WA Senate: Palmer’s making a noise as rivals fret about turnout

Western Australia has been the capital of grip and grin in recent weeks, but how will it all play out at the ballot box come tomorrow? AAP/Richard Wainwright

Ahead of polling day tomorrow in the Western Australian Senate re-election, the University of Western Australia’s Natalie Mast sat down with election analyst and PhD candidate William Bowe (aka “The Poll Bludger”) to evaluate the campaign.


Natalie Mast: What have been some of the key issues covered by the campaign?

William Bowe: They’re very different depending on whose campaign you’re talking about. The Liberal campaign has been trying as much as possible to make the election about the mining and carbon taxes.

The Palmer United Party – rather more successfully – has been trying to make it about GST revenue. That’s an issue the major parties don’t want to talk about as it pleases people in Western Australia and angers people everywhere else. But Palmer is free to be populist and opportunist on that issue.

The Labor Party are talking about cuts. They’re tying in what the Barnett government is doing to what the Abbott government might conceivably do, and trying to work a bit of industrial relations in there in relation to penalty rates.


NM: Tuesday seemed to mark the first day that either major party was actually willing to put money on the table, with the Liberals offering A$50 million for rural health and $10 million for a strike force to battle bikies. Obviously with no chance of gaining government, there isn’t much that the Labor Party can offer.

So what are the differences that you’ve noticed between this campaign and a normal federal campaign?

WB: Well, as you say, Labor aren’t really putting policies on the table and it wouldn’t be credible for them to do so. So, the Labor Party are trying to make it about putting a brake on the federal government rather than necessarily giving the electorate too sharp a policy focus.

It’s very difficult to discuss the campaign without talking about the Palmer United Party because they have been the loudest voice in this campaign. They have had more advertising than the two major parties put together and, yes, they’ve very much tried to tap into parochial sentiment.

The policies that you mention in relation to the Liberal Party are the only concrete policies that I’ve heard mentioned, presumably for the reasons that it’s only the Liberal Party who can get up and say that they’re in a position to deliver anything.

The Palmer United Party, however, is pretending that they’re in a position to deliver something. They’re making out that if you vote for the Palmer United Party then somehow this will cause more GST revenue to stay in Western Australia. It’s only people who actually read the newspapers that are aware that they’re in no position to deliver on it.

The Palmer United Party is pretending that they’re in a position to deliver something to Western Australia. AAP/Tim Clark

NM: Last Saturday, The West Australian (Weekend West) newspaper ran what could only be described as a hatchet job on Clive Palmer and the Palmer United Party. They continued on April 1 as well, pointing out the possibility of many of his promises.

So, is Palmer still breaking through as a result of his advertising? Or has The West Australian killed it for him in WA?

WB: My feeling is that Clive Palmer doesn’t really mind getting negative coverage so long as he’s on the front page. I think that the very fact that he’s getting this amount of coverage lets you know that clearly the Liberal Party are spending more time criticising him than criticising the Labor Party, so obviously they think he’s cutting through.

The West Australian is running quite an activist campaign to try and redress this. It might have a counter effect if gets Palmer United elected. And clearly this wouldn’t be happening if there wasn’t a very strong sense both in the media and in political circles that the Palmer United Party is pulling off what it did at the federal election and spending its way into prominence in the final weeks of the campaign.

And whereas that didn’t get them very far in the Tasmanian election, I do think that they are succeeding in this campaign. Their message really is resonating in Western Australia and Clive Palmer is seen more sympathetically in a mining state like WA than he was in Tasmania.


NM: 14% of the electorate has already cast a pre-poll vote or applied for a postal vote. How realistic do you think are the claims from defence minister and WA senator David Johnston that turnout could be as low 60-65%?

WB: I will be surprised if that’s not an exaggeration. The only byelection that I can recall when things fell that low was the Melbourne byelection in Victoria – a state byelection where the turnout fell very low and that was mostly to do I think with Melbourne having a lot of students in it and the byelection being held during the semester break.

Historically, it has required some sort of extraordinary localised one-off event to drive turnout that low. It might be be argued that the extraordinary factor here is that the election was brought about by an administrative error. But, even so, a lot of byelections happen because of self-indulgent retirements by local members and even that leads to a lot of alienation and disengagement from the whole thing – but it never causes turnout to fall quite that low.

I would expect that below 70% is a realistically pessimistic estimate. Perhaps David Johnston knows more than I do, but I think it’s more likely that he has a political objective in mind in trying to promote the idea that it will be as low as that.


NM: Have you seen any specific polling related to Saturday’s election?

WB: No, absolutely none. The best you can do is look at state breakdowns from federal polling, and it, of course, is not asking people how they’re going to vote at the Senate election. This is a slightly different question and just general federal voting intentions. It could be that the two things are bleeding together though, so it’s a good guide.

Interestingly, I’ve seen a number of polls from small samples that have the Palmer United Party vote up to 10%. So if you aggregate all of those small sample polls together, I think there’s very strong evidence to suggest that voting intention for the Palmer United Party is well up on the very strong result at the federal election – from not much above 5% to perhaps approaching double figures.

The question is, though, how much does voting intention translate into voting actuality? I think it’s agreed that turnout will be lower, and pollsters in this country don’t have much experience at turning low turnout factors into concrete poll results. They do in the United States – it’s a big part of polling there – but pollsters here are traditionally able to take for granted the fact that we’ll get almost full turnout.

So, that really is a big imponderable and it’s making it very difficult to call.

How much does voting intention translate into voting actuality? AAP/Lukas Coch

NM: Antony Green has announced that the ABC will be having live election-night coverage. What do you reckon we’re going to know by the end of the evening?

WB: Probably the picture will be somewhat clearer. It may be entirely clear at the end of election night. There’s talk that we may not know the outcome for several weeks – certainly that’s possible. But it’s equally possible that the result will emerge with enough clarity – it’s yet another imponderable.

If it isn’t a clear-cut result, then probably we are going to have to wait several weeks. I think we’ll probably get one or the other – either we’ll know straight away on election night or we’ll have a fairly long wait. I don’t think it’s likely that the immediate week of early counting will add much clarity. So either we’ll know that the Liberals have clearly got the three quotas; we’ll clearly know that Labor and the Greens between them have got the three quotas.

I think there’s good reason to suspect it will be murkier than that, because if the Palmer United Party does poll very well then it will win a seat. But the question is, who is it winning a seat from? Is it poaching a third seat from the Liberals, or is it reducing Labor and the Greens to two seats again?


NM: Are you willing to make a prediction as to what the most likely outcome will be?

WB: It’s really difficult. There’s very good evidence that the Palmer United Party is up to 10%: that does mean that they’re winning a seat, and it really does depend which side of the ledger that comes from.

I tend to think that the left [Labor and the Greens] is being squeezed back to two seats again, in which case I think that Louise Pratt might be in trouble, because I think that Scott Ludlam’s campaign is really building a head of steam.