There’s a lot of black art in qualitative opinion polling - peering into the chicken gizzards that come in off our surveys you mix what you see in with your experience and training, and what you know from other sources, to make predictions. That makes it difficult to be dogmatic about a Western Australian election when you live in Brisbane. Even so, on the basis of what I divine from our research, Geoff Gallop will be returned as Premier of Western Australia tomorrow, potentially even with an improved majority. He’ll have the Liberal Party to thank in large part for his win.
I’m not sure that the Liberals really had a chance - very few governments lose office after one term, which is all Gallop has had - but what chance they had they’ve squandered through a misconceived campaign.
Their first mistake was to concentrate the campaign around their leader Colin Barnett, his experience in government, and his alleged decisiveness. It is true that Geoff Gallop is not held in particularly strong regard, but Colin Barnett’s position is even worse. Gallop has a negative 7 per cent approval rating (balance of those approving versus disapproving), while Barnett’s is -22 per cent. More to the point 22 per cent are neutral on Barnett - generally a sign that a candidate hasn’t made a strong, let alone decisive, impression.
The Liberals entered this election as outright favourites, with the polls in January showing them well ahead. This was probably a reflection of Gallop’s poor standing, and the fact that over the summer holidays no-one was thinking too hard about who they would replace him with. When they returned to work and realised the answer was Colin Barnett, some of them changed their minds, and Barnett helped them to do it by promoting himself as the alternate Premier, rather than just an Opposition leader trying to hold the government, which was likely to win, accountable. Worse, by continually harping on about his record in government, he reminded some of them why they had voted his government out!
It is almost as though the Liberals regard the last election as an aberration and see themselves as being the government in exile. Electors are likely to take a different view and see this attitude as a repudiation of their considered decision.
Another reason the polls probably turned is that the Liberals targeted the wrong issues. There was an expectation that Gallop would be in trouble because of an unreliable electricity supply and because he had broken a promise on taxes. Our research suggests that these are not overwhelming issues for the majority of West Australians. Liberal voters nominate electricity and taxes as issues, but Labor voters don’t at all. In the focus group work that we have done it appears that electors blame both sides for the electricity problems, and there is a genuine cynicism about any politician and taxes.
The Liberals are also weakened on issues in general because the one where they generally outshine Labor - economic management - is negated by the current good performance of the WA economy. That leaves them with soft social issues, like health and education, where they do less well. To win, they needed to target Gallop on those issues, at the same time keeping a low profile on what they would do if they had to handle them. This required them to campaign against the government, rather than to campaign for office - a fine, but necessary distinction.
From what I can see of the Liberal campaign, they took another tack - they decided to try to neutralise some issues, like health where they did a high profile deal with the nurses association, leave most issues more or less alone, and concentrate on the Premier’s indecisiveness.
This was certainly an option available to them. When we examined the hesitations that electors had when thinking about voting for Geoff Gallop 20 per cent nominated weakness and indecision as issues for them. In this context the Liberal promise to build a canal to fix Perth’s water problem has to be seen not so much as a policy announcement, but an attempted demonstration of Gallop’s lack of character. The problem with that is that around 46 per cent of voters had a problem with Barnett’s personal style, including a large percentage who found him arrogant. Incredibly, Liberal voters were more inclined to this view than voters in general! While the canal might have undermined Gallop’s standing, it eroded Barnett’s even more.
So Western Australians go to the polls this weekend to unenthusiastically elect a government. My reading is they will vote for Gallop. While they don’t particularly like him, or want what he will deliver, they are even less enthusiastic about Barnett. In those circumstances, and given that this is a first term government, they will give him the benefit of the doubt. If he doesn’t smarten up his act in the next term of Parliament, and if the Liberal Party starts to campaign like an Opposition rather than a Government-in-Exile, it is likely to be the last time they do so.
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