With a little over four weeks to go, my guide to Western Australia’s March 9 state election, reviewing each of the state’s 59 lower house electorates, is open for business. Considerably more to follow …
UPDATE: And here’s the “considerably more” I was just talking about:
Labor goes into the election with 26 seats out of a parliament of 30, against 24 for the Liberals and five for the Nationals, with four independents. The numbers after the 2008 state election were Labor 28, Liberal 24 and Nationals four, with three independents. Since then, Labor has lost a further two seats, adding an extra seat each to the ranks of the Nationals (with North West MP Vince Catania’s defection to the Nationals in July 2009) and independents (Adele Carles having won the April 2009 by-election for the Greens, then parting company with the party the following year). It thus needs to find four new seats if it is put together a parliamentary majority after the election.
Two suggest themselves as low-hanging fruit: Fremantle, which is expected to revert to type after Carles’s heavily publicised travails, and Morley, where Labor was hindered in 2008 by the former Labor member’s decision to run as an independent and direct preferences to the Liberals. Morley has also been strengthened for Labor by redistribution, while the opposite has happened in Catania’s seat of North West (now re-named North West Central), making his decision to switch sides all the more opportune.
Seat-level factors are likely to cause Labor further difficulties holding its ground outside Perth. Sitting members are retiring in the state’s northernmost electorates of Pilbara and Kimberley, which are under determined challenge from the Nationals especially Pilbara, which will be contested by party leader Brendon Grylls in an audacious hands-on bid to expand the party’s base. Labor also has an anomalous hold on the south coast regional city seat of Albany, which voted 67-33 against them at the federal election. Their 89-vote victory at the 2008 state election was aided by support for the then Premier, the locally born and bred Alan Carpenter. Taking all that into account, it can reasonably be surmised that Labor will need at least four Liberal-held seats in the metropolitan area if it is to be in serious contention.
Labor appears to be backing itself in the face of this formidable challenge, even if nobody else is (Sportsbet is currently offering $10 on a Labor win). Opposition Leader Mark McGowan has seized the early campaign agenda by promising four major rail projects will be built by 2019, as part of a scheme it collectively brands as MetroNet. This will cost $3.8 billion by Labor’s reckoning, and $6.4 billion by the Treasurer’s. While the promised benefits in terms of congestion are city-wide, the policy will be particularly handy for Labor in the Liberal-held marginals of Morley, Swan Hills, Jandakot, Riverton and Southern River, while also shoring up its own precarious seats of Balcatta, Forrestfield and West Swan.
Whatever its merits as policy and there are doubts relating to cost, viability, planning and capacity to deliver on schedule it’s impressively cogent as a political gambit. With Perth famously attracting 1000 new residents from interstate and overseas every week, congestion on the city’s roads is a sleeper issue that appears to have awoken just in time for the election. Patterson Market Research, which conducts the Westpoll series for The West Australian, last month found that Perth respondents rated transport/congestion the election’s single most important issue, the statewide response rate of 21% comparing with just 6% when the same question was posed in July.
As election promises go, a Labor plan to deal with the problem through a massive program of rail works is likely to ring truer in the public mind than most. Labor’s promotional material for MetroNet boasts of 110km of rail built under WA Labor, compared with 7.5km of rail built under the Liberal Party (still under construction). Each of the last two Labor governments bequeated suburban rail lines built entirely during their time in office: the Joondalup line in the north, built between 1989 and 1992 under the Dowding-Lawrence government, and the Mandurah line in the south, built between 2004 and 2007 under Geoff Gallop and Alan Carpenter. The Mandurah line was contentious in conception and dogged along the way by industrial disputation and cost blowouts, but it has proved an outstanding success, with patronage of the rail system as a whole almost doubling since it opened. As the two lines straddle the Mitchell and Kwinana freeways which form the unavoidable backbone of Perth’s road network, each stands as a highly visible monument to Labor’s otherwise troubled periods in office.
The rail promises also dovetail neatly with the negative dimension of Labor’s campaign strategy, which seeks to exploit Barnett’s imperious image and western suburban detachment from daily life in Perth’s cheaper seats. One of the showpieces of Barnett’s agenda for the next term is a grand plan to redevelop the Swan River foreshore, which will tellingly have the effect of constricting one of the city’s main road thoroughfares. Another is the construction of a new football stadium at Burswood east of Perth to replace the decrepit Subiaco Oval (a.k.a. Patersons Stadium). While a vote-winning proposition in its own right, it is of narrative value to an opposition that says it can save money by pursuing an alternative proposal for a new stadium in Subiaco. In this context, Barnett seemed to misread the breeze last week when he opened the Liberal campaign with a $70 million plan to redevelop and beautify Perth’s most popular beaches.
For all that, there are good reasons why the odds being offered on Labor are as long as they are. Labor is yet to say how its rail promises will be funded, and whatever it comes up with either in terms of spending cuts or revenue raising will leave it exposed to a counter-attack. Pursuing a city-centric public transport strategy might also cost it seats it can’t afford to lose in the country, where the Nationals remain rampant after using their balance-of-power position to secure the extravagant Royalties for Regions program. In staking its campaign strategy on an early seizure of the initiative with its rail announcements, Labor has given the Liberal Party a full month to tactically respond. It did so yesterday by throwing the switch to law-and-order, with a promise to introduce mandatory sentencing for perpetrators of violent home invasions.
Labor will also be grappling with first-term sitting Liberal members in the key marginal seats who have had over four years to cultivate their personal votes, and with a Premier who projects a strong image of competence and reliability, whatever might be said against him. It will be a big task to persuade voters to dump him after a single term in favour of Mark McGowan, with whom the electorate at large still has little familiarity.