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WA election will be close: The incumbent has the upper hand

By Peter Van Onselen - posted Thursday, 9 December 2004

The West Australian state election is likely to be on February 19 next year. It will be the first significant electoral test for either party since the October 9 federal election. A recent Westpoll favoured the Coalition on first preferences by 44 per cent to 36 per cent. This however is no reason to write-off the Gallop Labor Government: The state election will be close and Labor almost certainly has the upper hand.

As a “rule of thumb” oppositions need to be well in front of a government in the lead up to an election to stand a chance of victory. Remember the opinion polling figures a couple of months out from the federal election? Mark Latham was ahead in all the polls, but only narrowly and he had been for most of the year. However as the election drew closer the government began pork barrelling (aka making spending promises), revved up its government advertising blitz and increasingly targeted the opposition’s competency to run the country. Now Latham seems to be a lame duck leader biding his time before the factional power brokers work out a way of either returning Beazley to the helm, or widening Rudd’s popularity beyond single digits in the party room.

Like the federal Liberals, the Gallop Government has presided over a sound economy. WA has already seen a wave of government advertisements ranging from railway services to school retention rates, and Gallop has started questioning Colin Barnett’s credentials to run the state. Our state treasurer, Eric Ripper, chimed in suggesting Barnett would mangle the economy, using the costly Belltower development on the Swan River as an example.


Throw in the fact Labor traditionally does better out of second preferences and their position looks much better than the Westpoll figures let on.

Incumbency is a powerful political tool. It allows governments to set the agenda. John Howard called the federal election at a time of his choosing, spruiking “who do you trust to manage the economy and keep interest rates low” as the theme of the campaign, and fundraised effectively to blitz the airwaves with propaganda. Each of these benefits will be Gallop’s for the WA state campaign.

The other week the Gallop Government announced it would hold a referendum on retail trading hours. It might surprise the rest of the country to know that on Sundays Perth virtually shuts down. This is a largely unpopular anti-competitive rule, which counter-intuitively the state Liberals support. It is also a wedge politics issue Gallop hopes will put the Liberals in an awkward position, caught between the interests of small and big business. Such is the capacity of incumbents to set the political agenda. Already the Liberals, trying to respond to the proposal, have flip-flopped on whether they will support the referendum being allowed to go ahead or not. Opposing a decision to let the people decide is not good democratic politics in anyone’s language.

Colin Barnett’s approval rating as preferred-premier has languished in the teens ever since he assumed the leadership. It would seem West Australians don’t like the idea of him as premier. However it must be said that such poor preferred-premier ratings have not historically been an inhibitor to winning elections. Gallop himself registered a preferred-premier rating in the teens in opposition, as did opposition leaders Carr (NSW), Bracks (Vic) and Rann (SA). All went on to become popular premiers.

But all four Labor opposition leaders (and now premiers) ran a united team when in opposition. This is Barnett’s most serious challenge for the forthcoming election. He has had to deal with internal division in the WA Liberal Party ever since he assumed the leadership. The last few years have been littered with leadership speculation. Although this speculation is seemingly over, such division detracts from Barnett’s ability to present a viable alternative government.

Gallop knows this, and he will increasingly point this out to voters between now and polling day. Using the next few months before the official campaign period begins, as Howard did when bringing down Latham, he will drag out the phoney election in a bid to chip away at Barnett’s leadership credentials.


The momentum therefore will naturally shift to the government in the coming months, and there is almost nothing the opposition can do about it. Governments rarely get denied the opportunity to serve a second term. Reviewing recent elections across Australia there is only one mainland example of an exception to this rule in decades, and it was a Queensland National Party Government.

The Westpoll result is a shot in the arm for Barnett, but it is no silver bullet. In the coming weeks and months the Labor government will use all the trappings of incumbency to push its cause for re-election. The safe bet is voters will stick with what they know, and give Gallop a second term. With the exceptions of the 1933 and 1974 elections, West Australians have afforded every state government just such an opportunity.

Oh, one caveat to this assessment – a statewide power blackout this summer would change everything, delivering Barnett a clear victory. But this shouldn’t happen. State Labor have done everything possible to avoid it. 

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About the Author

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

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