The superlatives that were being used in advance of Saturday’s state election in Western Australia (see my preview here) turned out to be fully justified. The Labor government of premier Mark McGowan, coming off what was already a landslide victory in 2017, has outvoted its opponents by more than two to one, almost obliterating the state’s Liberal Party with a swing of something like 13 per cent.
Counting is still very much incomplete,* so exact figures will shift a bit, but with almost half the votes in Labor has 59.1% of the vote. The last time a single party reached those heights was more than forty years ago: Labor peaked at 57.8% in New South Wales in 1978. The two-party-preferred figure, currently projected at more than 68%, is even more astonishing; in modern times, only Tasmania in 2002 (in the mid-60s, but with a different voting system) is anywhere near it.
Labor has won a definite 49 seats in the 59-seat Legislative Assembly (up from 41 last time), and looks fairly secure for a 50th, Carine. The Liberals, with 21.3% of the vote (down 9.9%), have only two seats definite (down from 13), while the Nationals, on 4.5% (down 0.9%), have won three (down from five) and look like keeping a fourth, Warren-Blackwood.
That leaves three seats doubtful: Churchlands, Nedlands (both between Labor and Liberal) and North-West Central (between Labor and National). If the Liberals win the first two and Labor the third, the opposition parties will have four seats each; otherwise, the Nationals will be the senior partner, despite having less than a quarter as many votes. Currently Labor leads in all three, although by only 54 votes in Churchlands.
And speaking of electoral unfairness, note the position of the Greens, who placed third with 7.1% (down 1.8%) but are nowhere near winning a seat. No other party really troubled the scorers; the anti-vaxxers and Australian Christians are jostling for fifth place, with 1.6% and 1.5% respectively, while One Nation lost three-quarters of its vote, dropping to 1.2% and finishing seventh.
It’s too early to say much about the Legislative Council, but Labor is clearly on track to win a majority there as well. The ABC’s current projection has it on 23 seats against six Liberals, four Nationals and three others, but that is at best a rough guide. Kevin Bonham is posting detailed updates of the situation.
The Liberal Party has been here before, sort of. In Queensland in 2001 – also, incidentally, off the back of being penalised for playing footsies with One Nation – it was reduced to three seats and 14.3% of the vote. But the Queensland division was used to being junior to the Nationals, and the opposition as a whole was not in quite such dire straits (the Nationals at the time had twelve seats). Its inability to recover much from there eventually pushed it into a merger with the Queensland Nationals in 2008.
Other parties have had near-death experiences as well. Labor was reduced to seven out of 89 seats in Queensland in 2012, but it came back to win the following election. Its New South Wales branch did worse the previous year in terms of votes, dropping to 25.6% (35.8% two-party-preferred), but still held twenty seats.
Why was it so bad this time? We know the story pretty well by now; Covid-19 has mostly been a boon for incumbents, unless they distinguish themselves by their incompetence or mendacity.
Voters are driven by two things: they want to rally around their leaders in a time of crisis, and they want those leaders to protect them from danger, or at least to show that they take the danger seriously. When governments fail to do that, the two things pull in opposite directions. In that case, while incumbents can be beaten they still have a fighting chance, as did Donald Trump a few months ago, and as Scott Morrison has federally.
But incumbents who do take the pandemic seriously have little to fear, as Jacinda Ardern showed in New Zealand last October. McGowan’s position was especially fortunate, since his state’s geographic isolation offered good protection, and he pandered to his constituents’ parochialism in taking advantage of it. The fact that the last week’s news was dominated by the Christian Porter affair, which showcased the worst features of the WA Liberal Party, was just icing on the cake.
State elections are not always good predictors of federal results, so the federal Labor Party cannot necessarily count on anything much out of Western Australia, but at the very least this will be a big morale boost.
* Official results are available here; for most purposes, the ABC’s presentation is more useful. William Bowe also has very good coverage, and Antony Green is providing commentary on late counting. Note that, as is usual in Australia, figures showing the progress of the count are percentages of the total enrolled, not the total who vote, so it’s not quite as slow as it might look (but it’s still very slow).
UPDATE Tuesday 9.50am (Perth time): With further counting yesterday, Labor looks home and hosed in Carine, the Nationals are clearly ahead in both North-West Central and Warren-Blackwood, and the Liberals have hit the front in Churchlands and will probably hold it. That brings it to Labor 50, Nationals five and Liberals three, with Nedlands (where Labor has a narrow lead over the Liberals) still doubtful.
FURTHER UPDATE Wednesday 9.40am (Perth time): Labor had a much better day of counting yesterday; it’s now looking comfortable in Nedlands and has hit the front in both North-West Central and Warren-Blackwood. The Liberals are clinging to a narrow lead in Churchlands, raising the possibility that Liberals and Nationals will emerge with three seats each. The Legislative Council is less advanced, but Labor looks assured of winning 22 of the 36 seats.
FURTHER UPDATE Thursday 10am (Perth time): The Nationals have held North-West Central but lost Warren-Blackwood, and Antony Green has now called Nedlands for Labor, giving Labor 52, Nationals four, Liberals two and Churchlands the one remaining doubtful, where the Liberals lead by 31 votes.