One day in February

Monica Videnieks of The West Australian has had a fair bit to say recently on the likely timing of the state election, offering this on Monday:

If (Premier Geoff Gallop) chooses a campaign longer than the typical four weeks, Dr Gallop can call the State election as early as tomorrow (didn’t happen – PB). But it is more likely an election for February 12 would see Dr Gallop visiting the Governor, Lt-Gen John Sanderson, after January 11. If the Government opts for a February 19 election, Dr Gallop’s trip to Government House is more likely to take place in the week of January 18. The Premier can opt to delay the election until May 21, although this would run against the Government’s argument for fixed terms and could be seen as a sign it is afraid of a vote.

The article also cites Harry Phillips of Edith Cowan University saying a January 18 poll would give Labor "more time to remind voters of its accomplishments, particularly difficult at the moment with news of the South-East Asian tsunami disaster saturating the media".

Western front communiqué #4

An article in yesterday’s West Australian by Robert Taylor warrants quoting at length:

Latest Liberal polling has the coalition ahead in Kimberley, Bunbury, Joondalup and Albany, with Riverton close behind. The big surprise is Kimberley, which Liberal research is showing as a likely win for its candidate, Broome identity Sos Johnston, over Labor’s Carol Martin despite what would appear to be a comfortable 8.5 per cent margin. The Liberal polling is thought to mirror Labor research which puts three seats – Albany, Bunbury and Joondalup – in serious trouble, with Swan Hills, Riverton, Murray and Geraldton also in danger. Labor is also believed to be concerned about Planning and Infrastructure Minister Alannah MacTiernan’s electorate of Armadale, which she holds by 6.6 per cent but which voted strongly for John Howard in the October Federal election … As well as Armadale and Kimberley, North-West Coastal (5.4 per cent), Mandurah (7.7), Murchison-Eyre (7.7) and Yokine (8.8) would be vulnerable if the Labor primary vote did not improve. But while the Liberals are buoyed by latest polling, there is disappointment that the marginal seats of Swan Hills, Murray and Geraldton are not showing up as well as expected.

In one of the outer range seats nominated by Taylor, the vast electorate of Murchison-Eyre, the Liberal campaign has been thrown into confusion following media reports last week that candidate Colin Brand had withdrawn to make way for former MLC Greg Smith. This was allowed to stand unchallenged until the weekend when Brand emerged to tell the Kalgoorlie Miner that he merely "withdrew from the campaign because I could not continue with my own resources". The report quoted Liberal Party state director Paul Everingham confirming Brand’s versions of events, and saying the local party division had "misunderstood the agreement" – including the ambitious member for Kalgoorlie, Matt Birney, who had publicly announced his support for Smith’s preselection in place of Brand.

Western front communiqué #3

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.

Westpoll Morgan Newspoll
December 40 51 5 34 49 7
Oct/Nov 41 50 6 42.5 41.5 9
Aug/Sept 46 47 5 47.5 38 7 38 41 9
July 46 41 9
June 45 44 6 42 41 9.5 38 42 7
May 44 44 6
April 46 41 9 44 38.5 8.5
March 47 43 5 37 42 7
February 44 45 6 44.5 38 7.5
January 42 43 8
Election 10/2/01 37.2 34.4 7.3 37.2 34.4 7.3 37.2 34.4 7.3

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.

Western front communiqué #2

The small-sample and often volatile Westpoll, conducted for The West Australian by Patterson Market Research, today shows Geoff Gallop’s Labor government headed for a drubbing, trailing the Coalition 34 per cent to 45 per cent on the primary vote with the Greens down to 4 per cent. A quote from Labor state secretary Bill Johnston saying the poll did not reflect the party’s figures has the ring of truth about it. A related column by Robert Taylor quoted PMR principal Keith Patterson saying his "gut feeling is that things could change", indicating that he doesn’t believe the figures either. Taylor reports that "internal polling by both parties is thought to show that in the key marginal seats the Government is holding its ground". While both parties believe Labor has little chance of retaining Bunbury, and the Liberals are "buoyed by the numbers" in Riverton and Joondalup, Labor are "firming" in Swan Hills and Murray. Taylor also dismisses talk of a February 5 election as a "smokescreen" and maintains February 19 is "firm favourite".