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WA election likely to be a close-fought affair

By Peter Van Onselen - posted Monday, 7 February 2005

The West Australian election called for February 26 will be an interesting electoral test for the post Mark Latham Labor Party. It will be particularly interesting given the new leader of federal Labor is WA's own Kim Beazley. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that without the affable Beazley at the helm, federal Labor lost two seats in the west at the last federal election, nearly losing two more.

Meanwhile the Liberals held on to their marginal seats of Canning and Kalgoorlie. WA Premier Geoff Gallop couldn't keep the smile off his face when interviewed for the local 6pm news following Latham's resignation and Beazley's announcement he was running for the leadership. WA Attorney General Jim McGinty was the first senior Labor figure to publicly call for Latham to resign. Gallop called the election shortly after he did. Kim Beazley has indicated he will play his part in Gallop's re-election bid.

However he wasn't doing the premier any favours last week when he announced he will be setting up a home base in Sydney to cut down on air travel. West Australians are parochial at the best of times. Gallop would have preferred Beazley kept his decision to spend more time over east private until after polling day. On Wednesday night, the Premier and Opposition Leader Colin Barnett squared off in the only leaders' debate of the campaign. A leaders' debate can be a valuable forum for an opposition leader, giving him an equal footing with the premier.


Barnett used the stage to introduce his plan to build a canal from the Kimberley region in the north of the state to service water shortages in the state's south- east. The ambitious project is a risky move for Barnett. As yet he has not given any details on how it would be funded, or exactly how much it will cost. The unsightly canal will also have to trail through a number of electorates to reach its destination. Ambiguity attached to the proposal could mar the Coalition for the remainder of the campaign, even if the initial reaction in WA appears to have been positive. The proposal has a little bit of the Latham Medicare Gold about it.

In contrast, Gallop looked polished and confident, even if he didn't use the stage to make any significant announcements. Gallop faced some tough questions about broken promises not to increase taxes and energy shortages from 12 months ago. These two issues are the reason he has never enjoyed a honeymoon period as leader and continues to trail in most polls. Barnett was effective at attacking Gallop on both these issues, even if as Energy Minister in the previous Court Government he failed to take the necessary steps in reforming Western Power which served as the precursor to power outages on Labor's watch.

Last year I co-wrote a paper on the energy sector in WA for the academic journal Policy and Society. Our findings showed that Barnett was captured by the sector. As minister he failed to institute the long-term reforms that were needed to guarantee supply into the coming decades. Nonetheless, voters know the outages happened while Labor was running the state, and lay the blame accordingly. Despite his failings as Energy Minister, Colin Barnett is no push-over. He is an experienced politician and policy wonk. He is a former head of the WA Chamber of Commerce, and he served as Richard Court's deputy for eight years in government. As a minister he held a range of senior portfolios, and his television advertising campaign for this election draws voters’ attention to his past achievements. The Coalition's message in the campaign is that voters have a choice between delays under Gallop or decisions under Barnett.

Barnett's past experience in government is essential in an Opposition Leader. It gives voters the confidence he could run the state. Federally, Beazley has the same experience, Mark Latham didn't. This is why Beazley will be a much more dangerous opponent for Howard or Costello in 2007. This week Bob Hawke flew into Perth to help with Labor's campaign. Both he and the Premier launched into a scathing attack on the bias in reporting by the state's only daily newspaper The West Australian. Despite the lowest unemployment figures in the nation and the highest economic growth - both under Gallop's stewardship - an editorial suggested voters face a ''dismal choice'' on polling day.

On the day of the debate the front page of The West carried a story of how the Labor Party is soft on drugs. That morning Barnett also launched his tough on drugs campaign. Labor's chances of winning a second term in the west aren't made any easier by the heavy rural malaportionment in the lower house. Rural voters are represented at the rate of about 2:1 over city voters. This favours the junior coalition partner, the Nationals.

The Labor Party tried to remove the malaportionment via parliament and the courts, but failed on both fronts. Rural voters are unlikely to thank Gallop at the polls for attempting to reduce their voting influence, no matter how undemocratic the present state of malaportionment might be. History tells us governments rarely get defeated after just one term. The last time it happened in WA was 1974, and before that 1933. However, with just over three weeks left before polling day this election remains up for grabs.

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First published in The Canberra Times on February 4, 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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