Western Australia's March 11 state election is the second since Colin Barnett led the Liberals to power in September 2008, in a result that ended the nationwide clean sweep of government at federal, state and territory level that Labor had established with the defeat of the Howard government the previous November. The 2008 election in fact returned a hung parliament, with Labor on 28 seats, the Liberals on 24, the Nationals on four and three independents, who each reached accommodations of varying strength with the governing parties. Labor held out the hope of reaching an accommodation with the Nationals after the election, but the party's leader, Brendon Grylls, finally announced it would support the Liberals after a week of post-election negotiations. Labor's position was further weakened over the term by its loss of the Fremantle by-election to Greens candidate Adele Carles in May 2009, followed by the defection of North West Central MP Vince Catania in July.

The Barnett government's first term was lengthened to four-and-a-half years by the introduction of a fixed terms regime that returned elections to their traditional timing in March. When the election was held in early 2013, the federal Labor government was enduring one of its grimmest periods, with Julia Gillard bringing on a spill motion two weeks later after the election when cabinet veteran Simon Crean called on her to resign. The state economy had been particularly buoyant due to the mining boom, and government scandals were limited to the misadventures of Troy Buswell, which resulted in his resignation as Treasurer in April 2010 (he returned to the ministry in December 2010 and to the position of Treasurer in July 2012). The Liberals went on to achieve a majority in their own right, with 31 seats out of 59, after a two-party preferred swing of 5.4%. Labor lost five seats to the Liberals and two to the Nationals, inclusive of North West Central. Of the three seats formerly held by independents, two of whom retired, the Liberals won two and the Natioanls won one.

Opinion polling soon established that this was the peak of the government's fortunes, with the two parties finely balanced through most of the term on voting intention, but Mark McGowan recording consistent leads over Colin Barnett as preferred premier. The only change to the lower house numbers during the term came in April 2016, when Liberal MP Rob Johnson resigned from the party to sit as an independent. He will now contest his northern suburbs seat of Hillarys, where he has served since 1993, as an independent Liberal. The only by-election of the term was on October 18, 2014 in the South West region seat of Vasse, arising from the end of Troy Buswell's troubled parliamentary career. Labor did not contest the safe conservative seat, but the Liberals faced a strong challenge from the Nationals, whose vote rose from 7.3% to 28.5%, and came within 3.0% of victory at the final count.

The redistribution to take effect at the election has abolished a seat in the state's sparsely populated south-east to accommodate the ongoing growth of Perth. The new seat of Baldivis covers a rapidly growing area of Perth's outer south, and is notionally safe for Labor. However, changes elsewhere have left two Labor seats – West Swan in Perth's north-east, and Collie-Preston around 200 kilometres south of the city – with small notional Liberal margins. To reach a majority of 30 seats out of 59, Labor needs to gain nine seats off its 2013 election performance, but ten in post-redistribution terms. The electoral terrain appears to be tilted to the Liberals in that Labor would need a uniform swing of 10.1% to win the required seats, which would boost its statewide two-party vote to 52.8%.

Historical background

Despite its reputation as a conservative state, government in Western Australia has changed according to a fairly regular schedule since the early 1970s, with the four governments prior to Barnett's serving for between seven-and-a-half and ten years. Labor was generally dominant from 1924 until 1959, when David Brand led the Liberals to the first of four successive victories, giving him an unsurpassed twelve-year tenure as Premier. The Labor government that followed, led by John Tonkin, survived only one term from 1971 to 1974, when Charles Court led the Liberals to victory.

Court achieved three successive victories before handing the reins to Ray O'Connor, who led the government to defeat at the hands of Brian Burke in 1983. Burke's government was re-elected in 1986, and he went out on a high in early 1988 amid talk of a looming federal career. Under his successor, Peter Dowding, the government soon found itself mired in the WA Inc scandals that would ultimately lead to the imprisonment of Burke, O'Connor and Burke government Treasurer David Parker. Despite a solid Liberal win on the two-party vote, Dowding eked out a narrow victory at the February 1989 election, which marked the switch from three to four-year terms.

With state Labor's unpopularity threatening federal Labor ahead of the election held in March 1993, Dowding was pushed out a month earlier to make way for Australia's first woman Premier, Carmen Lawrence. Labor indeed outperformed expectations in Western Australia at the ensuing election, and also suffered what was, under the circumstances, a reasonably modest defeat at the next state election in February 1993. There followed two terms of Liberal government under the leadership of Richard Court, son of Charles Court. The Court government was returned with an increased majority at the election of December 1996, despite a stable result on two-party preferred.

As the election held in February 2001 loomed into view, the Court government was increasingly troubled by a scandal in the mortgage broking industry that cost thousands of elderly investors their savings, and it also faced the new difficulty of One Nation, which maintained some potency in Western Australia at the time despite having peaked nationally in 1998. Having been largely frozen out at the 1998 federal election by the mutual decision of the major parties to direct preferences against them, One Nation sought a generalised revenge by directing preferences against all sitting members, which hurt Liberal worse than Labor since it was they who was defending the marginal seats. However, the government would likely have been defeated despite the latter factor, such was the 11.1% collapse in its primary vote.

Labor then held power for two terms, at first under the leadership of Geoff Gallop, who achieved a status quo net neutral at the 2005 election in maintaining Labor's tally of 32 seats out of 57. Gallop resigned unexpectedly in January 2006 to assist his recovery from depression, and was succeeded by his Alan Carpenter, who had presented the local edition of the ABC's 7.30 Report before entering parliament in 1996. In an unhelpful echo of an earlier era, Labor under Carpenter was soon weakened by the Corruption and Crime Commission's inquiries into the lobbying activities of Brian Burke and former Deputy Premier Julian Grill, causing him to sack three ministers. However, many felt that Labor's woes were eclipsed by those of the Liberals, who went through three leaders following Colin Barnett's resignation in the wake of the 2005 defeat. The day after Barnett returned to the leadership on August 6, 2008, Carpenter called a surprise election for early September -- an unusual event in Western Australia, where state elections had invariably been held between December and April near the end of the term in the post-war era.

The 2008 election was the first held in the state under “one-vote one-value”, which changed the parliamentary balance from 34 metropolitan and 23 non-metropolitan lower house districts to 42 and 17, and ended a system in which metropolitan districts had twice as many voters. However, a concession to rural vote weighting remained in the form of a “large district allowance” for districts of more than 100,000 square kilometres, which were treated as having extra voters equal to 1.5% of their square kilometres. The Legislative Council remained as malapportioned as ever, with the seats evenly divided between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, despite the former being home to about three quarters of the state's population.

The Liberals' leadership troubles and the fillip Labor received from one-vote one-value did not prevent Labor losing its majority at the September 2008 election, a result commonly attributed to displeasure at the early election announcement and the failure of a number of Carpenter's hand-picked candidates in particularly sensitive seats.

Parties and leaders

Colin Barnett came to parliament in 1990 as member for the blue-ribbon western suburbs seat of Cottesloe, having previously been an economics lecturer and executive director of the Western Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Barnett served in the crucial resources and development and energy portfolios through the period of Richard Court's government from 1993 to 2001, and assumed the leadership after its defeat despite resistance from powerful elements in the party. This included Court himself, who went so far as to approach Julie Bishop with a plan for her to succeed him through a swap of seats with Barnett, succeeding only in angering Barnett, who had not been informed.

Barnett's first election as leader in 2005 is remembered for his promise to spend $2 billion on a 3700 kilometre canal to pipe water to Perth from the Kimberley region in the state's far north. While many blamed this for the defeat, the status quo result was markedly superior to that of first-term conservative oppositions in other states through this period. Barnett moved to the back bench after the defeat, and was followed in fairly rapid succession by three leaders: Matt Birney, at 35 the state's youngest ever leader, who was deposed in March 2006; Paul Omodei, who was compelled to stand aside after losing party support in January 2008; and, for eight months before Barnett's return the following August, Troy Buswell.

As the plot against Omodei came to fruition, the first of a number of claims of inappropriate behaviour by Buswell towards women emerged, prompting him to make the surprise declaration that he would not pursue the leadership as he needed more time to develop. He was successfully prevailed upon to reconsider, including by an editorial in The West Australian, and assumed the leadership without opposition from Omodei after a party room spill motion was passed. Buswell's hesitancy about putting his name forward appeared in a new light the following April, when it emerged he had been seen by multiple witnesses sniffing the chair of a female Liberal staffer while making noises of sexual pleasure. Backers of a spill motion against Buswell pleaded for Barnett to put his name forward without success, and the motion was duly voted down by a party room unconvinced by the alternatives.

As polling continued to worsen, Barnett finally shifted position in July, saying he would consider returning if he had unanimous support. This earned him rebukes from the present and former party presidents, Barry Court and Bill Hassell, but concurrent reports suggested Buswell was considering a voluntary exit pending the results of internal polling, which indeed showed his leadership would mean the difference between defeat and victory. Buswell duly stood aside in Barnett's favour on August 6, followed a day later by Premier Alan Carpenter's surprise announcement September 8 election announcement. Carpenter hoped to take advantage of the Liberals' state of disarray, which extended to Barnett not having a seat to contest. This was resolved when the preselected candidate for Cottesloe, Deidre Willmott, agreed to make way for him.

The Liberals' Deputy Premier from September 2008 to February 2016 was Kim Hames, but those rated as Barnett's most likely successors in the first term were Christian Porter and, in spite of everything, Troy Buswell. Both served as Treasurer during the first term – Buswell from the election until April 2010, when he stood aside after admitting to an affair with Greens MP Adele Carles, and again after July 2012; and Porter when he took over in December 2010 after a period in which it was held by Barnett. However, both were effectively out of the picture by the 2013 election, Porter because of his move to federal politics as member for Pearce at the September 2013 election, and Buswell following an incident in February 2014 in which he damaged a number of cars while driving home from a wedding, ultimately leading to over $3000 in fines and the suspension of his licence.

The high point of the March 2013 election victory was followed by an economic downturn and a persistent deterioration in the state of the budget, and polls soon showed a dramatic decline in Barnett's personal ratings. His favoured successor was known to be the Police Minister, Liza Harvey, who became Deputy Premier in February 2016 after Hames stood aside ahead of his impending retirement at the election. Suggestions Barnett might not make it to the election emerged on two fronts in 2016: in relation to his health, following noticeable weight loss which he has recently conceded resulted from a blood problem; and through loss of support in the party room following soft polling and complaints of a dictatorial style. The matter came to a head last September when Transport Minister Dean Nalder and Local Government Minister Tony Simpson resigned from cabinet citing a lack of confidence in Barnett, with Nalder saying he would put his name forward if a spill motion was passed. In the event, the motion was defeated by 31 votes to 15.

Mark McGowan is contesting his second election as Labor leader, a position he has held since January 2012. McGowan has served in parliament since 1996 as the member for Rockingham Rockingham in Perth's southern suburbs, having previously served in the Navy at a naval base in Perth's south. After spending Labor's first term in government as a parliamentary secretary, McGowan made cabinet as Tourism Minister after the 2005 election. He was promoted to Environment Minister when Alan Carpenter succeeded Geoff Gallop in January 2006, and then to Education Minister the following December. His rapid ascent encouraged suggestions he was a future leadership contender, although he only attracted nine votes out of 30 when he contested the deputy position against parliamentary newcomer Roger Cook in the wake of the 2008 defeat.

Carpenter's successor as Labor leader after the election defeat was Eric Ripper, who had been Deputy Premier and Treasurer throughout the period of the Gallop-Carpenter government. With the economy booming and the government in the ascendant, Ripper's leadership soon came under pressure, and in January 2011 he faced a challenge from Ben Wyatt, the 36-year-old Shadow Treasurer and member for Victoria Park. However, it transpired that Wyatt had miscalculated the solidity of support from the Right faction, and he withdrew when it became clear he did not have the numbers. Among those on the Right who did support Wyatt was McGowan, who emerged in his stead as the consensus alternative to Ripper. Momentum became irresistible when parts of the AMWU Left joined independents in backing a change, and Ripper agreed to go quietly in January 2012. Willagee MP Peter Tinley was mooted as a potential alternative contender, but he simplified matters by declaring himself too inexperienced.

Despite the scale of the 2013 election defeat, McGowan was generally thought to have run a creditable campaign, and he recorded a plus 20% net approval rating in the pre-election Newspoll. His position was further buttressed when Labor's position in opinion polls improved markedly later in 2013, after which he established a rare ascendancy over the incumbent Premier in head-to-head ratings. McGowan nonetheless faced a threat to his leadership in early 2016 when the former Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, declared his interest in following Campbell Newman's example in contesting the election as leader despite not holding a seat in parliament. However, such was the failure of Smith's pitch that the episode served only to demonstrate McGowan's command in caucus, which gave him its unanimous endorsement after the small handful of potential Smith backers read the breeze and fell into line.

Of the other notable figures in the parliamentary party, Roger Cook has continued to serve as deputy through the leaderships of Ripper and McGowan, reflecting his influence within the Left, and Ben Wyatt soon recovered from his failed leadership pitch, returning to the Shadow Treasurer role after McGowan became leader in January 2012. Labor stands to have another leading figure join its ranks at the election in Alannah MacTiernan, who served in state parliament from 1993 to 2010, and achieved a formidably high profile as Planning and Infrastructure Minister through the Gallop-Carpenter government. MacTiernan then made two runs for federal parliament, first unsuccessfully in the seat of Canning in 2010, then successfully in Perth in 2013. After an unanticipated announcement in February 2016 that she would not seek another term, MacTiernan confirmed her interest in a return to state politics, saying she wanted an upper house seat to ensure she would be not perceived as a threat to McGowan. After initial doubts that a seat would be available, she was accommmodated with the top position on the North Metropolitan ticket after Ken Travers announced in August that he would not seek another term.

Brendon Grylls has led the Nationals through an extraordinary period of electoral and political success since June 2005, outside of an interruption between November 2013, when he went to the back bench citing exhaustion and a desire to spend more time with his family, and his return last August. He first came to parliament at a November 2001 by-election in the seat of Merredin, since renamed Central Wheatbelt, where he succeeded veteran former leader Hendy Cowan. He successfully challenged Max Trenorden for the party leadership in June 2005, and then faced the challenge of contesting an election in the face of one-vote one-value laws that abolished three of the party's five seats in the lower house.

The Nationals' response was an election campaign pitched at the need for country voters to rally around the party to compensate for their diminished position in parliament, backed with Grylls' showpiece “Royalties for Regions” policy, by which 25% of mining royalties were to be reserved for regional projects. This received a ringing endorsement from regional voters, with two Nationals members prevailing in Liberal-held seats with which their existing seats had been merged. The party achieved still more dramatic success in the upper house, going from one seat to five and securing the balance of power.

Grylls pressed home the advantage after the election by giving every indication he was seriously considering the generous offer of ministerial positions and Royalties for Regions Labor had put forward from its post-election position of weakness. However, Labor's hand was weakened by the fact that Labor and the Nationals would not constitute a majority in the upper house, and hostility towards the idea among the Nationals' national hierarchy and rural establishment. The final outcome was a deal that the Nationals insist is not a coalition, despite the party's three positions in cabinet (four after the 2013 election), on the grounds that no agreement exists for the parties to vote together in parliament.

The Nationals' successes in 2008 extended to a 21.4% vote in the Mining and Pastoral region, where they netted an upper house seat despite not having fielded candidates in 2005. They also gained a lower house seat in the region when North West Central MP Vince Catania defected to the party from Labor. The Nationals then launched a strategy to build upon this success at the 2013 election, which involved Grylls moving from his seat of Central Wheatbelt to Pilbara, where Labor member Tom Stephens was retiring, and Mining and Pastoral MLC Wendy Duncan contested the lower house seat of Kalgoorlie, where Nationals-aligned independent John Bowler was retiring. Both were succcessful, with Grylls picking up an 18.7% swing and Duncan all but matching the Liberal candidate on the primary vote, then securing victory with a strong flow of Labor preferences. The party retained the status quo in the upper house, gaining an extra seat in Mining and Pastoral region to compensate for the loss of a seat in Agricultural region to Shooters and Fishers.

When Grylls reliniquished the leadership in November 2013, he was succeeded by Terry Redman, the member for Warren-Blackwood. When he announced his wish to return in August 2016, an initially reluctant Redman stood aside rather than bring the matter to a vote. Grylls' showpiece policy since has been a proposed increase in a lease rental paid by BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto on iron ore production from 25 cents a tonne to $2, potentially adding over $2 billion a year to government revenue.

The only two minor parties currently represented in the parliament are the Greens, who were reduced from four upper house seats to two in 2013, and Shooters Fishers and Farmers, who won their first ever seat in Agricultural region in 2013, then supplemented it with a seat in South West region after Liberal MP Nigel Hallett defected to the party after losing his preselection the previous February.

The Greens won their first upper house seat in 1993 and have had a fairly volatile time of it since, winning five seats in 2001 and four in 2008, but dropping to two in 2005 and 2013. Their success in 2001 was assisted in no small part by One Nation's decision to direct preferences against both major parties, but their effort in almost matching it in 2010 was achieved off a surge in support that pushed their statewide vote into double figures, which was not sustained in 2013. The only time the party has won a lower house seat in Western Australia was with Adele Carles' win in the Fremantle by-election on May 16, 2009. Carles parted company with the party a year later, and the seat returned to Labor at the 2013 election.

One Nation won seats in each of the three non-metropolitan upper house regions in 2001, but each member had parted ways with the party by the time of the 2005 election, at which all three unsuccessfully sought re-election. With the party's comeback at the Senate election in July 2016, it achieved its strongest performances in booths within the seats of Pilbara, Kalgoorlie, Murray-Wellington, North West Central and Collie-Preston. Perhaps their best prospects are Kalgoorlie, where the sitting Nationals member is retiring, and Collie-Preston, where they have the strongest chance of accessing preferences from the Liberals, with whom they have entered a contentious preference deal.

Prospects for smaller parties have received a considerable boost with a dramatic increase in the number of small party and independent candidates, and tight exchanges between five of the parties in particular. This development has been widely credited to the machinations of “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery, who has supplemented his activities as a staffer for Senator Derryn Hinch by advising local aspirants how to take advantage of an as-yet-unreformed upper house voting system. Parties to the deal are Family First, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Daylight Saving Party, Fluoride Free WA and Flux the System.