WA Opposition Leader Zak Kirkup
WA Opposition Leader Zak Kirkup (Image: AAP/Richard Wainwright)

Tomorrow is technically election day in Western Australia, but few expect it
will amount to anything more than a confirmation of the already established fact of Labor’s victory.

With perhaps half the votes having already been cast, expectations of a
landslide have been established not only by opinion polls — the latest of
which shows promising young Liberal leader Zak Kirkup headed for a double-digit drubbing in his own seat — but also by a Liberal campaign that has devolved into an extended concession of defeat.

Facing a first-term government that has suffered only minor scandals and
presided over a (slowly) improving economic and budgetary situation, the
Liberals would have faced a daunting challenge under the best of
circumstances.

But it was COVID-19 that whipped up the perfect storm that threatens to all
but obliterate the parliamentary party when the votes are counted tomorrow night.

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The pandemic has clearly been a boon to incumbents across Australia and New Zealand, but nowhere more so than in WA, which has experienced only five days of lockdown and one solitary community case of the virus since the first wave passed in April last year.

The advantage to Labor was turbo-charged by the Liberals’ courageous
decision last May to put daylight between their own response and the
tough-but-popular course pursued by Mark McGowan’s government, with then-Liberal leader Liza Harvey accusing the government of lacking a “valid reason” for keeping the state’s borders closed. When the Victorian outbreak escalated out of control a month later, the public was almost unanimous in concluding otherwise.

Nor did it end there, for the federal government effectively tarred the
Liberal Party with the brush of Clive Palmer’s explosively unpopular High
Court challenge against the border closures, which Scott Morrison judged
“highly likely” to succeed — wrongly, as it turned out.

The Liberals’ strategy to limit the damage began in November when Harvey was eased out in favour of first-term MP Zak Kirkup, who at 33 became the state party’s youngest ever leader. It continued with Kirkup’s admission a fortnight ago that the Liberals were in no position to win, setting the scene for a late-campaign pitch built around two slogans: “vote Liberal locally” and “don’t give Labor too much power”.

The first of these has been driven home in the thoroughfares of every
Liberal-held seat with signs promising either to preserve local bushland or
bulldoze it for the sake of a new road project, with the assurance that
voters run no risk of ousting a popular government by prioritising
second-order concerns.

The second places the spotlight on the Legislative Council, which maintained a right-of-centre majority after the 2017 election despite Labor’s sweeping victory.

This conservative bias reflects the upper house’s status as Australia’s last
remaining relic of rural malapportionment, embodying the principle that
parliamentarians represent land rather than people — in this case by
granting equal numbers to the metropolitan area and the rest of the state,
despite the former accounting for three-quarters of the population.

Liberal rhetoric to the contrary, this arrangement would make it exceedingly difficult for Labor to gain control even on their most optimistic scenarios.

However, it could deliver the balance of power to the Greens, presenting
Labor with an opportunity to reform the chamber that it is unlikely to let
slip, despite McGowan’s efforts to mollify country voters by saying such a
move was “not on our agenda”.

Talk of an over-mighty Labor government running amok also plays on
suggestions the Liberals could emerge with as few as four of the 59 seats in
the lower house, encouraged by last fortnight’s Newspoll result, which had the Labor primary vote on a gobsmacking 59%.

Such a result would raise the possibility of the Liberals losing official
opposition status to the Nationals, who currently hold five mostly safe
seats. However, the view on both sides of the fence is that the Liberals’ plea for mercy has at least been effective enough to spare them that humiliation, if little else.