When Colin Barnett led the Liberals to power in Western Australia in September 2008, he put an end to a 23-election losing streak for the conservatives at state and territory level going back over 10 years. It was the first turn of a national electoral cycle that has since brought conservatives to power in three more states and one territory.
On Saturday, Barnett became the first of the new breed to face re-election and the first conservative premier to do so in over a decade. For his counterparts in other states, the result will seem highly auspicious.
Whereas Barnett’s Liberals were in minority in the previous Parliament even after the independently minded Nationals were added to their numbers, they now hold a clear majority in their own right. The Liberals could win as many of 34 seats from a Legislative Assembly of 59, having gained two seats from independents and up to eight from Labor.
Labor has been reduced from 26 seats to perhaps as few as 18, with the Nationals gaining two to add to their existing five (one from Labor and one from a retiring independent) and all sitting independents either retired or defeated.
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As of yesterday evening the ABC computer had Labor leading in 21 seats, but in three of these (Collie-Preston, Belmont and Midland) the margins were under 0.5% — less than what Labor usually needs to hold out against the conservative drift in late counting. Conversely, it is not yet clear if Labor has lost Kimberley, which will come down to preference flows for which data is not yet available.
With a result of this clarity, there is inevitably a fair bit of credit and blame to go around. The Gillard government has copped the lion’s share of the latter, and not without reason. Hardly a post-mortem has failed to put the mining tax, the state’s share of GST revenue and the general unpopularity of the Prime Minister at front and centre in explaining the scale of the debacle.
Much less has been said of any failures on the part of state Labor, which received remarkably positive reviews given the result. The show-stopping Metronet plan to dramatically expand Perth’s rail network moved the debate onto Labor’s turf, gave leader Mark McGowan a platform from which to make a positive impression on an electorate largely unfamiliar with him, and ensured the campaign had more to offer than the usual state election law-and-order auction (though certainly there was some of that as well).
However, the unexpected size of the defeat has thrown the shortcomings of the Labor campaign into sharper relief. The final swing appears to have been at least 2% higher than party polling was said to have indicated earlier in the campaign, raising questions about what Labor might have done wrong in its later stages.
The decision to seize the initiative with major rail announcements during the normally somnolent opening week defied the campaign playbook, and the outcome might bear out the conventional wisdom that policy announcements should be timed to limit an opponent’s opportunity to pick holes in them.
Even before Treasury costed Labor’s plans at well above the ALP’s own estimate a week out from polling day, the Liberals had already drawn blood with a radio advertisement mocking the design of Labor’s airport link. This proved potent enough to have Labor both demanding radio stations pull it and running ads in response.
The other problem with Labor’s front-loaded campaign was that it had little left in the bag for the crucial final week. As many voters began to engage for the first time, Labor’s main talking point was an unsubstantiated claim that Barnett would hand over the reins to Treasurer Troy Buswell (who was disgraced in 2008 in relation to, among other things, sniffing a female staffer’s chair) at some point during the term. Playing the Buswell card had backfired on Labor in 2008, and it might not have done the party any favours in 2013 either.
Conversely, the government can take considerable satisfaction from the result. While it has been derided for the shallowness of its talent pool, which was most glaringly exposed when Buswell was sidelined and Bateman MLA Christian Porter bowed out to pursue federal ambitions, the government has at least been unified and reasonably disciplined, the misadventures of Buswell notwithstanding.
Most of all, the result is a personal victory for Barnett, whose sober and competent leadership constituted the Liberals’ most effective selling point.