Yes, WA Labor lost. But the party didn’t lose big, and it’s very difficult to dislodge a first-term government. The result will not be the end of WA Labor, and Mark McGowan will be in a stronger position next time around.
It took a fair bit of luck to get there, but Labor has emerged from the conclusion of counting in Western Australia in a more respectable position than it might have feared on election night.
With two recounts going Labor’s way by margins of 24 and 56 votes, Labor has secured 21 of the chamber’s 59 seats, compared with 31 for the Liberals and seven for the Nationals.
This gets Labor over a number of psychological hurdles, giving the party over a third of the seats, a seat tally that starts with a two instead of a one, and a collective seat tally for the party’s opponents that starts with a three instead of a four. Most importantly, Labor MPs have won more seats than they did the last time a Labor opposition faced a first-term incumbent in 1996. The party’s defeated leader on that occasion, Geoff Gallop, went on to lead the party to victory when the next election was held in 2001.
WA Labor can also feel a bit less lonely if it compares its performance with other first-term oppositions in recent history. Listed below are all such elections at state or federal level since 1990 (excluding Tasmania, where the Hare-Clark electoral system doesn’t provide for two-party results), in order of the two-party preferred vote for the incumbent party.
Victoria: ALP 2002
Western Australia: L-NP 2013
Queensland: ALP 2001
South Australia: ALP 2006
Western Australia: L-NP 1996
Queensland: ALP 1992
New South Wales: L-NP 1991
Western Australia: ALP 2005
South Australia: Lib 1997
Federal: ALP 2010
Federal: L-NP 1998
Queensland: L-NP 1998
The table bears out the point that first-term governments are very difficult to dislodge. With an average two-party vote for incumbents of 53.8%, the only government that failed to secure re-election was the Queensland Coalition government of 1996-98. However, the list also suggests that not all first-term governments are created equal, and that certain contingent factors go a long way towards explaining the variability. Two of these have been identified in the table through bolding and italics.
Bold lettering indicates that the state government was of the opposite stripe to the party in office federally, which applies to each of five landslide re-elections that stand well apart from the remainder of the field. So while there is little doubt that federal factors played a role in the scale of Colin Barnett’s victory, it is less clear that the effect was anything out of the ordinary.
Italics indicate the government came to office without a parliamentary majority, which applies to four of the cluster of five landslide results. The exception is the 1999 election in New South Wales, which followed Bob Carr’s one-seat win in 1995. There is perhaps a lesson here about the value of a small or non-existent majority in imposing focus and discipline on a government, especially a newly elected one — an advantage WA Premier Colin Barnett will now “lose”.
At the bottom of the list are two elections which were held at One Nation’s high-water mark in 1998, and another two where the winning leaders from the previous election proved unable to sustain the confidence of their party colleagues through to the end of the term.
The former circumstance might be seen to illustrate how the normal order of things can be disturbed by disruptions in the party system, for which further historical evidence is provided by the Labor splits. The other lesson that suggests itself, and that a number of governments in recent times have notably failed to learn, is blood-letting at the top level is a very bad look for governments that are newly established in office.