Political life in Western Australia has been anything but ordinary since the 2005 re-election of the Geoff Gallop Labor Government. Barely a year into his second term, Gallop resigned on health grounds to be replaced by former ABC TV journalist Alan Carpenter. Not to be outdone, the opposition Liberals changed leader from Matt Birney, a young man with talent, some charisma but an unrelenting ego, to Paul Omodei, a long term rural MP who was a sound if unspectacular minister in the Richard Court government of the 1990s.
Carpenter then allowed the Labor caucus to nominate Norm Marlborough who had earlier been banned by Gallop because of Marlborough’s ties to disgraced former premier Brian Burke.
Fast forward a couple of years and Gallop’s instincts proved correct. A Crime and Corruption Commission investigation led to three ministers resigning or being sacked, forcing several cabinet reshuffles which distract from the government’s attempts to establish the new premier’s credentials. More CCC revelations and the state’s highest paid public servant, Neil Fong, was dumped after he forgot about his email correspondence with Brain Burke.
The first electoral test of how the ALP is traveling in WA came with the November 2007 federal election. Alone of all the states, WA voters stuck with Howard, delivering the Liberals an extra MP to Canberra. The Liberal vote was so strong that powerbrokers within the Liberal Party started to worry that Paul Omodei might actually lead his state team to an unlikely victory at the election expected in February 2009.
Within weeks of the federal election, rumours of Omodei’s replacement by first termer Troy Buswell started to circulate. News of a drunken night in parliament and the snapping of a female ALP staff member’s bra by Buswell went public, but the Omodei ship was doomed and, early in 2008, Buswell flew home from a holiday in Japan to win the leadership in a bloody party room spill.
Boasting genuine talent and charisma, Buswell impressed the media, especially the state’s only daily newspaper, The West Australia. But then the Sunday Times broke a story of a chair sniffing prank by the new leader a couple of years earlier after Buswell and a Liberal female staffer had finished meeting with a constituent. Buswell initially denied the event, but finally admitted it, expressing regret and hoping the smell wouldn’t linger, but it did. Within eight months, his electoral support had crashed, with an election result suggesting the Liberals might hold less than 10 lower house seats out of 59 a real possibility.
- Monday August 4, 2008 - Buswell announced that he’s resigning as leader;
- Wednesday August 6 - former leader from 2001-2005 Colin Barnett took over, with a 6 per cent improvement in the Liberals’ primary vote expected;
- Thursday August 7 - Carpenter called a remarkably early election for September 6;
- Friday August 8 - the Olympics start and no one gives a toss about the election!
With less than three weeks to election day, the true colours of some of the election players begin to show.
The Greens say they’ll direct their preferences to the ALP because Barnett supports uranium mining (as if their preferences would go anywhere else!); the Nationals put their preferences up for sale but no one is buying so they announce the Liberals will be the beneficiaries (ditto!). But the bookies have the ALP at $1.25 for a win, with the Liberals at $3.75, so the time to take a deep breath and focus on reality is almost with us.
First, thanks to Jim McGinty, the ALP abolished a significant anti-Labor gerrymander in rural WA and replaced it with a minor pro-Labor one. So the conservative parties have effectively lost six of their former seats outside of Perth, but of the eight new seats created in Perth, five or six of them are safe for Labor.
Second, Carpenter initially enjoyed a majority of seven seats on the floor of the lower house. Defections by two sitting ALP members were matched by similar defections by Liberal MPs, so the margin stayed pretty much unchanged.
So, if the 2005 election had been held on the 2008 boundaries, the ALP would have held as many as 44 seats out of 59, meaning the Liberals will need to win 15 seats to take government (assuming the Nationals stick by their promise to never ever enter into a coalition with their former partners).
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