Former WA premier Colin Barnett.

With two weeks to go until Western Australia’s state election, Colin Barnett is fast running out of time to redirect a ship that appears to be headed for the rocks.

A ReachTEL poll in The West Australian on the weekend at least appeared to offer respite, showing the two parties tied on two-party preferred, but few if any insiders are giving the result much credence.

The quite different numbers that emerged from a separate, privately conducted ReachTEL poll this week, this time targeting six marginal seats, is reckoned to be nearer the mark in showing across-the-board double-digit swings to Labor in all the places that matter.

An insight into the Liberals’ view of the situation was provided during last week’s visit to Perth by John Howard, who seems to be a campaign asset in retirement as he rarely was while in office.
The three shopping malls treated to a visit were located in the electorates of Kalamunda, Southern River and Jandakot, where the respective margins are 10.3%, 11.0% and 18.3%.

The campaign energies of Labor and the unions are extending all the way down the pendulum to Darling Range, where the Liberal margin is 12.9%.

[Poll Bludger: what seats could One Nation win in Western Australia?]

Following Barnett’s blowout win in 2013 and a mildly unfavourable redistribution, Labor faces a neat set of electoral mathematics, in which it must add 10 seats (including two it already holds, but which have been made notionally Liberal in the redistribution) to a base of 20 to reach a majority of 30 — which it would achieve on a uniform swing of almost exactly 10%.

Given the statewide two-party result in 2013 was 57.3% to 42.7%, this suggests Labor will have to punch above its weight to get to where it needs.

However, the available evidence suggests either that the swing is indeed at that level, or that it’s helpfully concentrated in the suburban marginals where the election stands to be decided.

That leaves the situation much as it was going into the campaign, when Premier Colin Barnett candidly told his party room that the government was not “currently in a winning position”.

So far, the party’s strategies to turn things around do not appear to have hit their mark.

In the early part of the campaign at least, Liberal advertising sought to encourage warm thoughts about the Barnett government by pointing to jobs that will be created over the next four years through various public works in the pipeline.

But given the absence of any positive economic or budgetary indicators for the government to point to, such efforts inevitably invite jaded voters to ask why they should expect the government’s record over the next four years to be any better than the previous eight-and-a-half.

[Things are looking grim for WA Libs, but they could be worse]

It’s also very far from clear that striking a preference deal with One Nation has been to the Liberals’ net advantage.

The most observable effect has been that Barnett spent most of last week on the defensive, offering the unconvincing line that preference arrangements were value-free exercises driven by “mathematical necessity”.

One very big problem with this is that Liberals’ entire strategy for the next term is predicated on an $11 billion windfall from the half-privatisation of Western Power.

This is bitterly opposed by One Nation, and the effect of the preference deal may well be to give them the wherewithal to knock it on the head in the upper house.

What’s more, Labor is confident that associating with Barnett has caused One Nation to go off the boil as well — at least to the extent that their utility as a source of preferences will be less than the Liberals were banking on.

The tone of the Liberal campaign has become notably more negative over the past week, and while that was probably the plan all along, at least some of the rhetoric has reached a questionable pitch of severity.

Speaking at the official campaign launch on Saturday, state-turned-federal minister Christian Porter went to town on a number of members of shadow cabinet, blaming one minister in the previous Labor government for the death of an Aboriginal elder in an overheated prison van.

The Labor leader, Mark McGowan, was described as a “junior, sweaty, navy lawyer” — an unusual line of attack, but apparently a carefully considered one, since Porter separately put it to the party faithful that the state did not need a “slimy, sweaty McGowan”.

Desperate times may indeed call for desperate measures, but the Liberals could soon be reminded that it’s in the nature of desperate measures that they often do more harm than good.

Peter Fray

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