Balance of possibilities

Opinion polling for the Western Australian election has been disappointingly thin on the ground in the past week or two, with only anecdotal evidence available to measure the impact of the Coalition’s circuit-breaking canal proposal. From what little there is to go on, you can’t go past the betting markets; Crikey reports that Centrebet has been deluged with punters backing Labor’s return following Barnett’s shock announcement, such that Labor are now 7-10 favourites with the Coalition at even money. Peter Brent at Mumble is bravely predicting an 11-seat Labor majority, although he’s certainly been right before. The Poll Bludger is rather less sensible and still proposes to provide seat-by-seat predictions once he has gathered more evidence, hopefully by the weekend. For the time being he will content himself to canvass the possibility that Brent is six seats out and that independents will hold the balance of power after the election.

Brent is rightly critical of the regular federal election campaign ritual where observers suckered in by talk of a close result confidently predict a hung parliament, which at federal level is always highly unlikely at best. State elections are a different matter, since state lower houses have far fewer members (57 in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly compared with 150 in the House of Representatives) and independents have an easier time getting elected due to the smaller sizes of electorates. While one must go back to 1940 in search of a federal election result that did not provide a clear outcome in favour of one side of politics or the other, examples at state level are much closer to hand. In 1991, Nick Greiner’s Coalition government in New South Wales was shocked to find itself reduced to minority government status one term after taking office; in 1999, Jeff Kennett’s Coalition government in Victoria was shocked to find itself relying for survival on the support of independents whom Kennett had remorselessly bullied and abused throughout the previous term, which was accordingly not forthcoming; in 2002, Rob Kerin’s Liberal government in South Australia was not shocked to find itself falling one seat short of a majority, but became so when Liberal-turned-independent member Peter Lewis used his balance of power status to put Labor into power; and in 1998, everybody was shocked when One Nation won 11 seats in the Queensland parliament, leaving two independents with little choice but to endorse a Peter Beattie minority Labor government to marginalise the motley rabble of newcomers. Tasmania’s system of proportional representation makes it more prone to minority government, but it has become less so since Labor and Liberal conspired to reduce the size of the House of Assembly. In Western Australia, an election has not produced an indecisive result since 1950 – the last minority government was that of Carmen Lawrence, whose Labor government lost its majority mid-term following party defections and a by-election defeat.

There were four independent members elected to the Legislative Assembly in 2001, two of whom are standing for re-election and two of whom are not. Both of the re-contestants, Liz Constable in Churchlands and Janet Woollard in Alfred Cove, are likely to be returned, at least by the Poll Bludger’s estimation. Both represent what would normally be safe Liberal electorates; Constable won her seat as an independent after failing to win Liberal preselection and Woollard has variously branded herself a Liberal for Forests and an "independent Liberal". There is no doubt they would support a Coalition government if that’s what it came to. As those who have been following this site lately will be aware, one of the retirees is former Labor man Larry Graham, member for the abolished electorate of Pilbara. The other is one-time Liberal Phillip Pendal, who has held the normally safe Liberal seat of South Perth as an independent since 1994. With full candidate lists now available, it is worth taking a look at the contestants in other electorates who appear best placed to join the cross-benches after the election.

Girrawheen (Labor 21.0%): The electorate which gave Labor its second-biggest two-party majority at the 2001 election could potentially be lost due to a long-running spat between the "Old Right" (commonly identified with Brian Burke) and "New Right" factions. The former grouping had hoped to dump incumbent Margaret Quirk, whose original endorsement in 2001 it had vehemently opposed, and install Wanneroo mayor Jon Kelly. Kelly was thwarted here when the national executive intervened at the Premier’s request to endorse all sitting members, and was also denied an upper house seat for East Metropolitan due to the refusal of embattled Housing and Works Minister Nick Griffiths to stand aside. Kelly is now taking the bold step of challenging Quirk as an independent. Remarkably, Labor is putting Liberal candidate John Halligan ahead of Kelly on its preference recommendation, prompting Kelly to make the unusual claim that (to paraphrase his argument) "a vote for Labor is a vote for Liberal". In reality, there is no chance that Quirk will be eliminated ahead of both Kelly and Halligan and the matter of her preferences is purely academic. On Antony Green’s post-redistribution figures, Labor polled 57.9 per cent of the vote in 2001, from which Kelly will need to take a substantial bite in order to force the issue to preferences. If he can do this, and also outperform the Liberals who scored 21.5 per cent last time, he could well take the seat. If he does so, there seems little doubt that he would back Labor to remain in power if it fell short of a majority.

Vasse (Liberal 4.1%): The Liberal member for this seat, Bernie Masters, quit the party in early 2004 after losing preselection to Busselton shire president Troy Buswell. Masters will now attempt to retain the seat as an independent in what looms as an interesting three-way contest with Nationals candidate Beryle Morgan, who very nearly defeated Masters in 2001. Masters was close to Colin Barnett and blamed his preselection defeat on Barnett antagonist Dan Sullivan; he would no doubt be happy to see Barnett in the premier’s chair if he ends up holding the balance of power.

Central Kimberley-Pilbara (Labor 16.2% vs IND): It is at least possible that this seat, which has superseded Larry Graham’s abolished electorate of Pilbara, will remain in independent hands thanks to the nomination of former ATSIC WA chairman Barry Taylor. Such an outcome would require a strong flow of preferences to Taylor from various minor party independents to put him clear of the Liberal candidate, as well as a Labor vote substantially below 50 per cent. It is difficult to infer much from previous election results here, as the 2001 result for Pilbara was distorted by the contest between Graham and Jackie Ormsby, the Labor candidate he was dumped in preselection to make way for. Only major party candidates ran in 1996, when Graham polled 63.8 per cent, but as the subsequent election demonstrated this was boosted by his considerable personal vote. Graham, who suggested to the Labor Party that it should nominate Taylor, wrote in the North West Telegraph last week that he "started badly but has picked up the pace recently". The most likely outcome is that Tom Stephens will win the seat for Labor; if Taylor were to get up he would very likely back a Labor government.

Stirling (Nationals 12.0%): Independent candidate Vicki Brown might be reckoned a long shot to win this National Party stronghold, but stranger things have happened. Brown is a former vice-president of the state National Party and was the only nominee for the party’s preselection at the close of nominations, and had been widely spoken of as the likely candidate. However, a week later the local National Party district branch decided to reopen nominations to allow Terry Redman to contest a preselection vote, ultimately successfully, a move that appeared to put a few noses out of joint in local party circles.

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.