Election preview: Western Australia

Once again, Western Australia and its former colonial power, the Netherlands, go to the polls within a few days of each other. Four years ago I used this to draw a moral about the decline of far-right parties and the contrasting fortunes of centre-right parties that accommodated them, as the Western Australians did, and those that refused to do so, like their Dutch counterparts.

The Netherlands votes next Wednesday, so we’ll have a look at that a bit later. But Western Australia’s election is tomorrow, with the Labor government of Mark McGowan seeking a second term in office. No-one, including the opposition, doubts that it will get it; the questions are how big its majority will be, what it might do to the Liberal and National parties, and whether the government can win a majority in the upper house.

Last time around, Labor won 42.2% of the vote, or 55.5% two-party-preferred, and finished with 41 of the 59 seats in the Legislative Assembly – a majority of 23 over the combined opposition (13 Liberals, five Nationals) and the biggest majority in Labor’s history. Since then, one Liberal MP has defected to the Nationals, and the Liberals have won one seat from Labor in a by-election.

It’s pretty common for first-term state governments to get a swing in their favor (although in the past that’s been less the case in Western Australia), so even with such a big majority you wouldn’t have been sure that Labor would lose any ground this time. But in any case, conventional wisdom was upended last year by the arrival of Covid-19. The McGowan government was one of the earliest advocates of strong measures, closing its border with the eastern states and shutting down community transmission of the virus.

As we’ve noted several times, even halfway competent incumbents have generally done well electorally out of the health crisis. But the boost that McGowan has got in the polls is off the scale; a recent Newspoll gave him an approval rating of 88%, and put voting intention for Labor at 68% two-party-preferred, a quite incredible swing of 12.5%.

To understand why a result like that might be thinkable, it helps to have spent some time in Western Australia. Although it has a land border with the rest of Australia, there is almost no habitable land for hundreds of kilometres on either side of it; Perth is the most isolated city of its size in the world. Its residents are correspondingly independently-minded. Western Australia voted only at the last minute to join the new nation of Australia in 1900, and in 1933 it voted (without effect) by a two-to-one majority to secede.

So shutting down traffic with the rest of the country proved to be extremely popular. And with the Liberal-National government in Canberra pushing for borders to re-open, the local Liberals were put on the spot. In any case they had their own problems, having already gone through two leaders since 2017; the third, Zak Kirkup, took the job last November and has conceded that he does not expect to win.

And of course the issue that I highlighted last time is still there. The neo-fascist One Nation are running again, and again they are getting preferences from the Liberals – although not, this time, as Kirkup stresses, through any formal deal. But there’s no sign that voters in suburban marginals are any more enamored of the idea than they were in 2017.

So the opposition is clearly headed for defeat. Fear of electing too lopsided a parliament may drive a few voters back their way, but there’s still an expectation that the Liberals will lose seats. Sportsbet’s odds on individual seats suggest Labor 47 to seven Liberals and five Nationals; it’s even possible that the Nationals could end up with more seats and seek recognition as the official opposition, although there’s no chance they will be anywhere near outvoting the Liberals.

Finally a word about the Legislative Council. Even with its big win last time Labor was well short of an upper house majority, finishing with 14 of the 36 seats, against nine Liberals, four Greens, four Nationals and five others. The Council is badly malapportioned, with rural regions choosing the same number of members as urban ones despite having only a quarter as many voters. A combined Labor-Greens majority, which requires a gain of one seat, may be the best the government can hope for.

It gets worse, because along with Victoria, Western Australia is one of the last holdouts of the bizarre system of group ticket voting, where preferences are allocated by parties rather than by voters and therefore subject to weird and opaque preference deals – frequently turning the last seat in a region into a lottery. (Kevin Bonham has a very fine rant explaining the problem.)

Despite those two serious democratic shortcomings, the Council election last time did a remarkably good job of reflecting voting strengths, apart from over-representation of the Nationals. But that may just incentivise the micro-parties and their brokers to work harder to subvert the outcome this time, as they did in Victoria in 2018.

For more about the election, you can read excellent previews by Antony Green and William Bowe. Results will appear late tomorrow night, since Western Australia is three hours behind the eastern states: the ABC generally has the most user-friendly coverage.

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