The Western Australian Electoral Commission has completed its weekend preference distributions from seats in doubt, providing Labor with a small degree of consolation through wins in Albany (a heroic effort by sitting member Peter Watson, who picked up a 2.6 per cent swing to retain his notionally Liberal seat) and Kwinana (believed last week to have fallen to independent Carol Adams). That puts the final result at Labor 28, Liberal 24, and Nationals four, with three independents: Liz Constable (Churchlands), Janet Woollard (Alfred Cove) and John Bowler (Kalgoorlie). All are committed to support the new government in one way or another, with Constable promised a position in cabinet and Bowler agreeing to act in concert with the Nationals.
Before I launch into FIGJAM mode, it behoves me to own up to my various errors over the past six weeks. As is always the case when I ambitiously attempt to pick the result of every seat, I made quite a few wrong calls: I did not pick the Liberal wins in Jandakot, Southern River, Mount Lawley, Wanneroo and Morley, and I wrongly believed Labor would lose Albany, Collie-Preston and North West. In a nutshell, I underestimated the anti-Labor swing in Perth and overestimated it elsewhere. I was embarrassingly dismissive of what proved to be a spot-on Westpoll survey from Morley a week before the election, describing the ultimately victorious Ian Britza as the “stop-gap Liberal candidate”. The Nationals’ haul of five or even six upper house seats also came out of left field, defying my prediction that Christian parties would hold the balance of power. And of course, I hesitatingly predicted Labor would win the election with a one-seat majority: a pretty good call with regard to seat relativities, but wrong with respect to the direction of the result.
With that out the way, here are some highlights of my observations over the past six weeks.
Eleven seats and 5 per cent is certainly a big hurdle, but I don’t think it’s undoable. Labor should rue the missed opportunity of calling the election last week.
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.
Of course, the polling leak and accompanying talk of internal panic might just be a ruse to boost Labor’s winning margin rather than avert defeat. On the other hand, the shift to the Liberals recorded in last weekend’s polls was entirely consistent with the anti-Troy Buswell effect that was well understood to be at work in the preceding surveys. We have evidence now that is not merely anecdotal that the perception of arrogance is starting to bite. And those generous odds from Centrebet are still there for the taking.
I’ll eat my hat if the Nationals back a Labor government.
Such conclusions required no great insight, based as they were (excluding the last one) on the state’s voting record, the well-understood workings of the political cycle and polling which showed Labor’s mid-year lead was built entirely on the unpopularity of Troy Buswell. These considerations nonetheless failed to penetrate the judgement of the ace political guns at The West Australian, who repeatedly insisted that Labor was home and hosed.
The Labor hierarchy knew better of course, and on two occasions presented the media with accurate internal polling which the paper’s too-clever-by-half commentators disdainfully dismissed out of hand. When the first such announcement was made in the second week of the campaign, The West’s report gave equal prominence to the views of optimistic “Labor insiders”, while Robert Taylor argued in his comment piece that Labor was cynically creating a misleading impression by providing selective data.
The second announcement came early in the final week when Labor’s scare campaigns over uranium mining and GM crops were reaching a hysterical pitch, collectively sending a message that was surely impossible to miss. However, Taylor responded with a piece which should sound eerily familiar to those old enough to remember last year’s federal election campaign:
While the nightly tracking poll on Monday recorded an alarming drop to 45 per cent for the ALP from a high of 52 per cent on a two-party preferred basis last Thursday — the same night the last Westpoll gave Labor a 54 per cent vote — other key indicators remained strong for the Government. Foremost among them were the 55 per cent of people who believed the Liberal Party was not ready to govern. It’s hard to see those people walking into the booth on Saturday and voting for a party they don’t believe can be in government. There’s no doubt that Labor heavies are worried by the sudden drop in support. But there’s also no doubt they believe the election is still there to be won and that the raw primary vote figure can recover just as quickly as it dropped. Even on the figures released yesterday, Labor only has to improve between 2 and 3 per cent by polling day and it wins. That’s because after the one vote, one value redistribution, on paper at least, Labor enjoys a 17-seat majority … But the poll produced by Labor yesterday wasn’t too much different from the way things were running in the last week of the 2005 election campaign when Geoff Gallop came from behind just a week out to record a comfortable victory. And it showed that the new train line to Ellenbrook and the blatant scare campaign on uranium were working, though it also confirmed that when the Liberals finally got on message at the weekend and hit the electorate with advertisements about Labor’s failed promises, people started to listen. But again, only 24 per cent of those polled said they could remember something that appealed to them about a Barnett message while 38 per cent said they could remember and liked something the Premier had said.
Note the writer’s determination to overlook the headline figure staring him in the face; his focus on whichever minor indicators happened to fit with his preconceptions; and most of all, his mystical faith in a “narrowing” that would swing the result the way of his prediction. Taylor’s conviction that Labor would enjoy a late 2 to 3 per cent swing was built largely on the fact that that’s what happened in 2005, which apparently had nothing at all to do with Colin Barnett’s last-minute costings debacle.
As notable as the actual content of the article was its placement on page seven. The next day, when Labor predictably declined to assemble the state’s media for a second successive poll leak announcement, the paper splashed a non-story across the front page of its first edition headlined: “Speculation ALP back on track as new polling figures withheld”. It soon became clear that Labor’s polling showed nothing of the kind. Meanwhile, Carpenter continued to signal his party’s very real desperation by repeating the same phrase 14 times in a single doorstop interview.
Such failings wouldn’t be worth remarking upon if all they amounted to was a wrong guess about an election result (there but for the grace of God go I). The problem was that the paper felt the certainty of Labor victory justified it in applying the blow-torch to the government day after day while all but ignoring the Liberals. One example was the feeding frenzy which followed Alan Carpenter’s refusal to confirm Michelle Roberts’ position in cabinet after the election. This prompted an overheated front-page lead headlined “I dare Premier to dump me: Roberts” (as former Liberal leader Matt Birney noted: “She never said any such thing”) plus a follow-up the next day, as well as inspiring the extraordinary lapse of editorial judgement shown to the right. By contrast, Colin Barnett’s refusal a week earlier to confirm Shadow Treasurer Troy Buswell’s tenure didn’t rate a single mention. It fell to other media to pressure Barnett into making what The West would have loudly trumpeted as a “backflip” if the shoe had been on the other foot.
Don’t take my word for it though: Matt Birney offered many pertinent observations about the paper’s story selection while appearing on 6PR’s election night panel, having earlier accused it of “aiding and abetting” his own side of politics throughout the campaign. For my part, I’ve pocketed a tidy sum from a bet laid on the Liberals at the peak of the market. I reckon I deserve it.
UPDATE (16/9/08): Eric Ripper elected new Labor leader following the withdrawal of the popular favourite Alannah MacTiernan. Remarkably, the deputy position has gone to newly elected Kwinana MP Roger Cook, who until a few days ago looked like he had lost the seat to an independent.