Until Saturday, it was possible to argue that various structural factors — wealth, isolation, an economy based on resource extraction rather than manufacturing — put a low ceiling on Labor’s electoral potential in Western Australia.

Specifically, the best Labor seemed able to manage was 32 seats in the state Parliament’s lower house, which had 57 seats from 1983 and 59 from 2008.

That was as many as Brian Burke could manage when he achieved victories that are still recalled as high-water marks for the state party in 1983 and 1986, and it was also the party’s seat tally when Geoff Gallop led Labor to successive victories in 2001 and 2005.

Even more compelling evidence for the modesty of Labor’s support base out west was provided by its share of the primary vote, particularly after the emergence of the Greens.

Going back to the federal election of 1990, the only time Labor’s statewide primary vote had a four in front of it was with the Gallop government’s re-election in 2005.

With that historical context established, let’s take a closer look at what happened on Saturday.

In an increasingly rare result, in WA or anywhere else, Labor’s primary vote indeed made it into the 40s — 42.8% on the latest count, the state party’s best result at federal or state level since 1987.

Still more remarkably, Labor’s seat total might have a four in front of it as well, if they are able to maintain narrow leads in four seats in late counting.

In two-party terms, the advantage to Labor looks set to come in at around 55-45, representing a swing of over 12%.

So far as Labor’s Western Australian branch is concerned, both the seat total and two-party vote share are without historical precedent.

Surprising as all this may have been, polling at the tail end of the campaign was actually very near the mark.

Liberal internal polling reported by Latika Bourke of Fairfax painted what proved to be a highly accurate picture of the coming result, and the pre-election Newspoll should end up no more than a point or so out with respect to the established parties after the dust has settled.

Nonetheless, pretty much all of the talk post-election has been of how surprising the result was, owing to the dramatic failure of One Nation’s performance to follow the post-Trump, post-Brexit, nationalist/populist script.

The lure of this story caused the election to attract an unprecedented level of national and even international attention (it’s not every day that your correspondent rates a mention in The Economist).

However, going off the fairest available measure — the statewide vote in the upper house, where the party fielded candidates in each multi-member region — One Nation’s 7.5% share of the vote has come in below the 8.1% recorded for the Greens, whom the media all but ignored.

[Rundle: no matter who wins in WA, the west is lost]

Here, too, though the result was accurately foreshadowed by the polls, if their difficulty in gauging support for a party that fielded candidates in only 32 out of 59 seats is taken into account (including the several candidates who walked out on the party during the campaign, but remained on the ballot paper).

In evaluating the spin, counter-spin and self-serving justification that inevitably runs rampant after a lopsided election result, it’s worth evaluating the journey the polls took on their course to a seemingly accurate final result.

At the start of the campaign, Newspoll had the Liberals at 30% and the Nationals at 5%, which was more or less where they both ended up on Saturday — indeed, slightly worse.

While the deal may have cost the Liberals a certain amount of extra skin in cosmopolitan inner-city seats like Perth and Mount Lawley, Senator Mathias Cormann was probably speaking more truthfully than most presumed when he told the ABC’s Insiders that the Liberal primary vote was much the same at both ends of the campaign, and had been little affected by the preference deal.

What did change was the level of support for Labor, which should end up around four points higher than the 38% attributed to it in the early campaign Newspoll, and One Nation, who went in with 13% and came out with barely more than half that.

While there’s always a certain amount of churn going on as voting intention numbers change over time, it’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that most of the vote lost by One Nation ended up with Labor instead.

In addition to Hanson’s widely noted bungling around vaccination, Vladimir Putin and GST revenue, Simon Benson of The Australian notes that Labor’s targeted attacks on Hanson over her 2014 call for the abolition of leave loading and penalty rates appeared to hit their mark.

Not only has the result taught One Nation a harsh lesson about the dangers of picking sides between the two-party duopoly — it also exposes Hanson as vulnerable to attacks from Labor over her enthusiasm for hard-right economic prescriptions that are out of step with her prospective blue-collar support base.

 

Peter Fray

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