Labor in Western Australia: improving, but still a long way to go

WA premier Colin Barnett visits the scene of a bushfire in Margaret River. AAP/Tony McDonaugh

Punishing opinion poll results have become a depressingly regular event for Labor in recent times, at federal level as well as in most states.

It was thus something of a surprise when a Newspoll result last week offered one state Labor opposition a ray of hope, and all the more so that it should have happened in Western Australia.

Voters in the west have been heaping one indignity on Labor after another ever since the federal election of 2001, the first of four consecutive elections at which it lost seats in the state. While the party governed at state level under the leadership of Geoff Gallop and Alan Carpenter from February 2001 to September 2008, its electoral achievements were meagre compared with those of its counterparts in other states.

It was the only state Labor government of its era to be limited to two terms, with the Liberals emerging from the September 2008 election at the head of a minority government. This was despite the Liberals’ shambolic second term in opposition, in which three leaders came and went before the party turned in apparent desperation to its leader at the 2005 election, Colin Barnett.

Once ensconced in office, the Liberals appeared on track for a landslide win at the coming election, to be held in March next year. New Labor leader Eric Ripper struggled for oxygen in the media and was burdened by the unpopularity of the federal government, which was especially pronounced in WA owing to its mining tax proposals.

When Labor finally sought renewal in late January by deposing 60-year-old Ripper in favour of 44-year-old Mark McGowan, there was little expectation of him achieving more than saving the furniture. So it was that last week’s opinion poll, conducted from a sample of more than 1000 respondents with a margin of error of about 3%, had even Colin Barnett admitting to being “surprised”.

The poll in fact shows the Liberals continuing to hold an election-winning lead, but its two-party preferred rating of 53% points to only a slight swing from the 2008 election – certainly not enough to liberate them from dependence on the problematically independent Nationals.

Even more encouraging for Labor were Mark McGowan’s personal ratings: 43% approval, 17% disapproval and a relatively modest deficit of 43% to 30% as preferred premier, compared with Eric Ripper’s best result of 56% to 22%.

The apparent softening of support for Barnett’s government has drawn attention to its accumulating list of negatives.

After nearly four years in office, the government is less able than its counterparts in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland to blame its Labor predecessor for escalating electricity costs.

Another difficulty, partly related to it, is that many perceive in Barnett the same shortcoming said to have afflicted Alan Carpenter – arrogance. Barnett has particular cause to rue his recommendation that households should seek relief from power costs by turning off their air conditioners, which he asserted were “not necessary”.

This sounded very much like the perspective of a resident of Perth’s affluent western suburbs, which are cooled relatively early on summer days by a “Fremantle doctor” that takes until late afternoon to reach the lower-income suburbs further inland.

The government is also shackled by the “Royalties for Regions” policy, imposed by the Nationals, which allocates 25% of mining royalties to projects outside Perth. This allows Labor to point to extravagant spending in the country while city projects languish for want of government funding, despite the bounty of the resources boom. In this McGowan was astute in ruling out the possibility of a post-election deal with the Nationals, such as Alan Carpenter sought as he tried to keep his government afloat in the wake of the 2008 election.

For all that, Labor is no doubt keeping its optimism on a tight leash. It is telling that 40% of Newspoll respondents remained undecided about McGowan, who only served as a minister in the Gallop/Carpenter government’s second term and accordingly has a slight public profile.

His approval rating will have been boosted by something which has been largely unknown to Labor leaders since Brian Burke – a favourable run from the media, with The West Australian in particular having been cheered by his softening of Labor’s opposition to deregulating retail trading hours. It remains to be seen whether this can continue through to polling day.

There are also a number of reasons why the Liberals should be considered a formidable prospect in their own right. As I argued in the wake of the leadership change, demographic, historical and economic factors make Western Australia a tough nut to crack for Labor. Despite some misgivings, Colin Barnett maintains an electorally valuable reputation for moderation and competence. There is no sign of the federal government becoming any less unpopular. With the economy remaining the envy of the rest of the nation, the conditions for a rare defeat for a first-term government do not appear to exist.

Without question McGowan has given his party more cause for optimism than it had it the start of the year. But realistically speaking, its plans for returning to office remain a project for the long rather than the short term.