The WA Labor Party might have hoped for a better start to its weekend than to face a front-page headline in The Australian reading "ALP faces poll rout in the west". Such was the shift recorded in today’s Newspoll in favour of the Coalition, who were up 8 per cent from the last poll in September, that one might be tempted to dismiss it as a rogue if it wasn’t consistent with other recent results. As the table below indicates, polls became less frequent after mid-year as polling agencies shifted their resources to the federal election, but at some point during this interval support for Labor took a sharp turn for the worse. The last two Westpoll results have been the Coalition’s best this year, and support for Labor fell 5 per cent in the most recent Roy Morgan poll. Today’s poll has Labor down 4 per cent, which is even worse news for Labor since Newspoll has put them significantly lower throughout the year than Westpoll and Morgan.
It is obviously worth noting that the federal election took place during the period in question, and that the result was particularly bad for Labor in Western Australia. Not only did the marginal Labor seats of Stirling and Hasluck fall to the Liberals, but there were also distressingly close calls in Swan and Cowan which looked secure going into the campaign.
The themes that most read into the Labor’s federal election failure, namely a misreading of the electorate’s social conservatism and an overestimation of the worth of endorsement from the environmental movement, are very much in play at the state election. Opposition Leader Colin Barnett has sniffed the breeze on the gay rights issue, promising to wind back government gay law reform relating to adoption rights and lowering of the age of consent, and there is a palpable sense that Labor has overplayed its environmental hand in implementing no-fishing sanctuary zones and will face a damaging backlash in coastal suburbs and the north-west.
It’s worth placing these poll results in historical context. Labor’s primary vote in Western Australia in recent times has been remarkably consistent and remarkably poor, never exceeding 40 per cent at any state or federal election since 1989. In federal elections, Labor’s vote has been 34.7 per cent (2004), 37.1 per cent (2001), 36.2 per cent (1998), 34.7 per cent (1996), 39.4 per cent (1993) and 35.3 per cent (1990); the figures for state elections are 37.2 per cent (2001), 35.8 per cent (1996) and 37.1 per cent (1993). Newspoll suggests that Labor has remained stuck in this band throughout the term of the Gallop government, whereas it will need to do quite a lot better to retain power given the exceptional circumstance of the 2001 election when preferences from One Nation’s 9.6 per cent largely favoured them. This is the very constituency that has been most alienated by the policies of the Gallop government and which has decisively shifted its support to the federal Coalition under the Howard government.
Labor evidently found it more comforting to accept the alternative explanation for its success in winning power in 2001 from a low primary vote, namely its promised ban on old growth logging practices which boosted Greens support from 4.8 per cent to 7.3 per cent and provoked an anti-Liberal backlash in well-heeled urban electorates (one of which, Alfred Cove, was won by a Liberals for Forests candidate at the expense of a cabinet minister). From this vantage it appears that the party’s instincts have led it astray on this point. Even so, Labor can campaign on the back of a booming economy and its members may prove hard to dislodge from important metropolitan seats. But despite the recent trend for state Labor governments to win thumping second term election victories, the Gallop government does not enter this race as favourite and will survive narrowly if at all.