Owen previews the Western Australian election, with special emphasis on the minor parties.

While other Australians head for the beaches the small tribe known as psephologists turn their eyes west across the Nullarbor. While Crikey is well supplied with on the ground commentators providing the latest news Owen Outsider ponders what the election will mean for eastern states.

Clearly the biggest question is whether the Labor dominance of state politics can continue. Attention focuses so much on Canberra these days that there seems to have been remarkably little notice paid to just how unusual the state situation is. In Australian history only once before has a single party held every state, and that was briefly and without the territories. It’s almost three years since the ALP took the clean sweep, more than six since the Libs actually won something, and then just the ACT.

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With the possible exception of NT, the western derby is the Libs’ best shot – the government there is the least popular in the country, allowing for the absence of top end polling.

Consequently if the Liberals cannot make it to the government benches there, even in minority, the wrist slitting, I mean serious examination, in other state divisions will be profound. A Barnett government would shake the confidence of ALP premiers, but would actually be good for the new leader – among the many reasons for Howard’s success is the Australian tendency to backlash against the party in office at state level.

Paradoxically a clear ALP victory might also be a good sign for the federal bruvvers. It would indicate that this really is a good time to be an incumbent and that Labor’s chance will come when that wheel turns. The two results that would be bad news for the federal ALP would be a Liberal landslide – leaving the state party so weakened it can’t mount an effective opposition – or a hung parliament with Gallop hanging on by increasingly bloody fingernails.

The other fascinating thing about the election is how the Liberals will get on if they win. Normally a newly elected premier would expect plenty of loyalty and devotion from the party he took out of the wilderness. However, normalcy and the WA Libs are awkward bedfellows. Faced with a caucus full of poisonous hatreds and fanatical crusaders Barnett watching could become a new national sport.
However, Owen as always is more interested in the minor parties than the big guys, so here’s his take on that.

The Nationals

As Sam Groper pointed out, the WA Nationals are an unusual bunch. Not only are they more environmental than the Liberals, they’re often more green-tinged than the ALP. They are proof that living outside the big city does not force one to be a redneck bigot, and homophobia is not a disease caught from cows. One should not exaggerate. I don’t foresee an Australian equivalent of the Green Party/Farmers alliance that includes the Latvian Prime Minister any time soon (no I’m not making that up).

Still if the WA Nats can flourish there might be a few surveying their declining fortunes over east who might start to wonder if there is another way. Last election was not a great one for the WA Nationals. They were reduced to 5 lower house seats and one in the council¸ suffering several close defeats. Seeing how they go this time is another thing that makes the election worth watching.

The Greens

To understand the Greens’ situation you need to understand the last election. The party did well – gaining 2.6% for 7.3% in the Assembly and 8% in the Council. However, the two new seats they picked up had little to do with a strong primary result, or even clever deal making. Ultimately the seats in the Agricultural, and the Mining & Pastoral regions were mostly the result of old fashioned luck – a much underestimated force in politics.

If luck deserts them¸ the Greens could find themselves losing seats¸ even with a substantially higher vote.

If the Greens lose both primary votes and seats the commentariat will, probably rightly, interpret it as a sign that the Green bubble has burst. On the other hand, if the Greens can get both a positive swing and more spots in parliament even Christian Kerr might have to reconsider his view that a 2.5% increase in the vote, and a net gain in seats, represented a federal disaster.

Where things will get complex is if, as previously suggested, the Greens gain votes but lose seats. Certainly the extent of the changes will matter. A 0.1% swing and the loss of three seats is a very different outcome from gaining an extra 3% and losing one spot. However, probably the biggest factor in the assessments to come will be what the commentator thinks of the Greens. Those who’re sympathetic will focus on the votes, while the News limited pack (and Kerr) will proclaim the loss of seats evidence the party is over.

Anyone who has been reading my posts over the years will have little doubt where I stand, so I thought I’d get in with a pre-emptive strike. There’s no doubt that the WA Greens would happily trade almost any number of votes for an extra seat. However, when it comes to wider implications I can’t see how a continuously rising Green vote translates to a party in crisis.

Family First

Many commentators seem to believe that Family First’s victory in the Victorian Senate signals the return for fundamentalist religion to Australian politics. To them the fact that this was achieved off a vote of less than 1% is irrelevant – this is the coming wave. I don’t rule the possibility out, but tend to think it is unlikely.

WA was Family First’s weakest state at the federal election, and they will almost certainly improve on that. However, they are going to have to stitch together an equally impressive set of preference deals to what they managed federally if they are going to go close to winning a seat. Nevertheless, how well they do do will provide us with an opportunity to discover if it is time for Owen to bury his copy of ‘The Origin of the Species’ under the Hills Hoist.

One point other commentators seem to have missed is that Family First took so long to get their application for party registration in that they were not registered until January 14. Many people were expecting Gallop to have called the election by then (and once the election has been called registrations are not processed). It’s likely that he delayed because a quick run to the polls looked insensitive while the world was still in mourning. God does indeed move in mysterious ways.

Christian Democrats

This of course leads us on to the honest wing of the fundamentalist brigade. WA was easily their second best state on October 9. Their 1.88 in the Senate was identical to Family First’s Victorian vote. However, WA has far fewer registered parties than the federal system. It won’t be easy for Fred Nile’s mob to stitch together the same sort of preference deals Fleming got. But they do need to outpoll Family First over there if they are to stay in the race to be the hardline Christian party of choice.

Liberals for Forests (and others)

The Liberals for Forests were not registered in time for the 2001 election¸ yet they still managed to score a seat in the lower house. This time Keith Woollard has gone in the other direction. Besides the party his wife represents he’s received party registration for the names Fremantle Hospital Support Group and the Public Hospital Support Group. Is the guy seriously schizoid, or is this a sleazy bid to stich together preferences? Time will tell. I’m not sure whether his chances are better in the first case of prodding the government into more funding for mental health, or in the latter of turning the preferences into a seat.

The Democrats

Judging by their website the Democrats are running quite an organised campaign. If they’d planned this well in 2001 they might not have achieved the disastrous result that triggered the dumping of Meg Lees and all that came after. Still, given their current low ebb it’s hard to see them getting anyone elected, or even holding on to their 2001 vote. Presumably if they can do better than the federal election they will hail this as progress, but they’ll have to do a fair bit better than that if they want the party to survive.

The real question for them is whether they do another preference deal with Family First or other parties opposed to crucial Democrat values. If they don’t their small chances of winning decrease further. If they do, even more of their rapidly diminishing membership will leave, particularly if yet again someone most Democrats can’t stomach gets elected as a result. Bit of a lose/lose really.

New Country Party/One Nation

One Nation has probably set a world record in the proportion of its elected MPs who have left the party by the time of the next election. This includes all three of the Council members they got up last time. Two of them have joined the New Country Party. The presence of two state MPs did the NewCs no favours federally¸ collecting just 0.18% in the WA Senate to One Nation’s 2.5%. However, the profile of sitting MPs might count for a little more when they’re actually running.

Judging by Sam Groper’s post New Country’s leader Hough has his sights set higher than merely beating his old party. Instead he wishes to bring down the Nationals for daring to believe that gays are human too. It’s possible that in close races their preferences may prove the Nationals’ undoing¸ but at this stage actually outpolling his rivals on primaries might be a little ambitious.

One other question crops up with regard to New Country: If only 1981 people voted for them in the WA Senate, just how credible is their state registration – something that requires 500 signed up members?

Independents and Community 1st

There will no doubt be many interesting contests involving independents over west, but since these are unlikely to have wider implications Owen will leave that coverage to those more in the know about local conditions. One thing worth watching however is the registration of the party Community 1st, ostensibly purely to support a single lower house candidate. It’s possible this is a deception, and the party plans to run in multiple places. If not, however, it will be interesting to see if bearing a party label helps or hinders someone who is really an independent.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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