Turf wars

There are two election campaigns currently under way in Western Australia. The one that attracts all the attention is the main game between Labor and the Coalition to see who forms government for the next four years. But away from the spotlight there is another contest which is scarcely less interesting for the psephological hair-splitter, although it usually passes unnoticed in Perth, never mind Sydney or Melbourne. This is the perennial battle for the over-represented bush, fought between the Liberals, the Nationals and a shifting array of conservative splinter groups. On this occasion the battle has been particularly fierce, because the stakes are unusually high. Robert Taylor of The West Australian explained it thus on January 3:

The Nationals now hold five Legislative Assembly and one Upper House seat, enough to give them a generous proportion of the Government funding awarded to Opposition parties. That money enables Nationals leader Max Trenorden to employ a couple of researchers, administrative staff and a press secretary. But five Lower House members is as low as you can go without losing the money and if the Nats fall below the mark at this election they would be all but finished as a political force. In Opposition, the Liberals, who have long resented sharing the money with their country cousins, would pick up the entire funding allocation. In Government a weakened National Party would give Liberal leader Colin Barnett an excuse to reduce the party’s Cabinet representation … if the party’s numbers fell below five, it’s highly unlikely all three would retain their spot in a Barnett cabinet.

Adding to the volatility is the retirement of Liberal members in Dawesville and Moore and Nationals members in Stirling and Roe, and the disendorsement of a Liberal member in Vasse. Each party’s eagerness to fill the other’s vacancies has led to some spirited exchanges between prominent party figures. Wilson Tuckey has accused the Nationals of courting the Greens by giving them preferences ahead of various rural and religious minor parties, and it is widely believed that the Nationals secured Labor preferences over Liberal (although they normally get them anyway) by declining to field candidates in the Mining and Pastoral upper house region or any of its constituent lower house seats.

There are 12 seats in which both Liberal and the Nationals are fielding candidates, which are gathered here roughly descending in order of interest:

Greenough (Liberal 10.6%): The aforementioned Robert Taylor reckons this is the seat which "really has the Libs worried". The key to its wild card status is the One Nation vote from 2001 – 27.5 per cent on primary and 40.7 per cent on two-party preferred, the highest in the state on both counts. Nationals candidate Grant Woodhams is well known locally as an ABC Radio presenter and if he can draw enough from One Nation to get past the Labor candidate, he could well be in business. This will require a substantial improvement on 2001, when the Nationals polled 10.2 per cent compared with Labor’s 20.6 per cent, but recent history in similar seats suggests both Coalition parties will yield a greater dividend than Labor from the decline of One Nation. If Woodhams is successful he will become the first National/Country Party member for this seat since the 1943 election, when it was last won by Labor. It stayed Liberal after being won in 1945 by David Brand, who would go on to become Western Australia’s longest serving premier.

Vasse (Liberal 4.1%): This seat has been held by the Liberals since its creation in 1950, but current member Bernie Masters suffered a fright in 2001 when Nationals candidate Beryle Morgan came within 251 votes of overtaking Labor, whose preferences would have delivered her the seat. Masters subsequently lost Liberal preselection and will now attempt to hold it as an independent, while Morgan is running for the Nationals for the third election running. The prospect of Morgan gathering preferences from Labor, Family First and Bernie Masters would be a major concern for Troy Buswell, who won Liberal preselection at Masters’ expense. Perversely, Buswell would be hoping for an improvement in the Labor vote so that their candidate doesn’t go out before Morgan, who would then receive his preferences.

Moore (Liberal 11.6%): With long-term Liberal member Bill McNee retiring and One Nation’s 24.4 per cent vote from 2001 mostly up for grabs, it’s not hard to see why the Nationals rate themselves a chance here. Moore was Country Party territory until 1985, when sitting member Bert Crane defected to the Liberals. Crane held the seat for his new party at the 1986 election and in 1989 he passed it on to colleague Bill McNee. McNee outpolled National Party opponents 53.0 per cent to 28.8 per cent in 1993 and 36.5 per cent to 16.1 per cent in 2001. The Nationals’ candidate is Moora shire chief executive Peter Stubbs; the Liberals have nominated Dandaragan shire president Gary Snook.

Roe (Nationals 21.7%): The Liberals have high hopes for this seat due to the retirement of long-term Nationals member Ross Ainsworth and the strength of their own candidate, Dr Graham Jacobs, well known locally through his role as state president of the Rural Doctors Association. Jacobs very nearly won the seat for the Liberals at Ainsworth’s expense when it was (re-)created way back in 1989, with Labor preferences barely enabling Ainsworth to close a primary vote deficit of 42.2 per cent to 34.0 per cent. Ainsworth outpolled Liberal opponents 53.6 per cent to 27.6 per cent in 1993 and 37.2 per cent to 21.2 per cent in 2001. The seat was traditionally Country Party territory, but the Liberals held it from 1974 until its temporary abolition in 1983.

Albany (Labor 3.7%): The National Party very nearly won this seat the last time they contested it upon the retirement of long-term Liberal member Leo Watt in 1993. Their candidate narrowly failed to bump Labor into third place; had he done so, Labor’s preferences would have put him ahead of the eventual victor, future Court government minister Kevin Prince. It would be asking a lot for Nationals candidate Beverley Ford to overtake a Labor sitting member (that she might win by overtaking Liberal candidate Andrew Partington and extracting his preferences is unlikely, but still possible), but she has been campaigning with sufficient vigour to suggest that she rates herself a chance.

Stirling (Nationals 12.0%): With the retirement of member Monty House, the Liberals are hopeful of winning a seat that has been held by the National/Country Party since its creation in 1950. However, their campaign was interrupted by the withdrawal of candidate Cyril Rodoreda on health grounds just before the election was announced. His replacement, Ron Scott, faces Nationals candidate Terry Redman, who will do well out of preferences from Labor, the Greens and Family First. Independent candidate Vicki Brown could be a complicating factor; she used to be the Nationals’ state vice-president and was the party’s candidate against Wilson Tuckey in O’Connor at the 2001 election, but fell out with the party after a preselection dispute. The last three-cornered contest was in 1993 when the Nationals polled 52.2 per cent to the Liberals’ 21.1 per cent.

Capel (Liberal 5.1%): New electorate made up of parts of the old Collie and Vasse, where the Nationals were fairly strong, and Mitchell, where they were not. But with no incumbency factor, it’s hard to say how things will pan out after distribution of preferences. Nationals candidate Murray Scott is Capel shire president, which should be handy; Liberal candidate Steve Thomas is a local veterinarian.

Collie-Wellington (Labor 2.6%): Dominated by its coal industry, Collie was a good old-fashioned Labor seat until Hilda Turnbull surprised everybody by winning it for the Nationals in 1989. Turnbull held the seat until it was recovered for Labor by Mick Murray in 2001. With the redistribution, the seat has changed its name to reflect the absorption of a large part of the abolished Murray-Wellington, which John Bradshaw had long held for the Liberals without challenge from the National Party. Liberal candidate Craig Carbone has had unwelcome publicity relating to a drink driving record in the past week.

Merredin (Nationals 22.5%): As it was previously held by long-term Nationals leader Hendy Cowan, this seat had not been contested by the Liberals at a general election since 1986. The drought was broken at the by-election held on 24 November 2001 after Cowan’s resignation, when the Liberal candidate polled 34.8 per cent against 43.1 per cent for the National Party victor, Brendon Grylls. Interestingly, the Liberal Party have now endorsed the One Nation candidate from the by-election, Jamie Falls. The Liberals raised eyebrows during the by-election campaign when they refused to direct preferences to Labor ahead of Falls, citing the high regard in which he was held as a local businessman and Dalwallinu shire president. The announcement was discreetly made a day after the November 10 federal election.

Dawesville (Liberal 7.8%): Nationals candidate Vern Goff will get preferences from Family First as well as the Greens, but he has his work cut out for him in an area that has been represented by the Liberals since the party’s creation. Growing urbanisation would make life even harder for the Nationals, who did not contest either of the elections held since the seat’s creation in 1996. Goff is a Mandurah city councillor who switched allegiance from Liberal to the Nationals after losing Liberal preselection to Kim Hames, a Court government minister who lost his northern suburbs seat of Yokine at the 2001 election.

Murray (Labor 0.7%): The Nationals have rarely fielded candidates in this area and have polled poorly when they have. Their endorsement of a candidate would have been made with a view to boosting their vote in the upper house region of South West, where they lost a seat in 2001.

Geraldton (Labor 2.7%): Never strong turf for the National Party, this would be an effort to shore up their upper house vote for Agricultural, where they also lost a member in 2001.

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.