Lost in this week’s mild panic over Labor’s dire national Newspoll performance has been the parlous state of the party’s support in Western Australia.
Across the Nullarbor, Labor recorded the lowest primary vote in the nation at 24%. At state level the news is nearly as grim, with the ALP sitting at 30% as premier Colin Barnett parlays the mining and carbon taxes into crypto-secessionist rage at the Gillard government.
On current trends, Labor will hold one (Stephen Smith in Perth) or none of the state’s 15 federal lower house seats and just 19 or 20 out of 57 state seats when Sandgropers next head to the polls in March 2013. The party won’t even win a second Senate spot — keeping Mark Bishop’s SDA successor from assuming a place on the red leather.
Damningly, the numbers suggest the majority of the ALP’s losses in WA since the last federal poll have not bled to the Coalition but shifted instead to “other”, indicating the state branch and opposition leader Eric Ripper mostly have themselves to blame.
For months, WA Labor has been keen to cite federal factors like the mining tax and voters’ personal aversion to Julia Gillard for the slump. But now WA insiders are beginning to shine the spotlight on the party’s administrative wing led by state secretary Simon Mead.
The background is dire — large public companies like Wesfarmers that used to tip in tens of thousands of dollars have completely withdrawn their support and major corporates like Chevron and Shell are based offshore. Medium-sized companies are all miners whose chief executives live in Perth’s leafy western suburbs and vote Liberal.
Initiatives like the Labor Business Roundtable (the WA equivalent to the Victorian branch’s Progressive Business) work best when Labor is in power and lose their traction when legislative fixes are out of the picture, according to party officials.
On the ground, the party’s administrative office has recently been forced to move into the LHMU headquarters in Subiaco to save on rent. And last weekend the party advertised for a new “fundraising co-ordinator” (paid $75,000 a year) to breathe life into the branch’s red-ink stained books.
The car crash is also reflected in the party’s dwindling rank and file — in a state with 2 million people and about 60,000 affiliated union members, membership is just over 2000. Some state Labor MPs are beginning to get nervous.
Collie-Preston MP Mick Murray, who sits on the precipice with a margin of about 3%, told Crikey the state party could be doing more to stem the tide before the next election.
“They’ve been solid without being spectacular,” he said. “There is huge room for improvement across the whole party. Some of those people don’t see the enormity of being re-elected, especially in marginal seats.”
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near in top gear. Due to a lack of finances it’s been very difficult.”
Murray also reserved some opprobrium for his caucus colleagues: “There’s some MPs that suffer from what I like to call safe seat syndrome … it’s alright for them when they’re sitting on a f-cking margin of 10% or 15%!”
Shadow Minister for Local Government and Warnbro MP Paul Papalia agrees the political environment is tough but he’s reluctant to pin blame directly on the state secretariat.
“There is a large amount of focus on the federal government but we have to take responsibility for our own role and that’s pretty challenging at the moment,” he told Crikey. “Inside parliament we’re very effective but it’s not having the impact we might hope and large amounts of that is due to the all-pervasive nature of the federal political scene and the reluctance of any media to cover state politics.
“I haven’t done that job [state secretary], and I’m not sure that anyone could do it better.”
Mead told Crikey this morning that the road to 2013 will be supremely tough but that succour could be sought by re-energising the base.
“We need to invigorate people … we need to find the people that vote for us,” he said. “Whether that is money or it’s time, it is the same emotional investment we need to draw on.”
He says the ability to raise funds through smaller donations — employed successfully by Barack Obama — will be seized upon in WA.
“We’re going to stay loyal and close to the base and ask them to help us financially and with time … one of our great strengths is Eric Ripper, he’s a good Labor leader with good Labor values,” Mead said.
Party officials have the necessary rain-making skills to emerge as saviours, Mead insists, having scrounged $400,000 for last year’s federal poll.
And Mead’s performance could be better than the raw numbers point out: as William Bowe noted on Tuesday, the swing in Western Australia following last year’s federal election has been around 4%, compared to 8% in NSW and 6-7% in Victoria. The theory was that the resource states had enjoyed a “dead cat bounce” from a low base.
With 18 months still to go to the state poll, and the possibility of a federal election at about the same time, party loyalists will be hoping Mead’s positive prognostications prove correct.