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State of the states: why Labor’s fortunes are on the rise in Western Australia

Malcolm Turnbull visited a shipyard early in the campaign to highlight an already announced contract to build naval patrol boats. AAP/Mike Bowers

State of the states: why Labor’s fortunes are on the rise in Western Australia

Malcolm Turnbull visited a shipyard early in the campaign to highlight an already announced contract to build naval patrol boats. AAP/Mike Bowers

Ahead of polling day on July 2, our State of the states series takes stock of the key issues, seats and policies affecting the vote in each of Australia’s states and territories.


By nature a conservative state, the Liberal Party has dominated Western Australian politics for most of the past decade. As well as holding power at the state level in coalition with the Nationals, the Liberals hold 12 of WA’s 15 current federal lower house seats and six of the 12 Senate seats.

This enormous majority has resulted in WA Liberals playing a significant role nationally. Four serve as cabinet ministers, including Julie Bishop and Mathias Cormann.

Key seats

Starting from a low base, and despite the fact that all three sitting members are not seeking re-election, Labor’s fortunes in WA appear to be on the rise. In part this is down to the strong swing against the state government.

Labor should hold onto all three of its existing seats (Fremantle, Perth and Brand). It is also likely to take the new seat of Burt; its candidate, Matt Keogh, ran as Labor’s candidate in the 2015 Canning byelection. The most recent BludgerTracker, which combines the results of a number of polls, has a swing to Labor in WA of 8.9%.

The seats most likely to change hands are:

  • Cowan, held by Luke Simpkins, has seen the notional majority fall from 7.5% to 4.5% in the recent redistribution. High-profile counter-terrorism academic Anne Aly is contesting the seat for Labor.

  • Hasluck, held by Ken Wyatt with a notional majority of 6% after the redistribution, has changed hands multiple times since 2001. Labor’s candidate is another academic, historian Bill Leadbetter.

  • Swan, held by Steve Irons, has a notional margin of 7.3%. The seat is being contested for Labor by Tammy Solonec, an Indigenous human rights lawyer who ran for the Greens as an upper house candidate in the last state election.

  • There’s also talk of Stirling, held by Michael Keenan, being a possible gain for Labor. However, this would require a notional swing of 9%. Labor candidate Robert Pearson has been very low key so far.

While the Greens are very unlikely to win any seats in the lower house, they are in a good position to hold onto their two Senate seats. The Liberals appear set to win at least four Senate seats, and Labor could possibly move up to four seats.

Labor’s target seats in Western Australia. WA Labor/Facebook

Key state issues

State issues will be more significant than usual in the 2016 federal election. WA Premier Colin Barnett has become deeply unpopular within the electorate and apparently within his own party as rumours of a leadership challenge persist.

The state government appears currently to be a magnet for bad news. Further possible delays may prevent the opening of the new children’s hospital, which was originally due to open in November 2015.

The collapse of a deal that would develop commercial, retail and residential property at the Perth City Link, in conjunction with delays in private construction at Elizabeth Quay, leaves the government with two large investments that are unlikely to meet community expectations for years and continue to be a drain on the public purse.

Between 2008 and 2014 WA was sheltered in a bubble; the global financial crisis was perceived as an event happening elsewhere. The boom of all booms was on, and this time it was going to last at least 20 years.

The rapid downturn in WA’s economy has come as a shock – not just for voters, but for the government. State surpluses are a thing of the past and WA now finds itself with a debt of A$40 billion and an economic downturn that still hasn’t bottomed out.

House prices are falling, as are rents. For the first time in years there has been a move from the private to the public school system as out-of-work parents, and many workers now forced to live on their base salary without any of the market and performance bonuses, try to cut costs.

Policy proposals

WA Labor leader Mark McGowan has forged a canny coalition with federal Labor leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten has pledged to move a A$1 billion in federal funding from the state government’s unpopular Perth Freight Link to Labor’s ambitious MetroNet, a significant extension of Perth’s suburban railway network.

Metronet was the key policy in WA Labor’s 2013 state election campaign. While Labor lost the election, it has kept the policy, which resonated with the public. It has been referenced throughout the last three-and-a-half years as the government has failed to deliver on its promise of light rail.

For McGowan, sharing Metronet with his federal counterparts is a win-win scenario. The policy receives free attention in the lead-up to next year’s state election, and now has the promise of national funding – assuming Labor wins at the federal level. Labor’s backing of Metronet also places pressure on the federal government to provide funding to alleviate Perth’s transport woes.

No conversation about WA’s views of federal politics is complete without stressing the importance of the GST issue. WA’s economy has tanked, yet the state will still only be receiving 30 cents in the dollar in GST revenue.

It doesn’t matter how fair the GST formula is, or that the Commonwealth is providing a top-up to WA to make up part of the shortfall. The optics of the “GST rip-off” resonate across both major parties, and Barnett and his treasurer have expressed their anger at their national counterparts over insufficient GST funding.

So far each major party leader has made two visits to WA. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made a short first visit to a shipyard to highlight an already announced contract to build naval patrol boats.

Both leaders spent time in their second visits campaigning in marginal seats as pre-polling opened.

There was much focus on Turnbull’s declaration that the federal government would not be providing $100 million for the new Perth stadium, although he did pledge $6 million for Baseball Park. Also gaining attention was the notable absence of Colin Barnett by Turnbull’s side.

Shorten used his second trip to announce Labor’s new $62 million policy on apprenticeships.

Western Australians should expect to be bombarded with political advertising, particularly from Labor in its quest to pick up seats, as we get closer to polling day.

While it is improbable WA will be gifted the equivalent of a submarine building contact, we should expect to see both sides offering sweeteners to the state as July 2 draws closer.


Catch up on others in the series.

This piece has been amended to correct that the $40 billion figure is the size of WA’s debt, not its deficit.