Peter Debnam has been offered a glimmer of hope by today’s Newspoll, which finds a considerable narrowing in Labor’s primary vote. Labor support is down from 45 per cent to 42 per cent, while the Coalition is up from 33 per cent to 37 per cent; on two-party preferred, the gap has closed from 59-41 to 56-44. Unfortunately, Debnam’s early morning equilibrium will be upset when his attention turns to the local papers, which both lead their election coverage with reports on the abnormally low profile Debnam has assumed in the Liberals’ election material. The Sydney Morning Herald rates this as "a sign that the Liberals’ poor showing in the polls is starting to give campaign organisers the jitters", while the Daily Telegraph calls it "a bizarre break with tradition", "confirming that poor polling and Labor’s negative campaign have all but destroyed his chances of becoming premier".
Another unorthodox tactic has been the pitch by Debnam that voters should at least "send Labor a message" at the election, a tacit admission that he does not expect to win. Given my Perth-centric perspective on things, such talk sent my mind scurrying back to Labor’s two defeats in the Western Australian elections of 1993 and 1996. Two days before the former election, then-Premier Carmen Lawrence told the West Australian: "I am smart enough to know I have done everything I could possibly have done. I don’t feel as if victory rides on my shoulders. People do like me but that’s not going to be enough to change their votes". Sure enough, Labor’s tumultous 10 years in power come to an end the following Saturday, though in less bruising terms than might have been expected under the circumstances.
Labor’s surrender in 1996 was even more explicit. The party had lost its main electoral asset with Lawrence’s entry into federal politics in 1994, and subsequently went through two leaders in quick succession. Three days out from the poll, leader Geoff Gallop made a deliberate bid for the sympathy vote when he told reporters: "Information I have seen in the polls throughout this campaign indicates the Court Government will be returned comfortably on Saturday". According to that day’s West Australian, "Labor sources said the party’s final television advertisement urging voters not to give the Court Government a blank cheque broke with the strategy laid out at the start of the campaign. The new tactic was devised by (state party secretary Mark) Nolan and Perth MHR Stephen Smith". Court meanwhile was making the eerily familiar claim that "our polling shows that in our marginal seats it is a 50-50 situation".
Opinion on the effectiveness of Gallop’s pre-emptive concession was dramatically divided. It was believed to have gone down badly in traditional Labor mining areas, and was widely blamed for unexpectedly poor performances in the north-western seats of Burrup and Ningaloo. Defeated Ningaloo MP Kevin Leahy complained that the party hierarchy had "destroyed us with the decision to say they did not think they could win", which had "poleaxed the campaign team". Fred Riebeling, who narrowly held on in Burrup (and is now member for the successor seat of North-West Coastal), thought it a "stupid act" that "cost me dearly": "I had half my people working in the booths ring me asking why should they bother turning up".
However, it appeared to be a different story in the metropolitan area, where a number of feared defeats failed to materialise. Most significantly, star candidate Alan Carpenter defied concerns that he might fail to carry his seat of Willagee, where he picked up a 6.5 per cent swing. Miserable as Labor’s statewide primary vote of 35.8 per cent might have been, it was still higher than the support recorded in four previous Newspoll surveys, including a final week poll that had their vote at 33 per cent. Two years on, Anne Burns of the West Australian was able to report that the move was "credited in Labor folklore with minimising the carnage". Another two years, and Gallop had led Labor back to power with the first of his two election victories. Few would consider Peter Debnam likely to be as lucky.