If you weren’t watching closely, you’d wonder why Labor was even bothering in the Western Australian state election next month. The bookies and the papers have decided it’s a romp for Colin Barnett’s Liberals and there’s not much more to be said. Labor’s on the nose.

But that’s why it pays to look closely.

The fact is that Premier Colin Barnett has never been overburdened with political popularity; think Jeff Kennett without the charm. Circumstances and some Labor stupidity conspired to make him Premier four years ago, in which time he’s acquired nicknames such as the “the Emperor” (courtesy of the local paper) and “Col Pot” (courtesy of his local electorate).

During Barnett’s early tenure he had high approval ratings and strong polling, but that was as much a factor of WA’s natural conservative bent and former Labor leader Eric Ripper’s low profile than any love for the Premier.

Pundits expect an easy Liberal victory. But they might be in for a surprise.

To start with, the Liberal campaign has been a chaotic mess so far. There’s no coherent theme, no reasons presented to re-elect the Liberal Party and little campaigning save for wandering around safe Labor seats making small-target announcements. Sources in the public service speak of harried policy meetings where Liberal staffers madly try to think up new policies to announce the next day, leading to obviously stupid results like announcing the same funding for university campuses they announced a decade ago and then failed to fund at all.

Both Barnett and his blue-ribbon cabinet colleague Bill Marmion are facing credible independent challengers in their own safe Liberal electorates. The Liberal brains trust daren’t deploy Treasurer Troy Buswell for fear of reminding voters that, well, Buswell is the Treasurer. That leaves them with Barnett and not much else except a bulging campaign war chest that’s being spent on badly designed direct mail and TV spots that are even worse (do Liberals think real people wear their hair that way?).

For a government that’s had four years to meticulously plan its re-election, the whole thing looks suspiciously like politics on the run.

In contrast, Labor leader Mark McGowan has run a very good campaign indeed. Along with distancing himself from both Julia Gillard and the carbon tax, exceeding all expectations in debates and some very well-executed soft politics focusing on his family, his wife and his career as a naval officer, the central McGowan Labor policy of a greatly expanded rail network known as MetroNet has dominated and defined the election so far.

Hate traffic congestion? MetroNet! Fly-in fly-out worker who’d like a rail line to the airport? MetroNet! Living in the outer suburbs and jacked off at Barnett spending billions on a CBD marina development instead of services for your area? MetroNet!

The Liberals have run their campaign so badly up to this point that they’ve created a political vacuum. Nature abhorring such things, that vacuum is being filled by a now-electable McGowan and a popular policy.

All this was true even before last night’s leaders’ debate, in which voters were treated to the spectacular sight of a sitting Premier being politically dacked before their very eyes. It was a striking win for McGowan, aided by leaked quotes against Barnett from a member of his own caucus thrown at him by the state press gallery.

What is going on here?

It’s no accident that during the first two weeks of the campaign Labor’s primary vote improved four points and McGowan leapt 12 points on “preferred premier”, or that WA Labor led the Coalition on every issue bar the economy. Barnett might have taken comfort from the 57-43 headline two-party-preferred figure, but he shouldn’t have; given the underlying dynamics shifting Labor’s way, the next poll might be a sight closer than anyone thought imaginable three weeks ago.

It’s still possible, of course, that Barnett wins big on March 9. The sheer volume of Liberal advertising and visibility will tell over a six-week campaign, as will Labor’s lack of campaigning resources and the party’s subsequently reduced capacity to capitalise on its opponent’s mistakes. And WA is a conservative state in a big way — the federal polling alone will tell you so.

Finally, one person you can bet will be watching closely will be ALP national secretary George Wright. The most recent round of Nielsen polling confirmed what Labor hacks have been worried about for some time: not just a tough result in House of Representatives seats west of the Nullarbor, but a problem in the Senate as well. Given that the Greens are sliding and WA Labor’s Senate vote usually trails its lower house result by two to four points, a bit of arithmetic will tell you the combined Greens/Labor vote is sitting on around 35% in WA — well short of the 43% needed for three quotas.

Add in the fact that WA Labor’s 2010 federal result was boosted on the ground by two excellent candidates in Swan’s Tim Hammond and Canning’s Alannah MacTiernan, neither of whom are running in 2013. Worse, those seats — as well as Hasluck, Cowan and Stirling — have yet to conduct preselections after the ALP’s National Secretariat intervened to sack their candidates late last year.

All in all, four conservative senators from the West has become a distinct possibility. This leaves either just two Labor senators, or, worse for the ALP, just one Labor and one Greens senator to contribute to holding the line against whatever atrocities an Abbott Liberal government might inflict.

State Labor has shown in the last few months what good policy and good candidates can do. Come March 10, it might be time for those charged with thinking about WA Labor’s federal prospects to take some advice from their Western Australian colleagues.

*Luke Walladge has previously worked on Labor Partry campaigns but is not involved in the 2013 WA state election in any way