give the other mob a go. However Western Australian voters should be careful what they wish for as that was Australia’s attitude when they voted out John Howard in 2007 and elected Kevin Rudd and Labor and today we are still living with the consequences of that decision. Barnett’s performance may have been poor, but given Labor’s record around the nation is it really worth the risk?

The Western Australia Electoral Battlefield

The Western Australian Legislative Assembly is made up of 59 members from single member electorates. The current state of the parties in the chamber is the Liberals 31, Labor 21 and the Nationals 7. Labor needs nine seats to form government however electoral redistributions carried out over the past term have made two Labor held seats notionally Liberal.

Looking at the current electoral pendulum there are only seven Liberal seats which could fall to Labor (as opposed to the National Party) with a margin under 5%. To obtain enough seats to form government Labor would need a swing of at least 10.1%. It sounds like a monumental task however if you look at the two-party preferred vote from the 2013 election it was 57-43% to the Coalition. Given that Labor is consistently polling two party preferred in between 52-54% vs the Coalition 48-46% achieving the required swing is not a difficult ask.

The Queensland election swing in 2015 which brought Labor from a meagre nine seats to one short of a majority government demonstrated that big swings are part of modern Australian elections. However what will give the Liberals some comfort is that despite the consistent bad polling in the recent federal election the Liberals managed to retain 11 of the 16 electorates in Western Australia which arguably helped them get over the line to 76 seats.

The demographics of Western Australia show us where key battleground areas are for the election. Generally speaking, Perth’s north coast suburbs are blue ribbon territory, the south coast suburbs and Perth’s inner east are Labor country. The contested territory is Perth’s inner south and Perth’s north east. On Western Australia’s south coast most seats are Liberal with the odd Labor seat but it also where the National Party begins to be competitive. The large rural areas of the state are where the contests are mainly Nationals vs Liberals, and these are not friendly contests.

The Upper House and Minor Parties

While not given much attention the Western Australian Legislative Council elections is just as an important outcome as the lower house. As we see with the Senate in Canberra a majority in the lower house is not much use if you have hostile upper house which blocks your agenda. Western Australia is no different with an upper house like the Senate which is elected via proportional representative with the potential for minor parties to hold the balance of power.

Western Australia’s Legislative Council is made up 36 members with 6 members elected from 6 regions for a 4-year term. Western Australia still uses group voting tickets which allow the minor parties to preference each other before the majors thereby increasing the chances of one of them being elected. This was the case in the 2013 election with the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party winning a seat in the Agricultural Region.

There are five minor party players who are contesting the Upper House Regions, those are the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party who also gained a defector from the Liberal Party bolstering their numbers to two. The Australian Christians who are affiliated with Fred Nile’s party have historically polled highly in Western Australia. There is Family First, there is the Liberal Democrats who are registered for the first time for that state’s elections.

Then of course is the major minor party Pauline Hanson’s One Nation which has been on average polling at around 10% and is the most likely to hold the balance of power in the new upper house. One Nation during their first incarnation won three upper house seats at the 2001 election and one of the four Senate seats they won at the most recent federal election was from Western Australia. It has arguably been their second strongest state outside of Queensland mainly since like Queensland Western Australia has a strong conservative culture.

An important note on the upper house is that it is not one vote one value. The upper house regions are skewed to favour the rural areas with the metropolitan regions each covering 14, 14 and 15 lower house seats. While in the rural regions they only cover 4, 4 and 8 lower house seats.

In 2013 the Liberal and National Parties were able to obtain a majority in the upper house which will likely not be repeated this election. One Nation has a good chance of winning at least three upper house seats in the rural regions. The other minor parties have implemented the strategy of preferencing each other before the majors which means that many of them could be elected regardless of how high their primary vote is. The Liberal Democrats, Family First and Australian Christians could all obtain an upper house seat. Some of the micro parties on the fringe are also in with a chance such as the Vote Flux Party (an online democracy party), Fluoride Free WA and the Daylight Savings Party.

The Likely Outcome

Despite most of the polling pointing to a landslide Labor victory a few polls have suggested the race is much tighter at 50-50. The fact that Labor has to overcome seats on a margin of over 10% mainly against incumbent Liberal MPs makes the task harder than it appears on paper. Even if the Liberals lose the two-party preferred vote that does not matter if they retain enough seats to hold a majority in the Legislative Assembly where government is formed. The South Australian Labor Party held onto power in their 2014 election by retaining its existing seats despite losing the two-party preferred vote by a significant margin.

The Liberals will be hoping that their preference deal with One Nation can help get them over the line. Although One Nation preferences have a history of being evenly split between the two major parties and One Nation preferences knocked off a few Queensland LNP MPs at the last federal election. The main hindrance to this preference deal paying off for the Liberals is that One Nation lacks on the ground presence meaning that not many of their supporters will be handing out how to vote cards.

Regardless of which party forms government One Nation with the help of Liberal preferences, perhaps with a few other minor parties will hold the balance of power in the upper house. So, if the worst-case scenario occurs and Labor wins a landslide victory the more radical left wing policies they have will be blocked in the upper house. This restraint on power has saved the people in Victoria from an even more radical left wing Labor government.

Potential Political Implications

If One Nation follows through on its strong polling it will be a significant step forward for the party, it will have managed to overcome the avalanche of attacks on them and their candidates from the media and major parties in recent weeks. Despite some problems with candidates not toeing the party line One Nation has run a very disciplined campaign. If Australian Christians or the Liberal Democrats manage to pick up a seat that will significantly bolster their Australia wide presence.

For the major parties despite the election outcome mainly being decided on state issues a Liberal loss will further fuel leadership speculation about Malcolm Turnbull’s future. The Queensland LNP loss in 2015 started the beginning of the end for Tony Abbott. A Labor victory will likely strengthen the morale inside the federal party that it is on the way back up after its disastrous period in government from 2007 to 2013. If the Liberals hold on it will again be more egg on the face of the pollsters who have a significant history of underestimating conservative support.

The Unshackled believes the Western Australian Liberal Party should be re-elected as Labor is not to be trusted not to turn radically to the left once in government. The Liberal Party in the west has a reasonable number of conservative MPs when you compare it to the other states. However a strong right-wing minor party voting bloc in the upper house needs to be elected to continue keep the pressure on the Coalition parties to start listening to the concerns ordinary Australians have. It will be a fascinating election result to watch, we hope that you can join us for our coverage Saturday night.

  • Deplorable Steve

    Whatever happens, One Nation should hopefully be a big enough force to counter the excesses of both leftist parties…