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2021 Western Australian election preview

This was originally published on 10th March, 2021, and republished here on 4th January, 2022.

New South Wales’ finest, Mark McGowan, is doing his level best to become Mr Westralia, parochial superhero without compare, and without any political opposition either. Having already led the WA Labor Party out of the doldrums (though only in state elections) at the 2017 election to earn one of the most crushing victories in Australian political history, his party is now on track to equal or better their result at the last election, so much so that the Liberal Party has already conceded that they can’t win, but wants voters to vote for them anyway to ensure that there is at least someone to hold them to account.

No-one really seems to know what the election is even being fought over, although given the ALP won one of the largest electoral victories on the back of promising new train lines which haven’t opened yet, high energy prices that have gone up again anyway, and boredom with the previous government, perhaps it doesn’t even matter. Australian state politics has devolved into fighting over food scraps, thanks to the amazing ability for Canberra to suck all the money and power away from the states despite the point of federating the nation being the exact opposite.

(Image: WA Today)

The argument of holding the government to account would be more convincing had the Liberals done much over the last four years to hold this government to account in the first place. Other than a couple of standout performers, the Liberals have failed to get any cut-through on any topic, especially on anything concerning the Premier. As a result, they’re now on their third leader (Zak Kirkup) in four years, who is himself facing a potential defeat in his seat, which he holds by less than 1%. The previous leader (Liza Harvey) quit her post because she wanted to concentrate on winning her seat, which she holds by just under 6% in a historically safely Liberal area.

This should give you some indication of the direction this election is going in. Nevertheless, even without the main result being seriously up for grabs, there are a few other things that are.

Total capitalulation?

The situation in the capital was grim but salvageable for the Liberals last time around. While they lost many of the outer middle-to-lower income suburbs, especially in those areas with new estates (such as West Swan, Southern River and Jandakot), the inner-suburban ‘true blue’ areas, particularly on the coast on the north side of Perth, held firm. This created a long, thin path of blue in a sea of red.

Note: Darling Range, the blue seat around Byford, was won by Labor in 2017, but taken back by the Liberals at a later by-election. (Image created with map from Ben Raue/The Tally Room)

This string of seats was meant to be the solid, untouchable base from which the Liberals could rebuild. The demographics in these seats are usually older, wealthier and more conservative compared to Labor heartland, although the wealthiest seats tend to have more liberal, free-marketeers rather than suburban conservatives.

The problem that‘s emerged for Opposition, though, is that these seats are not quite as secure as they appeared, almost entirely thanks to the absurdity of the last 12 months. Indications seem to be that the government, and Mark McGowan in particular, has done a bang-up job at making older voters feel ‘safe’, to the extent that they approve of his job performance and even say they are willing to vote Labor.

Whereas at the last election Labor was able to garner a large proportion of their swing in the outer suburbs, it could well be that this time around they are gaining popularity in all the seats that they didn’t make much ground in last time around. This puts Kirkup in serious trouble, as the average age of voters in his Dawesville seat is older than the state average — it’s one of the state’s favoured areas to retire to. It is entirely likely that part of the reason he became leader of the Liberals was to get him some name recognition.

Dean Nalder (MLA for Bateman) announced his resignation from politics not long after his second failed leadership challenge. (Image: ABC News/Andrew O’Connor)

More worrying in this regard for the Liberals, then, is the seats where they have retiring members: Bateman, Riverton and South Perth. The retiring member in Bateman, Dean Nalder, was parachuted into the seat after redistributions made his then-seat (Bicton) marginal, forcing Matt Taylor, the member for Bateman, to contest Bicton (and losing to Labor). And for all that moving around, Bateman may now be up for grabs as well.

Name recognition generally accounts for a couple of percentage points, although if the member is quite unpopular those points can go in the other direction. Having said that, I’m not sure it will make much difference that the local member is retiring in these seats. Nalder was never especially popular and had moved to a new seat; Mike Nahan in Riverton had already stopped having a media presence for the past few years, and the margin in South Perth is large enough that the departure of John McGrath probably won’t have an enormous effect, given the margin is 7.2%.

Furthermore, the number-crunching being done is almost entirely reliant on small, scarce polls with questionable backing. The polling industry is a disaster, and there’s little reason to start believing them now. However, they have likely accurately captured the general mood in the state, which means that there will likely be some swing towards Labor in Liberal seats. The questions are simply how much, and where. The Liberals currently hold 13 seats. A 10% swing would see them lose all but three or four, while a 3% swing could see them hold on to almost all of them.

So, which seats are in the firing line?

Peter Katsambanis (right) has an uphill battle to hold the seat of Hillarys from Labor’s Caitlin Collins (Image: ABC News/Jessica Warriner)

Hillarys (0.1% Lib), Dawesville (0.8% Lib) and Darling Range (3.5% Lib) all seem like easy ALP gains at first glance, but only the latter is so. The margin in the former two is so slim that any further gains for Labor almost immediately wipe them off the board, but as the old saying goes, ‘swing is not uniform‘. As mentioned, Dawesville now belongs to the leader of the Liberal Party, which normally boosts the incumbent’s results, while Hillarys had a unique situation at the last election, with the sitting Liberal being booted out of the party and running as an independent. That may have affect the flow of preferences in Labor’s favour, although if there is still ill-feeling towards his successor then the ALP would be the beneficiary anyway.

Hillarys has also been shifted north, taking in a stronger Labor area than last time, which may mean the size of the Liberal margin is understated. However, it seems unlikely to me that the personal vote for Peter Katsambanis will be high enough to prevent a small Labor swing unseating him. Kirkup may have a better chance in Dawesville, given how historically safe the seat has been for the Liberals, along with his leadership recognition and this being his second election (both of which normally boost the vote of the incumbent), but if there is any “retiree swing” towards Labor, he is toast.

Here’s my suspicion: there will be a swing to the ALP, but it will not be anything like as large as last time in the seats the Labor didn’t win. In the seats they did win, there may be another double digit swing, but in the seats they didn’t, I’d expect it to be around 4–5%. There are a lot of people in these seats who have never voted Labor, and when they arrive at the polling booth they just won’t quite be able to bring themselves to do it.

Now, if we use that as a baseline swing, Kirkup may just hang on, given the dual advantages he has. In the case of Darling Range, by contrast, Labor actually won it last time, so the by-election win for the Liberals was typical of anti-government swings at by-elections. Of the three, it is probably the easiest for Labor to win, as strange as that may sound, because they have actually won the seat before (in 2017), and comfortably at that. The residual anger over the resignation of the sitting member at the time will have dissapated, so it seems likely that they will win the seat back.

At the other end of the Liberal seats, Carine (10.1%), Churchlands (11.7%), Cottesloe (14.6%) and Vasse (14.6%) will remain in their hands. This leaves six seats as the serious battlegrounds: Riverton (4.2%), Scarborough (5.7%), Kalgoorlie (6.2%) (we’ll deal with the regions later), South Perth (7.2%), Bateman (7.8%) and Nedlands (8.0%).

Former Liberal leader Liza Harvey resigned from the leadership in order to protect her previously safe seat of Scarborough. (Image: Marta Pascual Juanola)

Both major parties have been campaigning heavily in the latter three seats, and while it is theoretically possible that Labor could win them, the ALP is already at near record voting highs. The idea that these traditionally very safe Liberal seats might have another near double-digit swing against them, even in a non-traditional election, seems too unlikely, but having them close the gap to 1–3% is more believable (although if the Liberals lose one of them, they could very well lose all three). If we assume a statewide 4–5% swing, this would instead leave two seats in the balance: Riverton and Scarborough.

Created at the 2008 election, Scarborough is a bit of a strange seat, even in its looks (as it resembles an ‘H’). The area around Innaloo is the most Labor-leaning portion, while Gwelup to the north more closely resembles the seat of Carine, which is much more Liberal oriented. The remainder of the seat, across Doubleview, Scarborough and Trigg, has neither the traditional wealth of the Golden Triangle suburbs to their south, nor the more modern wealth of the area to the north, making it a middle-class area of its own, which just so happen to have apartments and a popular nightspot on its western edge.

Riverton, despite having a similar margin for the Liberals, is not quite so varied in its make-up. Bordering the Canning River to the north, Roe Highway to the south and the Kwinana Freeway to the west, Riverton includes a wealthy riverside stretch, but is mostly middle suburbia, though the area has become increasingly pricey thanks to a constant demand for housing due to the local public high schools. This has made the seat more Liberal-leaning since it was last won by Labor in 2005. However, while it is less variable than Scarborough, there are two reasons why it may be more likely to fall to Labor: incumbency, and margin. If the statewide swing is between 4–5%, that would be enough to see Riverton fall, but not Scarborough. In addition, the local member is retiring in Riverton, but not in Scarborough.

Not everyone is happy with the current government. (Image: Bell Tower Times)

Because Swing is Not Uniform™, it is also theoretically possible that there could be a swing to Labor statewide, but that the Liberals pick up some seats even while losing others (and also possible that they have a statewide swing to them, but that seems exceptionally unlikely). The ALP margin in Joondalup is less than 1%, while a number of other seats they won at the last election are also on small margins, such as Kingsley (1.2%), Murray-Wellington (1.7%), Jandakot (1.8%) and Kalamunda (2.3%), the latter of which might be the most likely of these seats for the Liberals to win back at this election thanks to local issues in the seat getting significant campaign attention.

Long before he became a politician, Peter Watson represented Australia as a long-distance runner, including at the 1968 Olympics. (Image: Albany Advertiser)

In the regions, there are three seats of interest. Albany (ALP 5.9%) has been held by the extraordinary Peter Watson since 2001, who has seen off challenge after challenge in a seat that would more than likely be held by either the Liberals or the Nationals in any other circumstances. His retirement would normally have those two parties jumping at the chance to win the seat, but Labor’s statewide popularity may put a dent in their plans, especially with Watson enthusiastically supporting the Labor candidate.

Geraldton (Nat 1.3%) was not actually won by the Nationals at the last election, but by Ian Blayney of the Liberals, who later switched his party affiliation. Blayney, who has been the MLA for the seat since 2008, will contest this election for the Nationals, who have yet to finish higher than a distant 2nd in the seat. Labor will be hoping to win this seat back, after being just short last time.

Kalgoorlie (Lib 6.2%) is the third and final seat, and also the most odd. It hasn’t been won by the major governing party since the 1990s, with the Liberals winning the seat for the first time in 2001 — an election they lost by a large margin — before losing it to a Labor-turned-independent in 2008, who then endorsed the winning Nationals candidate in 2013, before the Liberals then won it back in 2017. While Labor will probably finish with the most 1st preference, they are unlikely to win the seat due to the preponderance of conservative parties.

Meanwhile, in the Upper House

“Total control!” has been the name of the game for the Liberals as the election campaign draws to a close, the phrase being a warning about what the ALP could have unless voters send their ballots to other parties in the Upper House.

Only in Western Australia are voters still forced to either use the group ticket (voting ‘1’ above the line), or number every box without a mistake below the line. (Image: Parliament of Western Australia)

The methodology for deciding WA’s Legislative Council comes up for debate at every election, for two reasons: firstly, the Council is divided into six regions, which each get six seats, but the regions consist of three for Perth, and three for the rest of the state, even though the population of the entire state is predominantly (more than 80%) in Perth. Second, the voting method still uses Group Ticket Voting, which means that parties decide where preferences go if you decide to vote for them ‘above the line’. If you choose to do the ‘below the line’ preferences, you must not make a mistake in your numbering of 50+ candidates, or your ballot will be rejected.

One of these is significantly worse than the others. The 6x6 format of the Council was created by a deal between Labor, the Nationals and the Greens, through which the lower house become ‘one vote, one value’, after previously having malapportioned rural seats much smaller than seats in Perth. To ensure their support, the Labor government agreed to enlarge the upper house, with more seats in the regions. Their working theory was that they would gain an extra seat in the Mining and Pastoral Region, which would offset the gain of the Nationals in the Agricultural Region, and would give the Liberals nothing.

As with many such schemes, it did not work out that way, and now Labor faces an uphill battle to get even close to a majority in the upper chamber, as they struggle to get significant support or preferences outside of Perth. Nevertheless, it is difficult to change the chamber, as the Western Australian Constitution does not easily allow for a shrinking of the chamber, and the MLCs within it are unlikely to vote themselves out of a job without good reason.

Furthermore, given the size of the state it is reasonable to expect that regional voters would get a disproportionate amount of representation somewhere, given the impact they have on the state’s production relative to their population. Better that that be in the upper house, where legislation is reviewed, than in the lower house, where government is formed. What’s more, there’s nothing stopping governments from doing their level best to encourage people to leave Perth for the regions.

Glenn Druery, the ‘preference whisperer’ (Image: Andrew Mearers/Sydney Morning Herald)

All in all, the metropolitan/regional malapportionment pales in comparison to group ticket voting. It is astonishing that this system, revealed in all its ugly glory at the 2013 Senate election, is still in place in both Western Australia and Victoria. Unsurprisingly, Glenn Druery, the so-called ‘preference whisperer’, is at it again, teaming up with micro-parties (parties who never get more than 1% of votes) to try and nab the final seat through sharing preferences with each other.

Federally and in most states, GTV has been dropped in favour of a preferencing system similar to that of the lower house: vote above the line to preference by party, or below the line to preference by candidate. But WA still uses the system where parties choose their preferences if you simply vote ‘1’ in their box above the line, and unless you’ve researched beforehand you will have no idea where your vote is going.

With more upper house candidates and parties than ever before, you can see where this might be leading. In each of the six regions, there is (usually) one party that has joined in Druery’s ‘alliance’ that benefits the most from all the other parties’ preferences, and which can potentially win a seat with less than 0.5% of votes. They are as follows:

Agricultural: Health Australia Party (formerly Fluoride Free WA) East Metro: Western Australia Party (incumbent, switched from One Nation) Mining and Pastoral: Daylight Saving Party North Metro: Liberals for Climate (formerly Flux, a ‘direct democracy’ party) South Metro: Liberal Democrats (incumbent) and No Mandatory Vaccination South West: Sustainable Australia Party

There are other parties to consider as well, which are not part of the Druery coalition because they have established bases. The Greens, One Nation and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers all have seats in the upper house, while Australian Christians is probably the largest party to routinely fall just short of winning a seat. Animal Justice got over 1% in all three Perth regions last time, while the Legalise Cannabis Party will probably get votes on their name alone, like the Australian Sex Party did before it.

As for the major parties, it is difficult to see where Labor has any room to grow in some of these regions. In East Metro, for example, they received more than 46% of votes, and it is almost unheard of that any party would reach 50% in the upper house. If they’re willing to split their votes, voters will do so in the upper house, by giving their first preference to a minor party. Furthermore, Labor ‘only’ had a swing towards them of 7% in the upper house at the last election, while the Liberals lost more than 20%.

While I suspect Labor will make some gains in regions where their vote didn’t hit 40% last time, it probably won’t be too large, and the Liberals may even claw back some votes in the upper house if voters are convinced by their ‘keep Labor in check’ campaign. More interesting will be what happens to One Nation votes, as I suspect they will do perhaps half as well, or even worse, than last time. The Liberals will be banking on those votes ‘returning’ to them, but they could really go anywhere — Labor, SFF, AC, one of the micro parties — depending on how frustrated these voters are with the opposition.

One Nation’s vote share is expected to drop significantly at this election, though they may still pick up a seat or two. (Image: The West Australian)

After making use of Antony Green’s magnificent election calculator, here what the upper house might look like after the election:

Agricultural: Labor (2), Nationals (2), Liberal (1), One Nation (1) East Metro: Labor (3), Liberal (2), One Nation/Australian Christians/Western Australia Party (1) Mining and Pastoral: Labor (2), Liberal (1), Nationals (1), Shooters, Fishers & Farmers (1), Nationals/Daylight Saving Party/One Nation (1) North Metro: Labor (2), Liberal (2), Greens/Labor (1), Liberals for Climate/Liberal/??? (1) South Metro: Labor (3), Liberal (2), No Mandatory Vaccination/Liberal Democrats (1) South West: Labor (2), Liberal (1), Nationals (1), Greens (1), Shooters, Fishers & Farmers/One Nation (1)

Total (approx): Labor (14), Liberal (9), Nationals (5), Greens (2), Other (5)

You may be asking why there are so many parties listed as potentially winning the final seat in each of the regions. The reason is simple: below the line voting. At the last election, three ‘Druery alliance’ parties were tipped to one a seat, but only one (the Liberal Democrats) succeeded, and that was more to do with their name being at the front of the ticket (which accounts for the appallingly low Liberal vote in South Metro), rather than just the GTV.

The reason the other two didn’t succeed was because preferences below the line moved the micro-party first preferences to bigger parties, rather than to other micro-parties. It is almost impossible to know how many votes certain micro parties, such as the WAxit Party and No Mandatory Vaccination, will get in the current political climate, but the parties above are the ones that consistently show up in different scenarios.

Agricultural Even though I suspect One Nation’s vote across the state will plummet, such a thing doesn’t seem to harm the party’s chance of taking a seat in this region whatsoever. In fact, every scenario I ran gave the same result: 2 for Labor and the Nationals, 1 for the Liberals and One Nation. Others have been warning of the Health Australia Party leapfrogging up to a seat, but I suspect that will require a specific set of circumstances to happen, along with BTL votes being beneficial to them.

East Metro While there will definitely be a real scrap for the final seat here, it’s nothing too controversial compared to some of the others. Assuming Labor keeps their vote share stable (as it’s difficult to imagine it rising much more), they will squeeze the Greens into the ‘spare’ seat quota, leaving the battle for the Liberal preferences to be between One Nation, Australian Christians and the Western Australia Party. The latter, whose name I will not be giving the acronym for, has an incumbent MLC (Charles Smith), albeit one who received his seat as the candidate for One Nation at the last election. They are the Druery alliance party here, which means they could easily run the board with random micro party preferences, but they are not the only preference vacuum.

Australian Christians gain crucial preferences from WAxit, NMV, SFF and a couple of independents, and depending how the percentages run, all they would need to do is stay ahead of One Nation to sweep to the final seat. One Nation’s preferences would put them ahead of the WA Party, whose preferences will then go to AC as well. Alternatively, a higher-than-expected One Nation vote would give them that sixth seat instead. If the Labor vote is high enough, they could conceivably get the Greens over the line, possibly at the expense of the second Liberal seat rather than the minor party seat. This is what happened in 2017, but the depression of the One Nation vote means that the Labor vote share would have to be higher than last election, and the Liberal vote share the same or lower, in order to get this result.

Mining and Pastoral The collapse in the One Nation vote spells bad news for them in this region, although even if they hold up to just a little below double-digit % (which I doubt they will) it may not be enough, thanks to the Shooters, Fishers & Farmers. The latter will receive preferences from Labor and a couple of other parties, while the Daylight Saving Party will be in with a chance if they can walk the tightrope and/or the One Nation vote completely disappears. Because this region is so small (in population, not area!), even a minor leakage of votes below the line could spell disaster for any party’s chances. One other thing to note, though: Liberals for Climate are near the top of the ticket, which could see them get votes from confused voters.

North Metro Much has been made of the fact that Labor has given preferences to SFF in two of the regions, but scarce attention has been given to a much more important (in my opinion) preference choice by the Liberals. In North Metro, the Liberal Party has preference the completely unconnected Liberals for Climate ahead of their usual minor party friends, Australian Christians and SFF. This is despite the fact that LFC is a cynical name-change of the Flux Party, whose driving purpose is to be a party where members can vote online for the direction their members of Parliament vote on in every piece of legislation.

This inexplicable choice on their part could very well end up electing LFC in what would traditionally be a safe third seat for the Liberals in North Metro, as their vote share is up in the air. If the One Nation votes return to the Liberals and they get around 35–36% of the vote, they will be safe. But if they don’t get that high, they are in trouble. It is possible that another party other than LFC takes this seat instead, but the selection of that party may as well be held at random, as it could be the Western Australia Party, or one of Australian Christians or WAxit, who benefit from preferences across the state from SFF, One Nation and No Mandatory Vaccination.

The Liberals will have to hope for high first preferences or significant BTL leakage in their direction to have any chance of nabbing that final seat. Labor and the Greens will fight it out for the opposing final seat, which will depend on how high Labor can get their first preferences.

South Metro I could very well choose to copy and paste the above and just change a couple of words around, because in South Metro the Liberals have given their top preferences to the also unrelated Liberal Democrats (who do have an incumbent at the moment thanks to name confusion), which may well end up helping the No Mandatory Vaccination Party instead, thanks to the arcane workings of Group Ticket Voting. This region has an unusual situation, where two Druery parties are battling each other — the aforementioned LD and NMV — but the latter has the advantage of all three of the non-alliance AC, ON and SFF preferencing them higher. If NMV is eliminated early, AC becomes their likely replacement.

The only other potential winner for this seat — aside from some weird leakages in BTL votes — is the Greens, but that would require them to get a primary vote around 10% and Labor to match their support in East Metro here, which doesn’t quite seem likely, though not impossible either. If Labor’s support goes in the other direction and the Liberals recover to around a third of votes, the Greens could nab the third Labor seat, but this would still probably give NMV the final seat.

South West This region has historically had the most even distribution of votes, which will probably serve to stop the Druery alliance in their tracks. This region is also the home of One Nation’s current state leader, Colin Tincknell, but unless he can hold off the trend of votes away from his party, his seat will be taken by Rick Mazza of SFF, who currently sits in the Agricultural Region. The rest of the region seems quite straightforward, with two Labor and one Green, Liberal and National elected respectively.

The Liberals are betting on enough Westralians wanting to avoid ‘total Labor control’, like this.

Altogether, it is likely that Labor will continue their barnstorming success at the last election this time around, reaching an even higher vote proportion than the Liberals & National reached at their peak (in 2013), but thanks to the unique construction of the Upper House, they will not be able to ram through legislation without the support of more than just the Greens. If they are sufficiently frustrated over the next four years, they may try to reform the Upper House again, but given they were the ones responsible for its current state, this may not go down too well.


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