Highlights of week one

It has traditionally been the conservative side of politics that has been associated with fiscal prudence, but the Western Australian election campaign demonstrates how easily that worm can turn under the right political circumstances. The Coalition ended week one by securing the endorsement of the Nursing Federation with a promise to deliver on its claim for $50 million of funding to improve working conditions, a move which has earned comparisons with the Prime Minister’s late-campaign promise that no Tasmanian forestry jobs would be lost from old-growth logging bans. This overlooks the important distinction that John Howard trumped Labor with a policy that was massively less expensive than their own, which included an $800 million fund to compensate the timber industry that signally failed to achieve its political ends.

The state Coalition by contrast has calculated that it has the political capital to make the more extravagant promises due to the credibility deficit Labor incurred by breaking its 2001 campaign pledge not to increase taxes or charges. It has accordingly indulged in some conspicuous displays of targeted pork barrelling, such as its promise to "cut in" a section of the Mitchell Freeway extension through the marginal seat of Joondalup regardless of the cost. Labor now finds itself with the backing of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in criticising the Coalition’s largesse. The threat for the Coalition is that the currency of election promises may have been so debased that a Treasurer warning of a $44 million "black hole" might receive a more credulous audience than a Liberal leader in a Santa Claus outfit.

Let’s see what else is in the papers:

• A steady flow of newspaper headlines about the collapse of building contractor Devaugh is continuing to imperil Labor’s already precarious hold on the crucial seat of Albany. The Bunbury-based company was contracted in March 2004 to build the $20 million Albany justice complex and many local subcontractors were owed money when it collapsed, a matter of sufficient political sensitivity for the government to conduct a $621,000 bail-out. The West Australian reports that the administrator informed creditors this week that Devaugh "appeared to have become balance sheet insolvent from between June 30, 2002 and 30 June 2003". Robert Taylor of The West Australian suggests the government, and in particular Housing and Works Minister Nick Griffiths, was unduly eager to award the contract to a company based in Bunbury, its most marginal seat.

• Graham Kierath, Liberal candidate for Alfred Cove and ready-made leadership aspirant, continues to play hard ball in his bid to unseat independent member Janet Woollard. Fresh from what The West Australian’s Inside Cover dubbed the "Postergate" affair, Kierath last week lodged a complaint over Woollard’s description of herself as an "independent Liberal" in campaign material, which was given short shrift by the Western Australian Electoral Commission.

• Opposition Leader Colin Barnett made his debut entry as a comedian when he told a journalist who offered him hairspray at a windy outdoor campaign launch that he was "not after the gay vote". For some reason, Barnett’s stereotyping of the gay community as people who might be inclined to use hair products was received less warmly than that of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Where the action is (city edition)

At last, the long awaited sequel to Monday’s "country edition" specifically focusing on the city seats that Labor picked up at the 2001 election (and ignoring the possibility raised by some that Labor might be doing badly enough to lose seats they have held over a longer period):

Swan Hills (Labor 0.3%): Swan Hills changed hands when Labor was dumped from power in 1993, but the redistribution prior to the 1996 election improved the Liberal margin by 4.6 per cent. Going into the 2001 election, few gave much thought to the possibility that Labor would achieve the 9.7 per cent swing necessary to unseat Court government minister June van de Klashorst. Labor’s candidate was 25-year-old Jaye Radisich, who was about to enter her final year at law school. But as in neighbouring Darling Range, the scale of the anti-Liberal backlash surprised everybody, a 15.9 per cent dive on the primary vote making room for One Nation (10.9 per cent) and Liberals for Forests (5.5 per cent) and delivering a decisive 11.8 per cent swing to Labor. The corresponding federal electorate of Pearce went sharply the other way on October 9, the Liberals increasing 8.8 per cent on the primary vote and 6.0 per cent on two-party preferred. On December 13, Robert Taylor of The West Australian reported that party insiders believed Labor to be "firming" here against the statewide trend.

Mindarie (Labor 1.2%): As a brand new electorate with no incumbency factor in play, Mindarie is even less safe for Labor than its margin makes it appear. Their candidate is John Quigley, currently member for the abolished electorate of Innaloo some distance to the south. As a high-profile police union lawyer, Quigley was no stranger to media exposure before he entered parliament and has become even less so since. He has recently been at the centre of a furious row with The West Australian after he claimed editor Paul Armstrong threatened to "wage a war" against him unless he apologised for his criticism of a report that police officers had let him off with a caution for minor driving offences. Quigley had earlier entered the Coalition firing line after he sent a letter to the deputy police commissioner complaining of the treatment his son received when he was arrested for disorderly conduct at the 2002 Australia Day fireworks celebrations. Liberal candidate Michael Lowry is a former chief executive of mining company Griffin Group.

Joondalup (Labor 3.1%): Labor’s Terry O’Gorman won Joondalup from Liberal incumbent Chris Baker in 2001 with a narrow 0.5 per cent margin after a 6.3 per cent two-party swing. The seat is a rare example of the redistribution doing Labor a good turn, their margin given an extra 2.5 per cent padding. Present indications suggest that O’Gorman will need every bit of it. The key local issue is the Mitchell Freeway, the artery linking the northern suburban coastal corridor to the city. Both parties are promising an extension of the freeway to Burns Beach Road, but the opposition is promising extra funding to provide for the section through the suburb of Connolly to be "cut in" at the same level as adjoining areas, whatever the cost. Those who doubt that the Liberals think this issue is a winner are invited to inspect the effort that has gone into this press release.

Riverton (Labor 3.1%): One of Labor’s many surprise wins from 2001 came with the defeat of Workplace Relations Minister Graham Kierath in this southern suburbs seat. Labor member Tony McRae’s modest margin looks more precarious still due to the government’s abandonment of the Fremantle Eastern Bypass project and its likely impact on heavy freight traffic through the electorate.

Wanneroo (Labor 3.1%): Dianne Guise easily won this northern suburbs seat from Liberal member Iain MacLean with a swing of 7.5 per cent at the 2001 election. She has since kept a reasonably low profile and will be worried over the destination of the 9.5 per cent One Nation vote from 2001. Her Liberal opponent Paul Miles has named his campaign website www.doingtheextramiles.com – get it?

Ballajura (Labor 4.8%): One of the great mysteries of the early part of the campaign has been the Liberal Party’s tardiness in nominating a candidate for this classic marginal seat, in contrast to other seats where they don’t stand a chance. Ballajura was won for Labor in 2001 by John D’Orazio, the high-profile former mayor of Bayswater who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Liberal member Rhonda Parker at the 1996 election before succeeding on the second attempt with a 5.0 per cent swing.

Mandurah (Labor 7.7%): Technically a non-urban seat, being in the South West upper house region, though considered urban by most normal standards. Labor member David Templeman’s margin here has been padded from 4.9 per cent to 7.7 per cent with the redistribution, but is still less than the 7.9 per cent swing he achieved to win the seat in 2001. One reason to think that voters in the electorate might return to old habits is the impact of the mortgage broking scandal on the 2001 result, Mandurah being home to a large retiree population.

Cautionary tales

With the Gallop government reckoned by all to be in deep trouble, much is being said at the moment of the rarity of one-term governments in Australia. At the federal level, we need to go back to the onset of the depression to find a government that failed to win a second term, that being Jim Scullin’s Labor government of 1929-31. Ditto New South Wales; since Jack Lang’s eventful Labor administration of 1930-32, the Coalition government of Nick Greiner and John Fahey has been the shortest lived, lasting a fraction over seven years from its election on 25 March 1988. Victoria has been even more stable since Henry Bolte’s Liberals took office in the wake of the Labor split in 1955, experiencing only three changes of government since. While Tasmania’s system of proportional representation should theoretically be a recipe for unstable minority government, Michael Field’s Greens-dependent Labor administration of 1989-92 is the only example of one-term government in recent memory. Excepting Tasmania, there are only three clear cases of one-term government since the Labor split. There are many differences between them, but two common features stand out – the election of each came as a surprise, and they all coincided with a government of the same political stripe at federal level. Only the former applies in Gallop’s case.

Queensland: Rob Borbidge, National/Liberal (16/2/96-26/6/98): It had been expected that it would take more than two terms for the odour surrounding the Fitzgerald inquiry to lift from the National Party, especially since Labor premier Wayne Goss maintained the highest approval ratings in the land. But it all went awry for Labor at the election of 15 July 1995, at which Labor lost nine seats and suffered a swing of 7.15 per cent that reduced it to 46.73 per cent on two-party preferred. The government nevertheless held on by one seat, but this was lost at a re-election for the seat of Mundingburra after the Liberals made a successful legal challenge against the original result. The Borbidge government took office with the support of independent member Liz Cunningham on 19 February 1996 and immediately gave an impression of unpreparedness, whereas Peter Beattie smoothly assumed the leadership upon Goss’s departure and slowly got on top in the polls. But it was ultimately failure to manage the challenge of One Nation that sealed the government’s doom, rather the normal ebb-and-flow of two-party politics. The refusal by both Coalition parties to put the new party last on preferences at the election of 13 June 1998 had a devastating effect on support for the Liberals in Brisbane, where they lost six seats to Labor. But the real shock was One Nation’s success in winning 22.68 per cent of the vote and 11 seats, six from Labor and five from the Nationals. Labor were ultimately one seat short of a majority and took power with the support of two independents.

South Australia: David Tonkin, Liberal/National Country (15/9/79-10/11/82): Labor under Don Dunstan had been dominant in South Australia throughout the 1970s, at least partly due to serious divisions in the Liberal Party which had not fully resolved when Dunstan resigned due to ill health on 15 February 1979. Six months later the new premier, Des Corcoran, foolishly called an election 18 months before one was due. His own party was caught unprepared, and was duly surprised to find itself turfed from power by David Tonkin’s Liberals. Tonkin’s government soon found itself facing a global recession that hit South Australia particularly hard, manufacturing layoffs burdening it with the highest unemployment in the country. With the government’s fiscal position deterioriating, Labor’s election campaign warning that the Liberals’ promised tax cuts would create a "black hole" were proved correct. Labor also enjoyed an inadvertent stroke of good fortune when one of its members quit the party to allow legislation for uranium mining at Roxby Downs through the upper house, the blocking of which threatened to provide the Liberal Party with its greatest electoral weapon. Labor picked up a 5.4 per cent swing and four seats at the election of 6 November 1982, enough to give it an absolute majority of one in the 47-seat House of Assembly, with further breathing space provided by one independent Labor member.

Western Australia: John Tonkin, Labor (20/2/71-30/3/74): Not quite sure what it is about premiers called Tonkin that the Australian electorate finds so objectionable, but that mystery aside, this is the most useful example in terms of precedents for Geoff Gallop. The party had not been considered likely to win the 1971 election against Sir David Brand, who led a Liberal government that had been securely in power since 1959, but it nevertheless emerged with a one-seat majority. In many ways the circumstances were quite different to those facing Gallop – inflation was spiralling, unemployment emerged as a cause of great alarm after rising to an unheard-of 2.8 per cent, and the Labor government in Canberra was growing more unpopular by the day. One incident of the 1974 election campaign was sufficiently momentous that even eastern states folk might know of it. A rally at Forrest Place featuring Gough Whitlam, who could not be dissuaded from making a campaign visit to lend support to Tonkin, was gatecrashed by a horde of farmers enraged by the federal government’s cancellation of the superphosphate subsidy, who took the opportunity to pelt Whitlam with tomatoes and soft drink cans. The incident may well have elicited sympathy for Labor in the city, where the party’s vote actually increased, although it failed to win them any new seats. The rub for Gallop is that Tonkin’s government went under with the loss of three non-metropolitan seats, one of which was Albany. The others were Pilbara, which has a modern relative in the similarly vulnerable Central Kimberley Pilbara, and the long-lost electorate of Merredin-Yilgarn.

It polls for thee

Saturday’s West Australian provided Westpoll (a.k.a. Patterson Market Research) results from surveys of 200 respondents in four well-chosen marginal seats, namely the regional battlegrounds of Bunbury and Albany and the marginal suburban seats of Joondalup and Riverton. The Gallop government would no doubt have been very interested to learn that the Liberals will win huge primary vote majorities in all four. Seat-by-seat breakdowns as follows:

Bunbury (0.2%) 36 55 8
Albany (3.7%) 37 56 1
Riverton (3.1%) 39 54 4
Joondalup (3.1%) 38 53 5

Where the action is (country edition)

The Poll Bludger is no statistician, but he’s slowly reaching the For Dummies level on capacity on Microsoft Excel and has managed to extract some figures demonstrating the relationship between the decline of One Nation and the rise of the Coalition at the federal and Queensland state elections. At the federal poll, there were 18 Queensland seats that One Nation contested in both 2001 and 2004. Removing Dawson and Rankin due to the corrupting effects of large fluctuations in support for independents and other minor parties, the Pearson R measure (which produces a figure between -1 and 1) of correlation between the primary vote swings for One Nation and the Coalition is a highly significant -0.51, while the figure for Labor of 0.09 is significant only in that it is positive, suggesting there is no reason to expect an improvement in Labor’s vote where One Nation collapses.

Both results are supported when similar exercises are conducted for Western Australian federal seats (-0.31 for the Coalition, 0.11 for Labor) and seats at the Queensland state election (-0.45 for the Coalition, 0.03 for Labor). In case of the latter election, generally reckoned to have been a disaster for the Coalition, there were 10 seats where the Coalition vote was up and the One Nation vote down by at least 10 per cent, out of a mere 19 seats in which the two election results could easily be compared. What this means in rough terms is that if you cut two-thirds out of the One Nation vote in every seat in Western Australia and hand two-thirds of it back to the Coalition (from whence it no doubt came), you will if anything be erring on the side of conservatism. This is particularly significant outside Perth, where hostility has been roused by the government’s ardent pursuit of one-vote one-value reforms. Assuming the One Nation vote behaves as expected, the following marginal Labor seats outside Perth are gone for all money:

Bunbury (0.2 per cent): Ominously for Labor, Robert Taylor of The West Australian reported of this classic bellwether electorate that "both sides are pretty well ready to call (it) for the Liberals". It’s not hard to see why. The redistribution cut the margin by 1.3 per cent, and Antony Green estimates 10.3 per cent of the redrawn electorate voted for One Nation in 2001. If they behave in anything like a predictable fashion, the Liberals will easily recover the seat.

Murray (0.7 per cent): Murray mostly consists of the abolished Liberal electorate of Murray-Wellington, being made notionally Labor with the addition of urban territory in and around Mandurah. The estimated One Nation vote for the new electorate is 19.5 per cent, a figure that dwarfs Labor’s margin.

Collie-Wellington (2.6 per cent): This electorate consists in roughly equal measure of voters from abolished Collie, a traditionally Labor seat held by the National Party from 1993 to 2001, and Murray-Wellington, a seat long held by retiring Liberal member John Bradshaw. Labor would be hoping the loss of Bradshaw’s incumbency factor over much of the electorate might help them remain competitive, but would be nervously contemplating the likely destination of the 15.9 per cent One Nation vote.

Geraldton (2.7 per cent): Labor won Geraldton in 2001 with a mere 26.8 per cent of the primary vote, the secret of their success being the 21.7 per cent recorded by One Nation. The Liberals were badly damaged in the final week of the election campaign when it emerged that member Bob Bloffwitch had failed to declare a pecuniary interest in a local company for which he had been lobbying for public funding. Applying the usual broad strokes, and assuming no unusually prominent independent emerges, the Coalition can expect to be boosted well over 40 per cent with little or no improvement for Labor.

Albany (3.7 per cent): Labor won this seat at the 2001 election for the first time since 1971 with a 15.6 per cent two-party swing. This result seems particularly aberrant, having been heavily influenced by the mortgage broking scandal due to a high retiree population and a local member who had been embroiled in the affair. Here also, Labor will struggle to improve substantially on its 31.6 per cent from 2001 while reversion to old habits can be relied upon to push the Coalition vote back over 40 per cent.

These five seats alone are one more than Labor can afford to lose. Nor are they the only non-metropolitan seats which might be identified as endangered. Although the following have safe-looking margins, it needs to be remembered that non-metropolitan seats in Western Australia have little more than 10,000 voters and are accordingly more prone to volatility than city seats:

North West Coastal (5.4 per cent): Some of the government’s actions in recent times suggest either a blasé attitude to this seat, or a belief that it might be sacrificed to shore up votes elsewhere. Specifically, in an electorate where recreational fishing is a way of life, the government has courted the Greens with local marine park sanctuary zones and talk of having the entire area placed on the World Heritage register.

Murchison-Eyre (7.7 per cent): The popularity and high profile of local member John Bowler might save the day for Labor here, especially given some unhelpful confusion in the Liberal camp in December over whether their candidate Colin Brand had withdrawn or not (it eventually became clear that he hadn’t).

Kimberley (8.5 per cent): Carol Martin won considerable kudos for becoming the first aboriginal woman ever elected to an Australian parliament in 2001. But she was boosted at that election by local issues which have since lost currency, and has suffered a redistribution that might be worse than it looks, having cost her the largely aboriginal area of Fitzroy Crossing.