Who says what

Those who get exasperated at the deluge of opinion polling that normally accompanies election periods should be enjoying the Western Australian campaign, which has gone an astonishing 10 days without a single published poll. The drought is broken today with the Sunday Times’ second Market Equity survey for the campaign. Although its small sample of 420 is not much to go on, the results are consistent with the Poll Bludger’s expectations in that Labor leads 41.1 per cent to 38.4 per cent on the primary vote with a rough two-party split of 51-49. The paper also features what to my knowledge is the only attempt to predict individual seat outcomes other than my own, courtesy of Colleen Egan and Grahame Armstrong. The layout of the web article is hard to follow, and the contributors are indecisive in some cases, but our respective assessments basically stack up as follows:

Egan Armstrong Bludger
Alfred Cove Independent retain LIBERAL GAIN Independent retain
Churchlands Independent retain Independent retain Independent retain
Collie-Wellington Labor retain Labor retain Labor retain
Geraldton Labor retain Labor retain Labor retain
Girrawheen Labor retain Labor retain Labor retain
Joondalup LIBERAL GAIN LIBERAL GAIN Labor retain
Kalgoorlie Liberal retain Liberal retain Liberal retain
Kimberley Labor retain Labor retain Labor retain
Kingsley LABOR GAIN Liberal retain Liberal retain
Mindarie Labor retain Labor retain Labor retain
Riverton LIBERAL GAIN Labor retain Labor retain
Serp.-Jarrah. Liberal retain Liberal retain Liberal retain
Swan Hills LIBERAL GAIN Labor retain Labor retain
Wanneroo LIBERAL GAIN Labor retain Labor retain
Yokine Labor retain Labor retain Labor retain

The Sunday Times article neglects to spell out for its readers what these predictions ultimately amount to, so the Poll Bludger can exclusively reveal that Armstrong is predicting a one-seat Labor majority, an outcome also allowed for by Egan who nevertheless inclines slightly towards a Coalition minority government. Peter Brent at Mumble says Labor by 11 seats; I reckon five.

UPDATE (20/2/05): The above statement about the Sunday Times article was based on the online version. The hard copy spelled out very clearly their respective predictions – ALP 29, LNP 27, IND 1 for Armstrong, LNP 28, ALP 27, IND 2 for Egan. This has enabled me to infer their predictions where only ambivalent comments were included in the article, so the "uncommitted" entries are now filled in.

Bullet bitten

After four weeks of indecision, the Poll Bludger has finally accepted that the picture is not about to suddenly get any clearer and that there is no merit in further delaying seat-by-seat predictions for the Western Australian election guide. I am tipping the Liberals to gain Albany and Bunbury from Labor and Roe from the Nationals, and to recover South Perth from retiring independent Phillip Pendal; and for Labor to recover Central Kimberley-Pilbara from retiring independent Larry Graham. That means 31 seats for Labor, 20 for the Liberals, four for the Nationals, two conservative independents and four more glorious years for Geoff Gallop’s Labor government.

The picture is far from clear, but there does seem to be a vague consensus among those most likely to know that the Coalition will fall short. The Poll Bludger understands that the Liberals consider Swan Hills a 50-50 proposition, which is bad news for them as it is a seat they definitely need to win. Labor won it in 2001 after trailing by 6.0 per cent on the primary vote thanks to preferences from One Nation voters, who were assumed to be set to return to the Liberals this time around. Labor’s competitiveness here suggests they will hold all their other metropolitan marginals, where they did not depend on preferences. Each has its own local variables in play – Mindarie is a new seat in which Labor will not enjoy the benefit of a sitting member, and local roads issues are working against them in Joondalup and Riverton. The outer northern suburbs is emerging as the key metropolitan battleground – home to Mindarie, Joondalup and Labor’s other suburban marginal, Wanneroo, as well as the Liberal seat of Kingsley where long-term member Cheryl Edwardes will take her personal vote into retirement (unless it transfers to her husband Colin, who is the Liberal candidate).

Outside Perth are a number of seats which might have been rated as Liberal gains if the campaign had not been dominated by the canal, which has little to offer voters in Geraldton, Murray, Collie-Wellington, North West Coastal and Kimberley. However, it remains conventional wisdom that the Liberals are likely to recover Albany and Bunbury. Bunbury is being put down to demographic change and the popularity of the Liberal candidate, local mayor John Castrilli; in Albany, the Coalition was damaged in 2001 by the mortgage broking scandal, which affected many locals and embroiled the defeated Liberal member, whereas Labor must now contend with the Devaugh collapse.

I am calculating that the National Party has damaged itself by cutting a preference deal with the Greens, in much the same way as the Democrats did through the deal with Family First at the federal election. Three seats that might have been called as gains from the Liberals – Greenough, Vasse and Moore – will instead stay in the blue column, and I have been fortified in my existing conviction that the Liberals will win Roe with the retirement of Nationals member Ross Ainsworth. The Greens by contrast have done splendidly out of the deal, which makes life easier for Paul Llewellyn in South West and puts Dee Margetts right back into contention in Agricultural.

It must be emphasised here that I have never been less confident in tipping an election outcome. Writing in The West Australian on February 12, amateur psephological website enthusiast Paul Murray hit the nail on the head when he wished "good luck to any commentator willing to pick the result with the wild card of Colin’s Canal", which had blurred "the previously evident points of comparison between Geoff Gallop and Colin Barnett". The Coalition, thought to be falling short in the suburbs but headed for big gains in the regions, has chosen to place all its bets on the sort of city-centric exercise that brought Jeff Kennett to grief; while Labor, damned for its profligacy and tax-raising, trails $730 million to $2021.2 million in the "spend-o-meter" tabulated last week by noted government mouthpiece the Sunday Times. The Poll Bludger accordingly reserves his right to make wholesale changes to his forecast between now and next Saturday.

Bells and whistles

Many thanks to reader Graham Allen who has kindly gone to the effort of producing Java applet Legislative Council election calculators, modelled on those he developed for his own amusement at the Senate election. These are now available for public enlightenment on the Poll Bludger’s upper house election page. You may need to download a Java plugin to get them to work – you can get this here. The calculators allow you to enter voting figures for each of the grouped tickets in the relevant region, and then determine the flow of preferences based on the tickets lodged by each group and thus to project the final outcome. There are a small number of complications that are smoothed over here. Voters of course have the option of choosing their own preferences by numbering every square rather than accepting the party ticket through the above-the-line option, although less than 5 per cent of voters exercise it and they rarely if ever determine the result. Of even less significance is the fact that Allen’s model ignores non-major party candidates other than those at the top of the ticket, rather than accommodate the meaninglessly complex tickets that some parties submit for whatever reason.

With the help of these calculators, the Poll Bludger has been able to make more educated guesswork than that offered earlier. The following assessments have been added to the summaries for each region:

Agricultural: The first four seats are very likely to go two Liberal, one Nationals and one Labor, but the final seat is an absolute lottery between Liberal, the Nationals, Labor, the Greens, Family First and even the Christian Democratic Party. If the Coalition falls short the Nationals’ surplus will be a handy dividend for the Greens, who will also get preferences from Liberals for Forests. If that puts them ahead of Labor, they will gather their surplus in turn and perhaps win the seat. If it doesn’t, Labor could win with Greens preferences. Family First or the CDP could snowball into contention through preferences from One Nation, New Country, the Citizens Electoral Council and each other. Frank Hough?s hopes of re-election have been dashed by One Nation’s decision to put his New Country party last, while One Nation themselves would have needed major party preferences to be a chance and are predictably not getting them. Given the high quota required in five-seat regions, the smart money is probably on a Coalition candidate winning the final seat.

East Metropolitan: The Greens’ vote will probably need to increase to at least 8 per cent from their 6.4 per cent in 2001 if they are to win the fifth seat at the expense of Louise Pratt. Any improvement in the Labor vote of 44.2 per cent will probably put the seat beyond the their reach.

Mining and Pastoral: By the Poll Bludger’s estimation, a result of three Labor and two Liberal is all but certain. John Fischer and his high-profile running mate Graeme Campbell have done very badly on preferences, scoring last or near-last place from the Greens, the Democrats and their old friends One Nation. To win they would need to almost match One Nation’s 2001 vote of 13.9 per cent. The Greens will not have Tom Helm feeding them preferences this time, and have not been put ahead of the major parties by One Nation as they were in 2001. This gives Robin Chapple approximately no chance whatsoever. The Liberals? already high hopes of recovering a second seat have been boosted by One Nation’s decision to put them near the top of the pile.

North Metropolitan: By far the most likely result here is a status quo result of three each for Labor and Liberal and one for the Greens. Most of the plausible alternative scenarios involve a drop in the Greens vote of 9.7 per cent in 2001 to 8 per cent or below, which would have to be considered unlikely. If it does happen, their seat could fall to the Liberals or Family First. In the even more unlikely event that the collective major party vote does not substantially improve, there’s a chance that Family First could win a seat at the expense of Labor rather than the Greens.

South Metropolitan: Unless the Greens lose ground from the 9.0 per cent they recorded in 2001, the result here is certain to be two Labor, two Liberal and one Greens. For Labor to win a third seat at the Greens’ expense would also require an improvement on their 43.0 per cent vote from 2001 or an unforeseen resilience in support for One Nation, who have put the Greens last.

South West: In the likely event of a subsidence of the large non-major party vote from 2001, the result here will be three Liberal, one Nationals, two Labor and one Greens. Most alternative scenarios involve the Nationals missing out. If Labor perform particularly strongly they might win a third seat; if voters do not return to the major parties to the expected extent, the outcome is anyone’s guess. New Country and One Nation have ruled each other out through mutually hostile preferences, but their vote could allow micro-parties Public Hospital Support Group and Liberals for Forests to snowball into contention if they can manage at or near 2 per cent.

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.

New and improved

The Poll Bludger had hoped to re-launch his long-neglected Western Australian lower house election guide complete with predictions of the outcome in each seat, but still does not feel brave enough to take the plunge. The page has accordingly been reupholstered with corrections, full candidate lists and campaign updates, but the crystal ball will remain on ice for at least a few more days. Most of the campaign updates derive from earlier blog coverage, but the following qualify as new material:

Ballajura (Labor 4.8%): One of the great mysteries of the campaign has been the Liberal Party’s apparently blasé attitude towards this classic marginal seat. Their candidate, endorsed a week before the election was announced, is 24-year-old David Maxwell, touted as a manager in the retail industry who did a year as an articled clerk with a Perth law firm. No doubt he is a fine young man with a bright future, but he lacks the credentials and experience normally expected from a candidate taking on an established member in an important marginal seat.

Collie-Wellington (Labor 2.6%): As in other regional electorates, Labor has been arguing that the Coalition’s canal commitment raises doubts over its ability to deliver on local campaign promises, while the Liberals have been suggesting that Labor’s preference deal with the Greens would have included an agreement to scotch a new coal-fired power station for the area. On February 13, the Sunday Times reported it had been leaked details of Liberal candidate Craig Carbone’s drink driving record, saying it had been told four convictions were recorded against him. Carbone admitted to having a conviction and said he would complain about the leak to the police commissioner.

Darling Range (Liberal 0.6%): John Day’s support for abortion reform legislation in 1999 again came back to haunt him when Family First announced it would direct preferences against him. Day earlier required state council intervention to overturn a preselection defeat at the hands of pro-lifer Frank Lindsey. Also affected is fellow Court government minister Kim Hames, now contesting the fairly safe seat of Dawesville after losing Yokine in 2001.

Kalgoorlie (Liberal 1.0%): The field of candidates includes trans-sexual Hay Street brothel owner Leigh Varis-Beswick, who was on Kalgoorlie-Boulder City Council from 1999 to 2003. Varis-Beswick is evidently headed for an easy victory, because a vox pop in Kalgoorlie Miner on February 8 had three out of four respondents saying they would vote for her. Labor’s promise that any future one-vote one-value reforms would not affect the Mining and Pastoral upper house region suggests they believe they are in the hunt, as this is the region’s only truly marginal seat.

Murray (Labor 0.7%): Paul Murray reported in his column in The West Australian on February 12 that Murray was "the new litmus test seat", now that it appears that Labor may hang on to power despite being headed for defeat in Bunbury.

South Perth (Independent 14.1%): Jim Grayden, son of local legend Bill Grayden, is running as an independent in a seat that the Liberals appear certain to recover with the retirement of independent member Phillip Pendal. Grayden is one of many to have registered displeasure at the Liberal Party’s preselection process in the seat.

Southern River (Labor 10.4%): After investigating numerous other avenues for more attractive seats, former Liberal MP Monica Holmes will again contest the seat she lost in 2001 and which has since been rendered unwinnable by the redistribution.

Good things come to those who weight

To outsiders, Western Australia’s system of rural vote weighting for the lower house seems an absurd and slightly offensive anachronism. Some argue that the very concept is an affront to democracy, enshrining the principle that politicians represent land rather than people; others (the Poll Bludger among them) accept the defence that large electorates place onerous demands on regional members, but can’t understand why such a system needs to prevail in both houses. In fairness, it is not hard to see why Western Australia has been the slowest of any state in letting go of this relic of the the pre-democratic era. There are few subnational governments anywhere in the world covering so vast an area, and the population is far more centralised than that of its closest Australian rival, Queensland. But a relic of the pre-democratic era it remains, locked firmly into place by the power it confers upon its beneficiaries.

Arguments to the contrary might not cut much ice in the eastern states but they find a very receptive audience in regional Western Australia, which views Perth with the same hostility that Perth views Canberra. Labor might have spent more political capital than was available to it trying to get one-vote one-value legislation enacted through parliamentary subterfuges and legal challenges, which partly explains why regional Labor marginals like Bunbury and Albany are reckoned to be gone for all money. So it is hard to know what to conclude from Geoff Gallop’s announcement yesterday that Labor was abandoning the cause, except that it is likely to underscore his image of indecisiveness. Specifically, Labor is now offering a self-serving compromise in which weighting will be maintained only in the vast Mining and Pastoral region, where all five seats have traditionally been held by Labor. Only the conservative Agricultural and South West regions will have their representation cut.

If Gallop is cutting his losses on the basis that the election is likely to leave Labor in a weaker position in the upper house, he would have been better off going the whole hog and endorsing the status quo. The Agricultural and South West regions include a slew of Labor marginals including Bunbury (0.2 per cent), Murray (0.7 per cent), Collie-Wellington (2.6 per cent), Geraldton (2.7 per cent) and Albany (3.7 per cent), whereas most seats in Mining and Pastoral are ones they are going to win anyway (Kimberley, Central Kimberley-Pilbara and Murchison-Eyre, perhaps also North West Coastal). The exception is Kalgoorlie, which has been surprisingly little discussed given that Labor held it from 1923 until 2001, when One Nation preferences sent it the other way by a margin of just 1.0 per cent. It could be that everyone is blinded by the rising star of Matt Birney, who has ascended swiftly to the important shadow portfolio of police and is widely spoken of as a successor to Colin Barnett. But voters are not always so sentimental and Kalgoorlie is the one seat where Labor will benefit if One Nation voters revert to old habits, as is expected elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Coalition’s has promised to constitutionally entrench the existing system so that any one-vote one-value proposal will first have to be passed at a referendum.

What "what it all means" means

Crikey psephologist Charles Richardson has written in to say he essentially agrees with my assessment of the Legislative Council; his own in-depth reading of the tea leaves will be featured in Crikey tomorrow. Once again, that assessment is that the Coalition will win 17 seats, as will Labor and the Greens combined. This differs from the current state of affairs in that the Coalition will recover all three states currently held by ex-One Nation independents as well as one from the Greens. In terms of electoral reform that will put Labor and the Greens two rather than one short of the floor majority required to pass one-vote one-value legislation, assuming the Greens keep refusing to back an amendment to allow the President a deliberative rather than casting vote.

The big question for election night is whether Labor or the Greens can defy the odds to win two extra seats, but the only alternative likely scenario in their favour is a 3-2 rather than 4-1 split in Agricultural. Reader Graham Allen has kindly set to work amending the Java applet Senate election calculators he developed during the federal campaign to accommodate the WA upper house, which will shortly be available through this site. One of the three he has so far sent through is for Agricultural, and it is not hard to plug in plausible scenarios where the fifth seat falls to either Labor or the Greens, providing the Labor vote can improve to at least 25.0 per cent from 20.2 per cent in 2001. It also appears that Family First might win a seat here at the Coalition’s expense if everything lands in the right place. The calculator for South West is even more intriguing – apparently Liberals for Forests or the Public Hospital Support Group stand a chance of getting elected ahead of a fourth Coalition candidate from as little as 1.5 per cent of the vote, providing the non-major party vote holds up quite a lot better than it did at the federal election. If this happens, it is at least possible that a re-elected Labor government might be able to cut a deal with the newcomer to get electoral reform through.

UPDATE: Thanks to reader Martin Gordon for pointing out a miscalculation in the original version of this post, which had Labor and the Greens likely to fall one rather than two seats short of the numbers required to pass one-vote one-value legislation.

Canal knowledge

From Kununurra in the Kimberley to Eucla on the Great Australian Bight, an iron curtain has descended across the Australian information superhighway. Perth’s monopoly daily newspaper, The West Australian, provides non-subscribers with a pitiful three general news articles a day, few of which are election-related. Though largely unseen outside the state of publication, the paper’s contents set the daily agenda for Perth’s electronic media, which is also hugely important but largely inaccessible to outsiders. That leaves the ABC and the national newspapers, who have been painting the election in general, and Colin Barnett’s canal show-stopper in particular, in a rather different light. Comment in The Australian, the Financial Review and the Sydney Morning Herald has been largely or entirely negative and the reporting has focused on concerns raised by the project’s many doubters. The West has given some airing to criticisms, including sceptical comment pieces from state political editor Steve Pennells, a front page headline two days after the announcement reading "Why canal plan may sink Barnett" and a negative editorial on Thursday tying in with ambiguous Westpoll results. But such coverage has been "balanced" with reassuring headlines like "We can build it for $2b: Tenix" and what Labor partisan Robert Corr describes as "a full page of unchallenged assertions" favouring the project, a courtesy The West rarely offers the government when it gets a smell of blood in the water.

The Saturday after the debate, as doubts about the project reached a crescendo, The West flicked the switch back to an acknowledged Labor negative with the front page headline, "One in 10 has power cut within past week". An article that day by Monica Videnieks summarised reaction to the canal by saying the proposal had been "regarded as visionary in some quarters and lampooned as reckless and irresponsible by the government"; a similar report in The Australian would no doubt have added environmental groups, Treasury, the Institute of Public Affairs and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry to that short list of critics. On Tuesday, the paper ran illustrated soundbites with a diverse range of notables offering their views. Four were positive, three were non-committal, and only one was clearly negative. The paper under-reported Peter Costello’s concerns about the project, which made the front page of The Australian but got one sentence on page eight of The West, and has not had much to say on Nationals leader Max Trenorden’s insistence that the project will not go ahead if it cannot provide water to Perth at $1.20 per kilolitre, 80 cents less than the estimate of leftish economist John Quiggin. Interestingly, Perth’s only other major newspaper, The Sunday Times, reacted in step with its News Limited stablemates last week by headlining its editorial, "Barnett’s water gamble backfires". Normally the paper is no more sympathetic to the government than The West.

The West Australian’s biases, actual and perceived, became a live issue earlier in the campaign when Geoff Gallop and Bob Hawke accused the paper of collusion with the Coalition. Its front page article that day was a report on Australian Medical Association criticisms of the government’s drug law reforms, which appeared the very day the Coalition announced its get-tough-on-drugs policy. Of course, media-bashing is an unduly tempting option for politicians confronted with their own political failings, and Labor must wear much of the blame for its apparent failure to neutralise the canal issue with all the ammunition available to it. Many who did not watch the televised debate would nevertheless have heard the clear consensus view that Barnett emerged the winner, and contemplated why Gallop could not have blown the issue out of the water in the hour available to him if it was really such a bad idea.

Published opinion polling and leaked internal figures have been disappointingly thin on the ground in the current campaign, which is why the Poll Bludger is taking his time adding seat-by-seat predictions to his election guide. The canal project suggests that projections should be adjusted in Labor’s favour outside Perth, and in the Liberals’ favour in the suburbs. Albany, Bunbury and Geraldton, which Labor were considered unlikely to hold, have all come back into contention. The Coalition is now very unlikely to be a show in Kimberley. But in the parched suburbs of Wanneroo, Joondalup and Riverton – each with a two-party margin of 3.1 per cent from similar primary vote figures – the Liberals might just pick up a big enough flow in the other direction, which would also deliver them the still more marginal Swan Hills and Mindarie. That alone would put the Coalition into power, assuming they hold on to their own marginals of Darling Range and Kalgoorlie.

The canal is still a high-risk venture for the Coalition, who are currently exposing themselves to ridicule by commissioning accounting firm BDO to analyse their costings without taking the project into account. But it at least appears possible that observers who are certain the announcement was an act of politicial suicide do not have a handle on the public mood on the other side of the country, and that Centrebet’s 2-1 odds for a Coalition victory might be worth a flutter.

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