WA election: an untold story

Apr 14, 2021

The main story about the WA election is the scale of the Labor victory. However, there is an untold story: the total failure of the “don’t give Labor total control message”.

Of course, the dominant story of the WA election is the magnitude of the Labor victory. This is thoroughly justified. It was an unprecedented victory for Labor in both Houses.

However, there is an untold story. The total failure of the “don’t give Labor total control” message run at the end of the campaign by the Liberals and the parallel failure of the Nationals’ campaign highlighting the threat to the grotesquely weighted rural vote in the Upper house.

Now that all votes have been counted, not only did Labor win by a record margin in the Lower House but voters also overwhelmingly voted the same way in the Upper House. In fact, they went further.

According to the WA Electoral Commission, the total primary vote numbers were 846 thousand Labor votes in the Legislative Assembly and 868 thousand Labor votes in the Legislative Council.

That means more than 20,000 people who did not vote Labor in the landslide Legislative Assembly election voted Labor in the Upper House.

It is, of course, plausible that the difference is explained by a personal vote for Assembly members.

However, this has not been the usual pattern.

In the 2017 Labor victory the ALP gained 557,794 votes in the Assembly but only 544,938 in the Council. Apart from illustrating the magnitude of the increase in the Labor vote, these figures suggest that there has been more than a 30,000 vote turn around in vote differential. The Labor Upper House vote has gone from 12,856 less than the Lower house vote to 22,258 more.

Furthermore, as there were many more candidates in each Upper House contest than in the Assembly there would be likely to be a leakage of votes away from both major parties.

It is clear the scare campaigns failed.

If they failed, as seems to be the case, what is the explanation?

  1. Obviously, one large part of the explanation is that Mark McGowan was unthreatening, and the idea that he would go crazy with power if he won the Upper house was not credible.
  2. It also appears clear that, whatever his other virtues, Zak Kirkup was not an effective advocate for the Liberals, but why didn’t it work for the Nationals in the bush?
  3. Perhaps people in the country areas, as defined by the Electoral Act, are not as obsessed with their excessive voice in the parliament as the National Party is about protecting their party interests.
  4. It is also possible that people do not care as much about checks and balances as political insiders (like me) tend to think.
  5. What was also missing was a legitimate minor party that ran a “keep the bastards honest” campaign. There were many minor parties running on the off-chance that the” preference whisperer” could rort the result to get them elected, which he did for a few of them. But there was no party pitching itself as a plausible moderate option.
  6. It is also possible that voters saw through the scare campaign because they were aware that every conservative government since 1891 has had an effective majority in the Legislative Council, so the conservatives’ cries of alarm about Labor having such a majority rang hollow.

There are undoubtedly lessons to draw from the recent WA election, but the result was so extraordinary as to render much of the usual post-election analysis redundant.

But the failure of the “Don’t give them absolute power” argument warrants particular assessment in the light of the excessive malapportionment in favour of rural areas which still remains in the WA Upper House, but which has been abolished federally and in every other state.

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