Far canal

Wednesday night’s head-to-head between Geoff Gallop and Colin Barnett could well have been the moment that televised debate fans have been waiting for since Kennedy versus Nixon in 1960 – a debate that decided the outcome of the election. Barnett used the event as a platform for a centrepiece election announcement, an unorthodox tactic for a start. The big idea was that the Coalition would commit to a $2 billion proposal from Tenix to build a 3700 kilometre canal to Perth from Fitzroy River in the state’s far-northern Kimberley region, a project which the Gallop government currently has before an expert panel which is not due to report until September. The announcement made sense of what many had found to be a slightly puzzling Liberal Party campaign slogan, "decisions, not delays". Clearly, Barnett hopes to project a message that he is a leader with the vision to engage long-term challenges such as Perth’s looming water crisis, in contrast to a bureaucratic Labor government hidebound by consultants, panels and committees.

The Poll Bludger did not see the debate and doubts that it rated very well, but by all accounts Barnett’s gambit achieved its immediate objective of catching the Premier off guard. But it also surprised many who should not have been, in some cases unpleasantly. Among those who had no idea were Ron "Sos" Johnston, Liberal candidate for Kimberley, the electorate from which the canal will begin its long journey to Perth. It did not take long for doubts to emerge. The 7:30 Report noted an admission in Tenix’s four-page proposal that "land access, acquisition, heritage protection and native title issues have not yet been examined in detail", raising concerns about the true cost of the project and adding further credence to Labor’s theme that the Coalition is promising more than it can deliver. The West Australian, fresh from Geoff Gallop’s accusations that it was conspiring with the Coalition, ran a front page headline yesterday that read "Why canal plan may sink Barnett". The report began by saying the plan "took just hours to start unravelling yesterday after (Barnett) failed to answer key questions on its cost, environmental impact and the price of the water it would supply … as the criticism grew yesterday, Mr Barnett’s office gagged coalition MPs after he was embarrassed by several MPs who said they did not know about the plan, contradicted him or stumbled over its details".

Terrifyingly for the Coalition, the issue is continuing to snowball. Yesterday morning, Peter Costello directly contradicted Barnett in an interview on Perth station 6PR, in which he said "you would have to sit down and you would have to look at the construction costs, you would have to look at the cost of water, you would have to look at the alternatives, you would have to look at the alternative benefits". The Australian tells us that Treasury has released a report saying:

Tenix’s estimated capital cost of $2 billion is considered to be greatly underestimated. On the basis of available information there is not a convincing case that a channel from the Kimberley region (to Perth) is a viable source of water for Western Australia. It should not be considered further until the independent review is completed.

Today, Barnett has copped an all-round bollocking from The Australian, which has run a front-page headline on friction between the federal and state Coalition, a hostile leading article and – worst of all – a cartoon from "Kudelka" which is funny ’cause it’s true. Despite wimping out in the final paragraph, the Sydney Morning Herald has also run an extraordinarily rare editorial on Western Australian state politics that is highly critical of the plan. The Poll Bludger had been tempted to declare that Colin Barnett had blown it, and that the Gallop government was going to be returned – a report on power shortages in today’s West Australian has been sufficient to remind him of how much can happen in the next three weeks.

Around the traps

Parts of the Poll Bludger’s Western Australian election guide could do with an update, and will get one either tonight or tomorrow. Among the new additions will be the following revelations courtesy of Colleen Egan of the Sunday Times and retiring independent MP Larry Graham:

Alfred Cove (Independent 8.2% vs LIB): Colleen Egan provides results from a Patterson Market Research survey showing that independent Janet Woollard is likely to keep former Court government minister Graham Kierath out of parliament by retaining this normally safe Liberal seat, in keeping with the long-held expectations of the Poll Bludger which have not been universally shared elsewhere. The figures quoted by Egan are 26 per cent for Kierath, 25 per cent for Woollard and 17 per cent for Labor. Clearly the undecided have not been distributed, but it is plain that on these figures Woollard would easily defeat Kierath on Labor preferences.

North West Coastal (Labor 5.4%): As Labor member for Pilbara from 1989 to 2000 and independent member since, Larry Graham knows a thing or two about politics in the north. Graham is retiring at the coming election and has lately been contributing reams of revealing copy to local newspapers. This week readers of the Northern Guardian were told that North West Coastal, a new electorate with notional Labor majorities of 5.4 per cent on two-party preferred and 9.6 per cent on the primary vote, was – "for some reason" – "the northern seat the Liberals are convinced they can win". The primary local issues are identified as Labor member Fred Riebeling’s decision to relocate his family to Perth; Hay’s campaigning for a greater share of mining royalties for local councils, on which "Riebeling has either been silent or maintained the Perth party lines" and "must be feeling a little silly as the party has now changed its mind"; and restrictions on fishing in expanded marine parks, which Riebeling has vocally opposed. Graham notes Riebeling’s earlier promise to resign if the Karratha to Tom Price road was not built in Labor’s first term, which it hasn’t been – fortuitously, the affected towns are no longer in his electorate. Graham also reckons that "in the eighties 1.5 to 2 per cent was considered safe, so 5 per cent should be safe enough to maintain a seat against the strongest of challengers" – I’m not sure which eighties he is referring to, but they can’t be the ones in which the Brian Burke-led Labor Party came to power with an 8 per cent statewide swing. Graham does not seem excited about the prospects of independent candidate Lex Fullarton, declaring the seat a two-horse race.

Central Kimberley-Pilbara (Independent 16.2% vs ALP): Graham is even better versed with goings-on in Central Kimberley-Pilbara, which largely coincides with his own existing electorate. In an article for the North West Telegraph, Graham reports that the seat "should be a safe bet for Labor" due to the Pilbara boom and a notional 16.5 per cent margin, but that the party is nervous that "the flow of the Libs, Barry Taylor, and the Greens preferences could see either Taylor or Young defeat Stephens". The scenario Graham paints for a Liberal win involves Young receiving large volumes of preferences from Taylor (a former ATSIC WA chairman) and the Greens, which hardly seems likely. The real threat for Stephens is that Greens preferences might put Taylor ahead of Young, whose own preferences might deliver him the seat if Stephens’ primary vote is substantially below 50 per cent.

Labor in second decent poll shocker

Six weeks after the previous survey prompted The Australian to carry a front page headline reading "ALP faces poll rout in the west", it appears the elastic has snapped back. Yesterday’s Newspoll had the parties even on two-party preferred, with Labor up 7 per cent to 42 per cent on the primary vote and the Coalition down 6 per cent to 44 per cent. Labor’s figure is 3 per cent higher than any Newspoll result since the election of the Gallop government. The other remarkable fact is that despite the Coalition’s slump, it’s also their second highest result in that time. If the figures are accurate the non-major party vote at the coming election will fall by more than half, from 28.4 per cent to 14 per cent. All minor parties are affected – the Greens’ 6 per cent is their worst result since June 2002 and compares with their 7.3 per cent at the 2001 election; the Democrats have sunk beneath 1 per cent to score a "statistically insignificant" rating for the first time; and One Nation are clearly destined to lose all but about 1 per cent from their 9.6 per cent in 2001. Despite what my hit counter says, Western Australian voters have clearly been paying too much attention to this website because 43 per cent expect the Coalition to win against 36 per cent for Labor, although the Coalition had an even bigger lead on this measure going into the last election.

Labor in decent poll shocker

The Sunday Times has turned in a handy poll showing Labor ahead in Geraldton and Mindarie but heading for a drubbing in Swan Hills, although a collective sample of 450 suggests the results should be treated with caution. Unusually the report provides two-party preferred figures without distribution of the undecided – had this been done the results would have looked a little something like this:

ALP LIB UND ALP LIB
Geraldton 49 41 9 54 46
Mindarie 44 37 18 54 46
Swan Hills 32 52 15 39 61

The results runs counter to the prevailing wisdom in that Labor are ahead in regional Geraldton and behind in suburban Swan Hills. Earlier reports suggested that the Liberals had been disappointed by recent polling in the latter electorate, while no less an authority than Paul Murray reckons psephologists should classify Geraldton as being held by an imaginary Liberal member and not by Labor’s all-too-real Shane Hill.

Dark side of the Mooner

Former West Australian editor and current Perth talk radio king Paul "Mooner" Murray has stirred up a psephological pshitstorm with the following remarks in his regular Saturday column for his old paper:

Over the next few weeks, you will be bombarded by endless streams of so-called information about what are seen by the media as marginal seats. Much of it will be rubbish, because the media rely solely on one source of information to determine the swinging seats. That source is Antony Green, the competent psephologist employed by our state-owned national broadcaster (sometimes called the ABC – PB). Even the WA Electoral Commission uses his pendulum of swinging seats as its published guide. The problem is that the Green pendulum will not help you make sense of what is likely to happen in the election … his swings are calculated on the two-party preferred results of the 2001 election. That takes no account of the peculiar flow of preferences in that election which will not be reproduced in this one …. And that’s what makes the pendulum worthless.

Murray is certainly laying it on with a trowel with his contention that the two-party preferred measure is "worthless", which suggests that voters are idiotic automatons with no intellectual capacity to grasp the importance of their relative ordering of Labor and Coalition candidates – surely only true south of the river. But newspaper editors and talkback hosts do develop different ways of expressing themselves from academics and election wonks. Stripped of its provocativeness, Murray’s contention that the primary vote figures from the 2001 election will be a more useful guide than two-party preferred is worth examining. Constructing an alternative pendulum based on the difference between the parties’ post-redistribution primary vote from 2001 is easily done, since two-party preferred figures are not the only ones that Antony Green has calculated – they are however the obvious ones to use in ordering a table of the electorates, since two-party preferred is the only measure that puts Labor seats on one side and Coalition seats on the other.

The following table ranks electorates by order of primary vote majority, cutting out at the 10 per cent mark, with Labor majority seats on the left and Coalition (literally speaking since several of these seats had both Liberal and Nationals candidates) on the right. Which of the two tables proves more useful will be easily verifiable once the results are in. The seats are colour-coded according to who actually holds them on the notional post-redistribution two-party measure, with the difference between the major parties’ primary vote listed in the inner column and the total non-major party vote in the outer – the higher the latter figure, the more dangerous it is to draw conclusions from either the primary or two-party result (also note the pendulum at Mumble, which is padded out
with various other figures in recognition of what both Brent and Murray recognise as an unusual result from 2001). Alannah MacTiernan’s seat of Armadale, which is being factored into the Liberals’ best-case scenarios, is listed with its notional two-party margin of 6.6 per cent because the Liberals did not field a candidate in 2001.

22.4 0.4 KALGOORLIE
22.4 0.4 MINDARIE
23.8 1.2 RIVERTON ALBANY 1.4 35.4
23.8 2.5 JOONDALUP MURRAY 1.9 29.7
24.2 2.6 WANNEROO BUNBURY 4.5 24.7
25.1 3.0 COLLIE-WELL. DARLING RANGE 5.1 32.4
26.9 6.4 KIMBERLEY SWAN HILLS 6.0 32.8
6.6 ARMADALE KINGSLEY 7.2 24.4
14.2 8.2 BALLAJURA GERALDTON 8.5 38.3
22.8 9.6 N.W. COASTAL SERP.-JARRAH. 9.2 24.6

It may thus be inferred that under a first-past-the-post system (assuming such a system would not have prompted voters to have behaved differently), Labor would have fallen one seat short of a majority. It’s also interesting to note that the one seat they would have picked up at the Coalition’s expense would have been Kalgoorlie, held by Liberal leadership hopeful Matt Birney.

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.