As Western Australia continues to slog through its post-mining boom hangover, a deep malaise seems to permeate all levels of the state’s political life.
This has been evident not just in the mid-term blues that afflicts Colin Barnett’s Liberal-National government, but also on the other side of the fence, where the government’s woes have failed to appreciably lift the spirits of the ALP as it trudges into its eighth year in opposition.
Barnett’s stocks have been trending downwards ever since his sweeping re-election in March 2013, thanks largely to the state’s deteriorating financial position.
It was recently announced that the budget, which had been forecast to remain in surplus at the time of the election, will now record a $3.1 billion deficit for 2015/16 and stay in the red until 2018/19, while a second credit rating downgrade appears in prospect as debt approaches $40 billion.
Complaints about being short-changed by Canberra on GST revenue elicit a good deal of sympathy, but voters appear to hold the view that this still leaves plenty of blame left over for the state government.
The most recently published opinion poll, conducted from October through to December by Newspoll for The Australian, showed Labor opening up a 53-47 lead on two-party preferred, suggesting a 10% swing when compared with the 2013 election result.
The poll also found Labor leader Mark McGowan maintaining the strong personal ratings that have sustained his leadership through four lean years in opposition.
Nonetheless, Labor insiders speak of a deep pessimism about the party’s capacity to clear the obstacles to victory at an election now a little over a year away.
Partly this reflects a feeling that Labor has been hard done by in a recently finalised redistribution, which has lifted the uniform swing needed to pick off the nine seats required from 8% to 10%.
In other words, the seemingly substantial lead attributed to Labor by Newspoll is no less than it would need to feel confident of victory, unless the swing happened to be concentrated where it was needed most — meaning the suburbs of Perth, since the number of regional seats where Labor is still competitive can be counted on one hand.
However, poll results being circulated by Labor insiders suggest it’s unlikely things would pan out quite so fortuitously.
A poll conducted privately throughout the metropolitan area a month ago pointed to a swing to Labor of only around 5%, while an ALP internal poll of four Perth marginals is said to have shown the party poised to do little more than maintain the status quo.
A Perth radio station has also reported that a union-commissioned poll recorded no swing at all in the historically safe Labor seat of Bassendean, which former United Voice state secretary Dave Kelly holds on a margin of 5%.
Such concerns are compounded by a fear that even the lead attributed to Labor by Newspoll would not withstand the blowtorch of an election campaign.
While voters have generally recorded a favourable impression of McGowan when he has been given the opportunity to make his presence felt, party sources complain that he lacks the fundraising muscle needed to take on the well-oiled Liberal machine.
Since there is no reason to expect that anyone else on the Labor frontbench would perform much better on that score, there has been little suggestion that McGowan might fall victim to a party room coup.
However, the more creatively minded have long contemplated a Campbell Newman-style strategy in which a high-profile candidate is recruited to contest the election as leader from outside parliament.
The target of this scenario is Stephen Smith, who emerged from his experience as the most senior WA-based figure in the fractious Rudd-Gillard government with little damage done to his reputation.
When Smith bowed out at the 2013 federal election, the reason given was weariness with constant interstate and overseas travel.
Such concerns would do little to discourage a move into state politics, and backers of the plan say they are increasingly hopeful that he will yet come around.
Failing that, Newspoll offers Labor at least some hope that McGowan will be able to do enough to get them over the line.
But if a leader of Smith’s popular appeal and business support were at the helm, there hardly seems room for doubt that the “it’s time” factor would kick in hard enough to eject Barnett’s increasingly tired-looking government from office.