Western Australia has a reputation for conservatism based on its performance at federal elections, but at state level it has long been finely balanced. Since the first short-lived Labor goverment in 1904, Labor has governed for 57 years and non-Labor for 60. The longest running goverment in the state's history, David Brand's Coalition government of 1959 to 1971, lasted a modest 12 years, whereas the records in other states range from 24 years in New South Wales to 32 years in Queensland. The pattern has been particularly consistent since the defeat of the state's last one-term government, that of Labor Premier John Tonkin from 1971 to 1974. The next five governments lasted between seven-and-a-half and ten years, tending to win three three-year terms up to 1989 and two four-year terms thereafter.
On this basis alone, Mark McGowan's Labor government clearly has history on its side at the coming election. The five previous governments going back to Charles Court's were re-elected to second terms with two-party vote shares of between 52.3% and 57.3%. The most modest of these was the re-election of Geoff Gallop's Labor government in 2005, and even that government retained its existing majority from 2001. In each of the other four cases, the governments were returned with increased majorities.
Still more encouraging for Labor is the size of their majority from 2017, which in terms of seat share was the most decisive election result since 1905. However, it was shaded in terms of two-party vote share by the re-election of Colin Barnett's Liberal-Nationals government in 2013, which recorded 57.3% of the two-party vote compared with McGowan's 55.5%. Labor also recorded an historically unremarkable 42.2% of the primary vote, partly reflecting new minor party competition from One Nation and Shooters Fishers and Farmers. By contrast, the Liberal Party alone polled 47.1% in 2013, with the Nationals recording a further 6.1%.
The Liberal landslide of 2013 was converted into the Labor landslide of 2017 by a 12.8% swing, with Labor gaining 18 seats from the Liberals and another from the Nationals. This gave Labor 41 of the 59 seats in the Legislative Assembly, reducing the Liberals to 13 seats their lowest share since 1956, or 1943 if independent Liberals are excluded and the Nationals to five. For the second election in a row, no independent or minor party members were elected. There have since been two changes to the party composition of the chamber, with the Liberals gaining Darling Range from Labor at a by-election on June 23, 2018, and Geraldton MP Ian Blayney resigning from the Liberal Party in July 2019 and joining the Nationals a month later.
Sixteen of Labor's gains in 2017 were in the metropolitan area, which accounts for 43 of the state's 59 seats. This reduced the Liberals' metropolitan holdings to a core of blue-ribbon coastal and riverside seats where real estate values are elevated by proximity to the city. Labor's inner metropolitan gains included a number of seats that naturally lean in their favour, namely Perth, Balcatta, Morley, Belmont and Forrestfield, along with more conservative Mount Lawley and Bicton.
The axiom that Western Australian elections are decided in the northern coastal corridor was borne out to the extent that the neighbouring seats of Kingsley, Joondalup, Burns Beach and Wanneroo were all gained by Labor. However, the result also pointed to the growing importance of newer development in the city's south-east, where rapidly growing Jandakot, Southern River and Darling Range were gained, and the new centre of Ellenbrook in the north-east, where Labor gained both the bellwether seat of Swan Hills and its more conservative neighbour, Kalamunda.
The 2017 election was the first won by Labor since the one-vote one-value reforms were introduced in 2008, prior to which metropolitan electorates had around twice as many voters as non-metropolitan ones. The partisan impact of the rural malapportionment system had been unclear for much of its history, but it was increasingly tilting the playing field against Labor as the party's support in regional areas declined. Two cases in point are the regional city seats of Kalgoorlie and Geraldton, which were once reliable for Labor but were both won by the Liberals in 2017. Kalgoorlie remained essentially a contest between the Liberals and Nationals, although Geraldton would likely have been a Labor gain without the rural areas that were added with the one-vote one-value redistribution.
Of the three seats in the state's south-west that were held by Labor before 2017, Mandurah has the character of a suburban seat, being located just beyond the metropolitan boundary, while Albany and Collie-Preston were held on tight margins by notably popular local members. With both the members in question retiring at the coming election, wins in the latter two seats are an essential part of any plausible Liberal path to victory. To this Labor added the normally marginal seat of Bunbury in 2017, which recorded the biggest swing of the election after the retirement of popular Liberal member John Castrilli, and the particularly strong gain of Murray-Wellington, where a 12.0% Liberal margin was overturned.
After an exceptionally strong period for the party going back to 2008, the Nationals suffered a reverse in 2017 with the return of Kalgoorlie to the Liberals and the defeat of party leader Brendon Grylls in Pilbara, aided by a mining industry campaign against his proposal for higher mining royalty payments to fund regional development. The party had defied expectations that it would be decimated by one-vote one-value through a highly successful pitch beyond its Wheatbelt stronghold, emphasising its “Royalties for Regions” policy and the need for regional solidarity in the face of reduced representation. This brought the Nationals to unfamiliar turf in North West Central, Kalgoorlie and Pilbara, the latter being won by Grylls himself in an audacious move from his safe seat of Central Wheatbelt in 2013, of which only North West Central remains.
Labor in government
Labor goes into the election with the near universal expectation that it has headed for a commanding victory, thanks largely if not entirely to the state's record of zero community cases of COVID-19 from April to the end of January. However, the government can also claim to have been largely free of scandal and disunity over the past four years, having ended its term with the same ministerial line-up with which it started. Its only substantial blemish on this count has been confusion over who will serve as Treasurer next term, with incumbent Ben Wyatt having announced his decision to retire last February, rescinded it a month later and then reverted to his original position in November, with McGowan declining to indicate who will replace him.
Perhaps the government's most serious embarrassment was the resignation from parliament of Barry Urban, who had gained the seat of Darling Range for Labor in 2017. It emerged eight months later that Urban had worn a police overseas service medal to which he was not entitled, ostensibly for investigating war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and that British universities from which he claimed to have received degrees had no record of him. Urban resigned first from the ALP and then from parliament the following May after a committee recommended his expulsion, resulting in a by-election at which the Liberals gained the seat with a swing of 9.3%.
The government also had a patchy economic record at least in the early part of its term, which saw a continuation of the low population growth and economic stagnation that has blighted the state since the end of the mining boom. The state recorded the highest seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for six of the 12 months of 2018, while Perth's median house price fell during each of the government's first three years in office. However, the housing market appeared to be turning the corner at the right time for the government even before the onset of COVID-19, which further had the effect of improving the state's relative economic performance. Western Australia was the only state to record positive economic growth in 2019/20, and by December had the lowest unemployment rate in the country.
Labor can also point to an improved budgetary position, despite a proposed increase in gold mining royalties in its first budget being blocked in the Legislative Council, where malapportionment prevented the left parties gaining a clear majority in 2017. Western Australia is the only state where a budget surplus is projected for 2020/21, which follows six successive deficits including three under Colin Barnett, who once promised he would never preside over one. In this the government has been aided by a spike in iron ore prices and the federal government's favourable revision of the revenue formula for the goods and services tax. The government has also enjoyed upward revisions in the state's credit ratings, and was handed a political gift when ratings agency Moody praised the “strong fiscal resolve of the State Government following the March 2017 election”.
Liberal in opposition
Given the nature of the 2017 election result, the last term has inevitably been a difficult period for the Liberal Party, which has twice changed leaders since Colin Barnett resigned in the wake of the defeat. It was generally anticipated that Barnett would be replaced by Scarborough MP Liza Harvey, who became Deputy Premier in February 2016 and was promoted during the election campaign as Barnett's successor after he retired mid-term. However, Harvey declined to nominate after the election defeat, saying she wished to devote more time to her school-aged children, and the position was instead assumed by Mike Nahan.
Nahan struggled from the first with a presumption that he was a short-term stop-gap, as he was approaching his sixty-seventh birthday and encumbered by political baggage from his role as Treasurer in the last three years of the Barnett government. Such suspicions were confirmed when he relinquished the position in June 2019, conceding that he had never intended to lead the party to the election. This time Harvey put her name forward, and was elected unopposed.
Harvey's leadership appeared to get off to a promising start, but the emergence of COVID-19 early in 2020 soon developed into a political disaster for her and her party. As the government maintained a hard but popular line, Harvey fatefully offered in May that “there doesn't appear to be a valid reason to keep the interstate borders closed”, a dangerous gambit that miscarried when the Victorian outbreak escalated in late June. The situation was compounded by the federal government's soon-retracted intervention in support of Clive Palmer's wildly unpopular and ultimately unsuccessful challenge against the closure in the High Court.
As reports circulated of devastating internal polling, Harvey announced her decision to stand aside in November. Two nominees emerged to succeed her: Zak Kirkup, who was just 33 and in his first term in parliament, and Dean Nalder, who had launched an unsuccessful challenge against Colin Barnett's leadership in September 2016. As support consolidated behind Kirkup, Nalder ultimately withdrew, and announced his decision to quit politics a fortnight later. The view within the party that youth should be favoured over experience was reflected in a number of preselection results, although Mike Nahan for one did not feel the party had gone far enough, suggesting outgoing deputy Bill Marmion and upper house powerbroker Peter Collier should also have called time.
Minor parties and the upper house
The Liberal Party constitutes the opposition without the participation of the Nationals, whose efforts to keep their distance in recent times extended to negotiating a possible coalition agreement with Labor after the 2008 election. The Nationals held ministries under the Barnett government, as well as extracting the substantial concession of the Royalties for Regions scheme, but reserved the right not to support cabinet decisions of which they disapproved. With former leader Brendon Grylls having lost his seat in 2017, the party has since been led by Mia Davies, who came to national attention in March 2018 when she called on Barnaby Joyce to resign over a party member's sexual harassment complaint. The move was reportedly unpopular with many in the party, although nothing became of suggestions it could jeopardise her leadership.
While the 2017 election result yielded a bumper government majority and no cross-bench in the Legislative Assembly, it was a very different story in the Legislative Council, where an unprecedented nine seats out of 36 were won by parties other than Liberal, Labor and the Nationals. The Greens won seats in four of the six six-member regions in 2017, doubling their representation after a weak result in 2013. One Nation won three, matching their one-off success during the party's earlier heyday in 2001, despite a backlash against their preference deal with the Liberals. One of the three members, Charles Smith, quit the party in June 2019 and will contest the election for the Western Australia Party, which takes its inspiration more from than Nick Xenophon than Pauline Hanson.
A further two parties hold single seats in the Legislative Council, one being the Liberal Democrats, who secured a seat for 27-year-old call centre worker Aaron Stonehouse in South Metropolitan region. This was achieved with help from Glenn Druery's preference networking and a fortuitous position to the left of the Liberals on the ballot paper. The other is Shooters Fishers and Farmers, whose significant base of support in Agricultural region helped elect Rick Mazza in both 2013 and 2017. Mazza will now attempt to expand the party's empire by contesting a seat in South West region.