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Chalk the seat of Perth up to a likely Labor win

Alannah MacTiernan has been preselected for the ALP in the seat of Perth - one of the few the party hold in WA - to replace retiring defence minister Stephen Smith. AAP/Rebecca Le May

The federal seat of Perth is one of only three federal electorates currently held by Labor in Western Australia. Retaining this seat is critical if Labor is to avoid complete oblivion in the west.

The seat of Perth is an inner metropolitan electorate spanning approximately 78 sq km. The division stretches across all or parts of 26 suburbs, and takes in the capital’s CBD and commercial and professional districts. According to 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics Census data, Perth is above average for both the state and nationally in terms of median weekly personal incomes, educational qualifications, and people from professional occupations.

Since 1901, the seat has been served by nine members, three of whom have had the distinction of ministerial service. Frederick Chaney Snr was Minister for Navy in the Menzies Liberal government (1955-1969), Joseph Berinson briefly held the environment portfolio in the Whitlam ALP government (1955-1969), and most recently Stephen Smith, who served as Minister for Defence in the Rudd and Gillard ALP governments before announcing his retirement from politics in June.

There is another member who is also worthy of a mention, albeit for a different reason. Between 1922 and 1928, the seat was occupied by Edward Mann. Political tragics may be aware that Mann was responsible for steering the Electoral Act (1924) through federal parliament, establishing compulsory voting.

The seat of Perth has had something of a lumpy electoral history. It has been subject to frequent redistributions, with the result that it has vacillated between the ALP and conservative parties at different periods. Since 1983, however, it has been held continuously by the ALP when Ric Charlesworth captured the seat from Liberal Ross McLean, who held the seat between 1975 and 1983. In 1993, Charlesworth was succeeded by Smith.

The seat is currently held by Labor on a two-party-preferred margin of 5.9%. Although the margin is much healthier than in either Fremantle or Brand, it is still uncomfortably slim given the electoral mood.

Western Australian voters have what can only be described as a torrid relationship with federal Labor. Apart from a brief but intense love affair with Labor in the early 1980s, WA voters have shown a remarkable lack of enthusiasm for the party at nearly every subsequent election. Since 1990, Labor’s share of the statewide primary vote has never exceeded 40%, dropping as low as 31.2% in 2010.

Given the strong anti-Labor predilection in WA, news of Smith’s retirement was greeted with some trepidation within Labor ranks. Although Smith’s primary vote took a battering in 2010, it was expected that his high profile would be sufficient to ensure the retention of the seat.

Labor has responded to the challenge posed by Smith’s retirement by preselecting Alannah MacTiernan to run in his stead. Although MacTiernan is not likely to be well known outside of WA, she enjoys strong name recognition within her home state. MacTiernan served in the WA Legislative Assembly between 1996 and 2010, seven or so of those years as a minister.

In 2010, MacTiernan exited state parliament in order to run against the Liberal incumbent, Don Randall, in the federal seat of Canning. It had been widely speculated that MacTiernan’s decision to vacate state parliament was helped along when her caucus colleagues overlooked her for the leadership of the state parliamentary Labor Party.

Although MacTiernan failed to take the seat from Randall, she has never been far from headlines. Earlier this year, she gained national attention when she called for Julia Gillard to stand aside as leader of the federal parliamentary party.

MacTiernan’s straight talking approach will most likely enhance her appeal to Perth voters. MacTiernan is also a battle-hardened campaigner. She was the only ALP candidate in WA to record a positive swing at the 2010 election. MacTiernan’s campaign will be further served by Smith’s role as campaign director.

MacTiernan’s prospects will be further bolstered by two additional factors. First, the return of Rudd as prime minister seems to have improved Labor’s standing in WA.

Also, the Liberal state government has had a difficult time lately. Economic growth in the state is slowing and commodity prices are weakening, which has had the effect of plunging the WA budget into additional deficit. The state is reportedly facing the prospect of losing its AAA credit rating. State debt is expected to rise to A$28.4 billion by the 2016-17 financial year. While the conventional wisdom is that voters are good at distinguishing the actions of one level of government from the other, it doesn’t hurt Labor if the state Liberals are struggling.

There is also reason to believe that the Liberals have never truly considered Perth to be winnable. If they did, then they may have opted to install a more high profile contestant to the seat. Instead, the Liberals pre-selected Darryl Moore, who only joined the party in 2010.

The seat of Perth is shaping up to be a fairly safe proposition for Labor.

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