State of excitement

For much of the current term, election watchers have been looking at the Coalition side of the Mackerras pendulum to identify the 11 seats Labor will have to win to gain a majority. From this it has been concluded that the outer urban and regional areas of New South Wales and Queensland, along with Adelaide, are where the action will be on election night. However, clouds on the horizon to the West suggest a more complicated picture and a taller order for Labor. Newspoll’s quarterly geographic and demographic analysis in June showed that Labor’s two-party preferred performance for the first quarter had improved since the 2001 election in every state other than Western Australia, by about 5 per cent in New South Wales and South Australia and 3 per cent in Victoria and Queensland (Tasmania was not included). In Western Australia however, there was a 0.4 per cent shift to the Coalition. On May 25 The West Australian’s Westpoll, taken from a rather thin sample of 404, had Labor down eight points from the 40 per cent it recorded the previous month, with the Coalition rising from 39 to 44 per cent. Four days later Louise Dodson of the Sydney Morning Herald reported that "insiders believe the party may lose the Perth seat of Stirling, now held by Jann McFarlane with a margin of 1.6 per cent".

A number of factors are contributing to Labor’s softness in the West. One is the unpopularity of the Gallop Government, which came to office in February 2001 with 37.2 per cent of the primary vote plus considerable help from One Nation’s decision to direct preferences against most sitting members. Unlike the Rann Government in South Australia, and despite the lowest unemployment in the land and economic growth in the order of 6 per cent, the Gallop Government enjoyed no honeymoon period and has at no stage cracked 40 per cent in Newspoll. Another factor is Western Australia?s traditionally conservative leaning. Labor’s success in winning seven of the 15 seats in 2001 was a reasonable performance historically, and was achieved from an unpromising primary vote of 37.1 per cent – almost identical to Labor’s vote in the state election, and more or less where Labor has been stuck in both state and federal polling in WA for years – compared with 42.4 per cent for the Coalition. Three of those seats, Stirling, Hasluck and Swan, have margins of between 1.6 and 2.1 per cent, while the only marginal Liberal seat is Canning, which Don Randall (who had been member for Swan from 1996 to 1998) narrowly won from the late Jane Gerick in 2001. A further unpredictable element is the destination of the 6.3 per cent vote for One Nation, a constituency that still views Labor with suspicion over the asylum seeker issue. Last but not least is the Kim Beazley factor, the local boy?s defeats at the hands of eastern staters in 2003 having roused parochial jealousies. Three weeks after Latham?s elevation to the leadership in December, Andrew Fraser of the Canberra Times reported that Don Randall had gone so far as to say that "they’re welded on to Kim Beazley over here – If we don’t pick up two (seats) in WA I’d be surprised".

The most precarious of the Labor marginals is Stirling, where the Poll Bludger spent his happily uneventful childhood. This patch of Perth’s northern suburbs extends from North Beach and Scarborough on the coast as far inland as Dianella, the Liberal-leaning coastal strip slightly more than cancelled out by notoriously low-rent Mirrabooka and Balga. The seat was nevertheless held for the Liberals by former and current ABC radio presenter Eoin Cameron from 1993 to 1998. Jann McFarlane then recovered it for Labor with a 4.1 per cent swing and held on in 2001. McFarlane came to parliament via the Australian Services Union and has devoted much of her current term to anti-war and pro-refugee activism which, if I remember my home turf correctly, would be passing largely unnoticed by most of her constituents. A health scare in early 2004 raised questions about her political future, but she appears set on another term. The Liberals thought they had landed a pretty fair catch when they endorsed millionaire businessman Paul Afkos, but it soon emerged that he had borrowed $300,000 from a man he knew to be a convicted drug trafficker. Afkos stood aside, and "senior party officials" reacted quickly by drafting Michael Keenan, real estate salesman and former adviser to Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone.

Over the other side of town is Swan, home to Kim Beazley from his entry into parliament in 1980 until his well-timed move into Brand in 1996. Like Stirling, Swan trades off waterfront Liberal areas in the west against Labor territory further inland, the water in this case being the scenic end of the Swan and Canning rivers at South Perth and Como. At the other end of the electorate is Perth Airport and the industrial precinct of Welshpool. Swan has been held for Labor since 1998 by Kim Wilkie, who worked as a farmer and prison officer before entering politics via South Perth City Council. Wilkie survived unwelcome publicity in late 2000 and early 2001 after accusations against staffers over travel allowances and membership slush funds. The way Tony Wright from The Bulletin tells it, Wilkie’s office was being used as a headquarters for Stephen Smith’s "New Right" faction, and the leak of travel allowance information to the Left faction produced claims that car travel reimbursements were being used to fund party memberships. However it proved to be nothing on a scale sufficient to cause electoral damage, and he suffered a swing of less than 1 per cent at the 2001 election. Wilkie has kept his nose clean since and built a reasonably solid local profile, although he may regret having dismissed Latham as inexperienced in the days prior to the December 2 leadership vote. The Liberal candidate is Andrew Murfin, a former Perth and Belmont Councillor. Murfin was the subject of a timely eulogy last weekend from Peter Sweeney of Perth’s Sunday Times which focused mostly on his work a Salvation Army volunteer, but also made the generous claim on his behalf that as Liberal candidate for the state seat of South Perth in the 2001 state election, he "came within 63 primary votes of defeating elected independent Phillip Pendal". In Australia of course candidates are not "defeated" on the primary vote, and in the count that matters Murfin suffered a 12.8 per cent drubbing (it might be noted here that a hostile local media is another factor counting against Labor in Perth).

Hasluck was created at the 2001 election, mostly from parts of Perth, Tangney and Swan, its neighbour to the west. Geographically it takes in the last gasp of the coastal plain and the foothills of the Darling Scarp. Roughly speaking the former area, including Midland, Gosnells and Thornlie, does better for Labor while the more scenic hills area, in particular Kalamunda, goes the other way. The seat had a notional margin of 2.4 per cent upon its creation, and the Liberals’ insufficient 0.6 per swing saw it go the way of Sharryn Jackson, official for the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers’ Union official and member of the Labor Left. Jackson hasn’t made too much noise in her debut term, although she did all right with the Dick Smith crowd by "launching a fighting fund" against the American firm that had acquired the rights to the name "ugg boots" and was trying to put honest Aussie battlers in the hard-done-by TCF sector out of business. Jackson voted for Simon Crean in the first challenge and was a late decider in Beazley’s favour in the second. Her Liberal opponent is Stuart Henry, of whom little is known.

The Liberals would need a solid city-wide swing of around 2 per cent to rope in all three, a tall order for a Government asking for a fourth term. However, Western Australia is not without a history of contrary behaviour, and the Opposition Leader would as always be mindful of the precedent set by his mentor Gough Whitlam. In December 1972, Whitlam’s election triumph was just slightly tarnished by the loss of two seats in Western Australia – widely interpreted at the time as a backlash against an unpopular state Labor government, soon to be defeated after one term.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.