Labor Vote Goes South In The West

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Last weekend’s state election in Western Australia was the latest in a series of state election defeats for the Labor Party — and everything went as expected.

The ALP lost power in 2008 when no-one was expecting it. The ALP had only been in power for two terms, and at the time held power in every jurisdiction across Australia. Alan Carpenter had replaced Geoff Gallop in 2006, and had until early 2009 to hold an early election. Liberal leader Troy Buswell resigned in mid-2008, and was surprisingly replaced by former Opposition Leader Colin Barnett.

Carpenter responded by calling a snap election, and it backfired. Labor suffered from a 4 per cent swing, and fell two seats short of a majority. Barnett managed to stitch together a government with the support of the Nationals and independents.

The National Party in Western Australia has a different relationship to the Liberal Party than its eastern counterparts. Current Nationals leader Brendon Grylls particularly worked to distance the Nationals from the Liberal Party after he took the leadership in 2005, and briefly threatened to form government with Labor in 2008 before forming an alliance with the Liberal Party.

The ALP’s fortunes went further south in 2009, with the loss of two seats. Vince Catania in the regional seat of North West defected from Labor to the Nationals. In Fremantle, a by-election in 2009 was won by the Greens’ Adele Carles. The Greens performed strongly in the 2008 election, polling a record 11.9 per cent in the lower house, and electing four members of the Legislative Council.

While the Greens had done well from the ALP’s decline in 2008, they did not have a happy experience with Adele Carles. Carles became mired in scandals to do with her relationship with Troy Buswell, the Treasurer, and resigned from the Greens in 2010 and finished her term as an independent.

So what happened on Saturday night?

Labor lost at least six seats, and could lose as many as 10. Five Labor seats were lost to the Liberal Party, and one to the Nationals. The Liberals have a chance of winning up to four more,  depending on late counting. The ALP gained one seat back, recovering Fremantle from Adele Carles.

All five Liberal gains from Labor took place in seats in the Perth metropolitan area. The four remaining possible Labor losses include two in regional Western Australia, and two in Perth.

Labor lost the seat of Pilbara to Nationals leader Brendon Grylls. The north of Western Australia is traditionally strong territory for the Labor Party, but Grylls chose to shift from his safe Central Wheatbelt seat to Pilbara in an effort to expand the field for the Nationals.

Labor also lost North West Central to its former MP, Vince Catania, despite the Nationals previously coming third in the district.

The Nationals also had high hopes in the Kimberley, but look likely to come fourth. On current figures, the ALP leads on 27.6 per cent, followed by the Liberal Party on 24.8 per cent and the Greens on an incredible 23.7 per cent. The Nationals trail on 18.1 per cent. While no two-party-preferred count has yet been done, it is likely that the ALP will hold on against the Liberals with Greens preferences.

The Greens performed very strongly in Broome — close to the controversial James Price Point development which has been the centre of environmental campaigning in Western Australia in the last few years.

The Liberal Party and the Nationals fought each other in a number of key marginal seats.

The Nationals currently hold a wafer-thin 17-vote lead in the Liberal seat of Eyre. The Liberal Party came close to defeating the Agriculture Minister in Warren-Blackwood on the back of Labor and Greens preferences.

All four independent seats were won by a major party. Apart from Labor recovering Fremantle, the Nationals won Kalgoorlie, which is traditionally a Labor seat, and the Liberal Party won back its traditional heartland seats of Alfred Cove and Churchlands. This leaves no independents or minor parties on the crossbenches of the Legislative Assembly.

The Greens have gone backward in the Legislative Council, while the right-of-centre forces have strengthened their hold on the upper house. While the Greens still have a chance of holding all four of their current seats, they are likely to only hold one seat, and could well lose all representation.

The election result is the latest in a series of state and territory elections that have seen negative swings against the Greens. The Greens haven’t gained ground in a major Australian election since New South Wales in March 2011.

The Shooters and Fishers are likely to win a seat in the Agricultural region off the Nationals, benefiting from Labor and Greens preferences. Family First has a chance of achieving the same in the South West region, but are likely to fall short.

This election result was no shock to anyone. Few predicted anything other than a victory for the Liberals and Nationals, despite what most commentators agree was a strong campaign from Mark McGowan and the ALP. While Labor lost a string of seats, the result was not terrible, and Labor could be only eight seats away from a majority at the next election if the remaining close seats go their way.

Generally first-term governments receive the benefit of the doubt, and the conservative forces easily won a majority (with the Liberals likely to win a slender majority in their own right). Western Australia’s economy is very strong, and Barnett’s Government has largely avoided controversy.

While state elections are usually decided on state factors, it is not possible to completely exclude the role of federal politics in Labor’s defeat. Labor has been generally unpopular in Western Australia for the entirety of the Rudd-Gillard Government, and was reduced to 20 per cent of Western Australia’s lower house seats in 2010. The ALP’s mining tax is unlikely to have helped them in the string of seats from Kalgoorlie to the Pilbara that are traditional Labor heartland but swung to the Nationals last weekend. Labor didn’t lose the election because of Julia Gillard — but federal factors could have worsened the result in some areas.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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