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WA Power outages could be Labor's undoing

By Peter Van Onselen - posted Thursday, 27 January 2005

On January 23, 2005, West Australian Premier Geoff Gallop announced a state election for February 26. Calling the election now gives Labor a longer than usual campaign, as John Howard gave himself federally. Gallop is behind in the polls, as was Howard at the start of his campaign. A longer campaign will give Gallop the extra time he needs to put state issues back on the agenda after federal Labor's leadership woes.

In recent days Liberal Opposition Leader Colin Barnett has taunted Gallop to get on and call the election, accusing him of being more concerned about the state of his federal party than about WA. The irony is that Barnett won't be able to get enough of Howard during the next five weeks, hoping to piggyback into government on the Prime Minister's popularity.

Barnett will be hoping to host as many Howard visits as possible during the campaign. Gallop is concerned about the Howard factor, raising it at his WA Media Club address recently. When Mark Latham visited the west in December, Gallop did everything short of taking an overseas holiday to avoid being seen with him in public. If federal Labor reinstalls Kim Beazley, as it seems likely to do, Gallop will be joined on the campaign trail by a popular local identity, giving him an electoral boost.


All the main polls (Newspoll, Westpoll and Morgan), however, put the Coalition in front by as much as 56 to 44 per cent on a two-party-preferred basis. This is despite Gallop's high preferred premier ratings. Barnett has not been a popular Opposition Leader, inside and outside his party. When the Liberals lost the last state election in 2001, Barnett was the natural successor, having loyally served as Richard Court's deputy for more than eight years.

However, immediately following his defeat Court attempted to draft federal colleague Julie Bishop into the leadership, considering her a more popular alternative to Barnett. Even now Barnett and his party and Coalition deputies are at odds with each other on many issues.

Barnett's tenure as Opposition Leader has been littered with leadership speculation. For much of it his preferred premier rating has languished in the teens. Even now, despite his party's popularity in the polls, his personal rating is only in the mid-20s. But this may not matter. Gallop and Court registered low preferred premier ratings before going on to win office.

So why is Labor polling so badly? It has preserved the state's AAA credit rating despite a treasury report indicating it was under threat before the ALP won office. WA's unemployment rate is the lowest in the country at 4.4 per cent, and the state's economy is growing at an impressive 7 per cent. As far as Australia's states are concerned, WA is doing as well as anywhere.

The reason Labor is in trouble comes down to two factors: bad political judgment and bad luck. Let's start with the bad luck.

This time last year the state suffered widespread power outages. Residents were told not to use their airconditioners on one of the hottest days of the year. Labor lost a lot of political capital as a result. After three years in power it had failed to guarantee energy supplies. Even though the previous Coalition government, in which Barnett was energy minister, failed to embrace energy reform adequately, the outages nevertheless happened on Labor's watch. In truth the fault lay at the feet of both governments.


Energy Minister Eric Ripper has done all he can to guard against a repeat of last summer, engaging in short and medium-term supply remedies, but there are no guarantees. If outages happen during the campaign, Labor is done and dusted.

And, of course, WA state Labor's bad luck extends to having to call an election in the middle of a destabilising time for its federal colleagues, even if last week's developments have a welcome upside.

Labor's poor political judgment included putting up taxes despite promising not to during the previous election campaign. The Friday before last, Gallop conceded this was a mistake. Contrition aside, voters may not forgive him.

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First published in The Australian on January 24, 2005.

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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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