The lid was officially lifted overnight on the worst-kept secret in Western Australian politics: the resignation of Left faction powerbroker, senior front-bencher and one-time Opposition Leader Jim McGinty. The announcement comes six weeks before the May 16 daylight saving referendum, and has obviously been timed so the resulting by-election can be held on the same day.

While this will limit the backlash that usually occurs when voters are dragged to the polling booths mid-term, Labor is by no means out of jail. Like its federal counterpart, McGinty’s electorate of Fremantle has traditionally been a stronghold for Labor, which has held the seat without interruption since 1924. However, a significant demographic shift in recent decades has seen the port city’s waterside workers and migrant communities make way for an assortment of alternative lifestylers, café dwellers, university students and bong shop proprietors.

While this mixture had long made the electorate a strong source of support for the Greens, few anticipated the strength of their candidate’s performance at last September’s state election. Adele Carles picked up a swing of over 10 per cent on the primary vote, and appeared on track early in the count to overtake the Liberal candidate and defeat McGinty on preferences. Carles ultimately finished in third place 3.4 per cent behind the Liberals, but the result made it clear that Labor could no longer take Fremantle for granted, particularly in the context of a by-election.

The Labor hierarchy has recognised its weakness by courting a non-party member in Peter Tagliaferri, who has been mayor of Fremantle since 2001. This trod on the toes of various union officials, reportedly including McGinty’s successor at the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, Dave Kelly. While Keith McCorriston of the Maritime Union of Australia could recently be heard musing about his options, it appears all but certain that Tagliaferri will be endorsed in coming weeks by the party’s administrative committee. The Greens meanwhile have conducted a pre-emptive preselection which saw Carles win endorsement without opposition.

The Liberals are remaining coy as to whether they will go to the effort of fielding a candidate. While they could reasonably plead that running in a seat with Fremantle’s track record would not be worth the expense, they might care to recall that they cut the margin below five per cent at the 1991 by-election that brought Jim McGinty to the seat. However, the Barnett government hasn’t been making too many friends locally with its plan to allow Magellan Metals to transport lead carbonate through the port, after a similar operation in Esperance was linked to widespread contamination and the deaths of thousands of birds. A more realistic consideration is whether they would harm the Greens by giving them a hurdle to clear for second place, or help them by marshalling the votes of supporters who dutifully follow the how-to-vote card.

The word from the Labor camp is that polling shows local supporters are so angry that last year’s botched early election delivered government to the hated Coalition that they are of a mind to punish the party further with a protest vote. The story goes that Labor are by no means assured of victory over the Greens even with Tagliaferri in their corner, and would be gone for all money without him.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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