Below are two pieces on the Western Australian election which I wrote for Crikey earlier in the campaign. A third piece on the Liberals’ paucity of female candidates, published yesterday, remains subscriber only.
The first is from Friday, August 8, the day after the election was called:
Yesterday’s announcement of a snap election for September 6 was the second bombshell to hit WA politics this week, following Troy Buswell’s surprise resignation as Liberal leader on Monday. Uncharitable observers are making comparison to the events of 3 February 1983, when Malcolm Fraser sprang an opportunistic double dissolution on federal Labor in the failed expectation of locking the party in behind Bill Hayden. The distinction of course is that Alan Carpenter was aware the opportunity to face the disastrous Troy Buswell had already been lost three days earlier.
As always when an early election is announced, few are buying the official explanation that a poll is needed to “end the cynicism” and “clear the air”, particularly in light of Labor policy supporting fixed four-year terms. Opportunism being the name of the game, Carpenter would plainly have done better to have gone last week, with a recent poll suggesting Buswell was weighing the Liberal vote down by as much as 6 per cent. Even so, there remains an overwhelming perception that Labor is in the box seat. Centrebet is offering a mere $1.18 for a Labor victory, against $4.25 for the Liberals.
The precedents for pre-election leadership changes have certainly not been promising, at least since Bob Hawke’s time: Robert Doyle in Victoria, Kerry Chikarovski in New South Wales and Bob Cheek in Tasmania all led state Liberal parties into the electoral mincer less than a year after taking the reins. The WA Liberals are further encumbered by the fact that Colin Barnett is their fourth leader this term, and they must also overcome new electoral arrangements that will require a notional gain of nine seats in a chamber of 59 to form even a minority government.
For all that, the Liberals have more going for them than interstate observers might assume. WA has hardly been a happy hunting ground for Labor in recent years: Geoff Gallop’s unspectacular re-election in 2005 was the only time the party’s primary vote has topped 40 per cent since 1989, a period covering seven federal and four state elections. Published polling during the Buswell period was not as bad for the Liberals as might have been expected, mostly putting Labor’s two-party lead at around 53-47. Buswell’s departure has also lanced a number of boils, reconciling vocal dissidents including former front-benchers Rob Johnson and Graham Jacobs.
Underdogs they might remain, but discerning punters should find those odds from Centrebet more than a little tempting.
The second is from last Wednesday. My assertion that the 2001 result was unexpected was contested in comments by Bernie Masters, who at the time was the Liberal member for Vasse. I personally was living in Melbourne, so Masters might well be thought a better judge.
Hardly an analysis of Labor’s surprise close shave in the Northern Territory has failed to make note of the other campaign in progress in Western Australia. Certainly the two elections have much in common: both involve Labor governments that came to power unexpectedly in 2001, seeking third terms after a mid-term leadership change. However, the main cause of excitement has been that both Alan Carpenter and Paul Henderson rushed to the polls ahead of schedule, acting with all the cynicism that early elections invariably entail.
Henderson’s decision to go 11 months early was made on the pretext that an environment of “certainty” was needed to assist the Territory’s bid for the Inpex gas plant, which failed to ring true given the Opposition’s equal enthusiasm for the project. How much this had to do with the result is hard to say. The conventional wisdom has been that bad publicity attending early election announcements is usually washed away by the tide of the campaign, leaving more pragmatic concerns to guide voters’ judgements on polling day.
Certainly there are alternative explanations for the Northern Territory election, not least that it was a correction after an extraordinary result in 2005 that had no parallel in Western Australia. No party should ever feel pleased with a swing of over 8 per cent, but Northern Territory Labor still recorded its second best ever result in primary vote terms and equal second in terms of seats. There is also the fact that the party had effectively knifed the leader who delivered them the 2005 landslide, for reasons that would have seemed obscure to those without their noses to the political grindstone.
In one sense the early election in WA is a less extreme circumstance in that Carpenter has gone only five months ahead of time, after laying the groundwork with talk of a “dysfunctional” parliament that had most bracing for a poll in October. However, of more significance than the timing was the political context: Carpenter called the election on Thursday just one day after Colin Barnett returned to the Liberal leadership, clearly having fast-tracked the existing timetable to catch his opponent off balance.
The historical record provides some support for the idea that early elections comes with risks attached. John Howard’s near-defeat in October 1998 came five months ahead of time, as did Bob Hawke’s disappointing performance in December 1984 (the 1983 double dissolution meant a half-Senate election had to be held no later than mid-1985). Jeff Kennett went six months early with both his bids for re-election, with respectively unremarkable and disastrous results. Those with longer memories might recall Labor’s unexpected defeat in South Australia in 1979, when Des Corcoran surprised his own party by going a full year early. On the other hand, Peter Beattie performed strongly in 2006 when he like Carpenter opted for a September poll that wasn’t due until February.
If the effect varies according to circumstance, Carpenter’s early poll might still be said to have a lot going for it. While the Liberals have been busy retooling their advertising campaign around a new leader, Carpenter has been able to trumpet his government’s achievements to mass television audiences captured by the Olympics. There is also talk from political insiders of empty Liberal Party coffers, which might have been filled if Barnett had been given more time to restore the party’s electoral credibility.