Whether Colin Barnett’s Liberals can win even minority government status in WA remains in doubt, writes Joseph Poprzeczny.
Western Australian Labor Premier Alan Carpenter’s decision to call a snap election for September 6 is seen across the political spectrum as a panic move.
The government he leads, with oversight by his leftist Attorney-General Jim McGinty, is seen as mediocre in an era of the state’s unprecedented economic growth.
Typical of McGinty’s approach in legal administration was his appointment, in the week the election was called, of Paul Roth – an Australian Marijuana Party candidate at the 1996 election – as a north-west magistrate.
This year McGinty legalised prostitution and has moved to lighten by one third sentences on criminals on condition that they admit to their crime.
Despite these things, Labor was, until early this month, set to be easily returned because of the then Liberal Opposition leader Troy Buswell’s indiscretions involving two women.
But the Liberals unexpectedly upset Labor’s calculations over three dramatic days by telling Buswell to relinquish the leadership in favour of his predecessor in that role, Colin Barnett, who had planned to retire at the coming election.
This surprise changeover so stunned Carpenter that he rushed to Government House the very next day so as to be able to announce an election that’s not due until March 2009. Labor hopes that a four-week campaign will deny Barnett time to gain electoral traction.
But, despite panic across Labor’s ranks, Carpenter’s last throw of the dice may just – but only just – carry him across the line.
If it does, it will be only because Labor has so many safe lower-house seats. No fewer than 29 of that chamber’s 59 seats can be categorised as being between “virtually impregnable” to “quite safe” for Labor.
The reason for this is that Labor’s latest McGinty-inspired redistribution of seats tightened the party’s grip on them. To form government, at least 30-seats (that is, half 59-seats plus one) must be won – a tall order for Barnett.
Moreover, the Liberals hold several seats that, although statistically slotted on to their side of the electorate line-up, are precariously held – and are even in some danger of being lost.
For example, the goldfields seat of Kalgoorlie, which former Liberal leader Matt Birney won at the last two elections, could fall to Labor or popular Labor independent, John Bowler, who is also contesting it, because Birney is retiring.
Expected statewide swing
If the expected statewide Liberal swing materialises, but Labor or Bowler wins Kalgoorlie and Labor retains those 29 “impregnable” to “quite safe” seats, then Carpenter can remain premier.
But Barnett has other problems. Two seats presently held by Labor but shown under the redistribution as notionally Liberal – Albany and Geraldton – will be difficult to win because both Labor incumbents are popular.
And the four rural-based Nationals MPs say they won’t join a Liberal-led coalition. Nationals leader Brendon Grylls said: “I won’t be taking my team of Nationals into a party-room dominated by Perth politicians. I’m not in discussions, I’m not in negotiations.”
Grylls has further complicated matters by announcing he’s willing to do preference deals with Carpenter and the Greens to boost his candidates’ chances in both houses.
Complicating matters further, the lower house has three independent Liberals, only one of whom Barnett can be certain will back him. The other two, like the Nationals, may remain outside his influence.
All this means that Barnett’s chances of winning the needed 30 seats are so much more difficult. If he wins only 26 seats, he’ll need an agreement with the Nationals to back him on the floor of the lower house, which would mean a minority Liberal Government.
However, if a 26-seat Liberal bloc were smaller than Carpenter’s Labor bloc – neither side enjoying an outright majority – the WA Governor Dr Kenneth Michael would feel obliged to first offer Carpenter the opportunity to form a minority government.
If neither Carpenter nor Barnett won the 30 seats needed to form a majority government, both would then be forced to vie for Nationals support to form a minority government.
With so many uncertainties and possible outcomes being contemplated by strategists in both major parties, the safest prediction is that there will be a swing to the Liberals, but possibly too small and uneven to topple Labor.
That, however, is far from the end of the matter because neither major party will win control of the upper house since it is elected by proportional representation.
Control of that chamber will go to either the Greens alone or the Nationals, Family First – now being led by former deputy Liberal leader Dan Sullivan – or perhaps even the Christian Democrats.
Although Liberal electoral stocks have risen following the party’s decision to recycle Barnett, whether that’s enough to win even minority government status remains in doubt.
And, even if they gained minority government, they cannot be assured a clear path for their legislative program that’s still to be announced, because the upper house will be controlled by one, two or more minority parties.
– Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based journalist.