Even without the extra hour’s time difference from daylight saving, West Australians often know the result of federal elections before they vote on Saturday evening. This will most likely be the case again in May, despite Scott Morrison’s dramatic journey to Christmas Island.
The Australian electorate is conservative. John Howard was Prime Minister for 11 years. The West Australian electorate is even more conservative. The Liberal Party holds 11 seats out of 16, Labor holds the remaining five. The Liberals regard Western Australia as their feudal kingdom, or they used to.
Their complacency was shattered in the 2017 State election when Labor won a parliamentary majority beyond the Party’s wildest dreams. The WA Liberals, what’s left of them, are still shell-shocked. It was a strange result. Labor went to the election with the same policies and the same leader badly beaten four years previously and proceeded to destroy the Coalition government, exposing three weaknesses.
Premier Colin Barnett was the most experienced and capable member in the Parliament but he was a one-man band. Secondly, there was public disloyalty to his leadership centred around Dean Nalder, then MLA for Alfred Cove. Thirdly, Treasurer now Opposition leader Mike Nahan is an economist who persisted with unpopular privatisation policies. Labor, in contrast, maintained military discipline enforced by State Party President, now Housing Minister, Peter Tinley (ex S.A.S.), and Parliamentary leader, now Premier, Mark McGowan (ex-Navy legal).
Compared to the disunity among federal Liberals culminating in the Peter Dutton challenge, the Dean Nalder episodes in Perth were small beer. This raises the question: Will the federal Liberals in Western Australia suffer the same fate as their colleagues in the State Parliament and virtually disappear from view?
It is possible but a more likely result is a 50/50 division of the 16 seats. Labor’s prime target is the seat of Pearce held by Attorney General Christian Porter. Last time I wrote about this territory I favoured Porter to hold the seat on the strength of the good harvests and wool and meat prices in the farming districts of the electorate (P&I 21 September ‘The Cuckoo and the Nest”). This appears to be outweighed by growth in the electorate’s suburban developments such as Ellenbrook.
Labor’s candidate is Police Superintendent Kim Travers and she has a big team on the ground. Labor expects to win this seat but Porter is well resourced and is fighting hard. Christian is the son of Olympic high-jumper Chilla Porter, a former State Secretary of the WA Liberals and one of a trio who dominated conservative politics in WA for decades. The other two were Liberal State President Noel Crichton-Browne and Parliamentary leader Sir Charles Court.
Crichton-Browne now writes long letters to the West Australian newspaper. His latest was published on Friday 6 March under the heading “Bishop out to destroy PM Morrison”. It was a reasonable comment but I doubt if that was Julie Bishop’s intention. The PM may be collateral damage but the more likely reason for her long delay in announcing retirement was to keep Christian Porter out of the safe seat of Curtin and force him to re-contest marginal Pearce. No idea why she should do that but the gender agenda may have something to do with it. There’s a lot of it about. In the event, Liberal Party selection on Sunday (10 March) of a replacement for Bishop in Curtin ended in a contest between three women – Celia Hammond, Erin Watson-Lynn and Anna Dartnell. Celia Hammond, a conservative Roman Catholic, won a safe passage to Canberra.
The next two electorates where Labor has high hopes are Hasluck, held by Liberal Minister Ken Wyatt, and Swan, held since 2007 by Liberal Steve Irons. Wyatt works his electorate. His Labor opponent is a local lad called James Martin. Greens poll well in this hills electorate and their preferences will be significant. This will be close.
Labor’s candidate for Swan is Hannah Beazley. Whether belonging to a political dynasty is beneficial to aspiring candidates is a moot point but it did not do any harm to Hannah’s Dad, Kim Beazley, who held Swan from 1980 to 1996. Her grandfather, Kim Beazley Sen, held the seat of Fremantle from the death of John Curtin in 1945 until 1977. Swan and Fremantle are original electorates going back to Federation 1901. Labor is putting a lot of work into Swan, which has a history of changing parties.
Stirling is another WA electorate known to swing between Liberal and Labor. It needs a bigger swing than the three above but I like Labor’s chances here following the retirement of sitting member Michael Keenan. Labor has another excellent candidate in Melita Markey.
Canning is on Labor’s target list but Andrew Hastie holds it for the Liberals with close to a seven per cent margin. If a consistent and substantial swing is on, he is in trouble. The Labor candidate is Melissa Teede. To my surprise Moore, held by Liberal Ian Goodenough, also features in Labor aspirations. Labor’s candidate is Tony O’Gorman who represented the State electorate of Joondalup for 12 years. This is a long shot but worth watching.
Labor is not contemplating the loss of any of its five seats in the Reps and the controversies surrounding Liberal Senators Mathias Cormann and Michaelia Cash are unlikely to affect Senate voting.
Anne and I stopped at Badgingarra on the road to Geraldton for morning tea on Sunday 3 March and saw the front-page picture of Julie Bishop on the Sunday Times with the headline shouting “I could have beaten Shorten”. Nonsense, was my immediate reaction but Julie has a point. Her gender is an advantage, even more so following the Pell verdict. She has poise and experience and fund-raising credentials. What she and Malcolm Turnbull did not have was the confidence of their colleagues and that was the end of the story.
The Liberals are campaigning on retirement income tax and maritime asylum seekers. These are not major problems for Australia – yet. They will be if the economy deteriorates and if fundamentalist Islam strangles the politics of Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Peter Dutton challenge was so bizarre and the internal destruction of the Liberal Party is so complete that it seems reasonable to expect Bill Shorten to be PM for as long as he wants to be. Two caveats restrain that prediction. The economy is likely to meet troubled times and our major parties have been so close in policy and philosophy for so long that honourable members are reduced to spying on one another’s travel expenses while the public has switched off and does not care who wins.
Before the journey north we spent a few days in the coastal South West town of Busselton. While we were there Perth’s only daily newspaper, The West Australian, devoted seven pages of its Friday issue, including page one, plus an editorial to the retirement of Julie Bishop.
Yet on our travels we heard no mention of politics or politicians from our fellow tourists or the many locals we met. Not one word, not one person. I was listening carefully. When people are not interested and do not care who wins it is difficult to predict how they will vote.
Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter and a member of the ALP.