From Kununurra in the Kimberley to Eucla on the Great Australian Bight, an iron curtain has descended across the Australian information superhighway. Perth’s monopoly daily newspaper, The West Australian, provides non-subscribers with a pitiful three general news articles a day, few of which are election-related. Though largely unseen outside the state of publication, the paper’s contents set the daily agenda for Perth’s electronic media, which is also hugely important but largely inaccessible to outsiders. That leaves the ABC and the national newspapers, who have been painting the election in general, and Colin Barnett’s canal show-stopper in particular, in a rather different light. Comment in The Australian, the Financial Review and the Sydney Morning Herald has been largely or entirely negative and the reporting has focused on concerns raised by the project’s many doubters. The West has given some airing to criticisms, including sceptical comment pieces from state political editor Steve Pennells, a front page headline two days after the announcement reading "Why canal plan may sink Barnett" and a negative editorial on Thursday tying in with ambiguous Westpoll results. But such coverage has been "balanced" with reassuring headlines like "We can build it for $2b: Tenix" and what Labor partisan Robert Corr describes as "a full page of unchallenged assertions" favouring the project, a courtesy The West rarely offers the government when it gets a smell of blood in the water.
The Saturday after the debate, as doubts about the project reached a crescendo, The West flicked the switch back to an acknowledged Labor negative with the front page headline, "One in 10 has power cut within past week". An article that day by Monica Videnieks summarised reaction to the canal by saying the proposal had been "regarded as visionary in some quarters and lampooned as reckless and irresponsible by the government"; a similar report in The Australian would no doubt have added environmental groups, Treasury, the Institute of Public Affairs and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry to that short list of critics. On Tuesday, the paper ran illustrated soundbites with a diverse range of notables offering their views. Four were positive, three were non-committal, and only one was clearly negative. The paper under-reported Peter Costello’s concerns about the project, which made the front page of The Australian but got one sentence on page eight of The West, and has not had much to say on Nationals leader Max Trenorden’s insistence that the project will not go ahead if it cannot provide water to Perth at $1.20 per kilolitre, 80 cents less than the estimate of leftish economist John Quiggin. Interestingly, Perth’s only other major newspaper, The Sunday Times, reacted in step with its News Limited stablemates last week by headlining its editorial, "Barnett’s water gamble backfires". Normally the paper is no more sympathetic to the government than The West.
The West Australian’s biases, actual and perceived, became a live issue earlier in the campaign when Geoff Gallop and Bob Hawke accused the paper of collusion with the Coalition. Its front page article that day was a report on Australian Medical Association criticisms of the government’s drug law reforms, which appeared the very day the Coalition announced its get-tough-on-drugs policy. Of course, media-bashing is an unduly tempting option for politicians confronted with their own political failings, and Labor must wear much of the blame for its apparent failure to neutralise the canal issue with all the ammunition available to it. Many who did not watch the televised debate would nevertheless have heard the clear consensus view that Barnett emerged the winner, and contemplated why Gallop could not have blown the issue out of the water in the hour available to him if it was really such a bad idea.
Published opinion polling and leaked internal figures have been disappointingly thin on the ground in the current campaign, which is why the Poll Bludger is taking his time adding seat-by-seat predictions to his election guide. The canal project suggests that projections should be adjusted in Labor’s favour outside Perth, and in the Liberals’ favour in the suburbs. Albany, Bunbury and Geraldton, which Labor were considered unlikely to hold, have all come back into contention. The Coalition is now very unlikely to be a show in Kimberley. But in the parched suburbs of Wanneroo, Joondalup and Riverton – each with a two-party margin of 3.1 per cent from similar primary vote figures – the Liberals might just pick up a big enough flow in the other direction, which would also deliver them the still more marginal Swan Hills and Mindarie. That alone would put the Coalition into power, assuming they hold on to their own marginals of Darling Range and Kalgoorlie.
The canal is still a high-risk venture for the Coalition, who are currently exposing themselves to ridicule by commissioning accounting firm BDO to analyse their costings without taking the project into account. But it at least appears possible that observers who are certain the announcement was an act of politicial suicide do not have a handle on the public mood on the other side of the country, and that Centrebet’s 2-1 odds for a Coalition victory might be worth a flutter.