Western Australians are set to go to the polls in a regularly scheduled state election on March 13. The campaign has been underway for over three weeks now, with early voting set to begin today – and a giant bombshell of a poll has been dropped and released.
One of the gold standard polling organizations in Australia, Newspoll, released a poll that has numbers never before seen in Western Australia, and only once before on a state level in Australia in quite a long time. The poll has the two party preferred vote (TPP) between the incumbent Labor government and the opposition Liberals at 68% to 32%.
Some more astute observers of Australian politics may notice that the poll did not ask about the Coalition, rather just the Liberals. Like most state-level politics in Australia, Western Australia’s political structure is quite different from the federal level. The normal Coalition of the Liberal Party and the National Party does not exist consistently. This is due to the fact that the National Party in Western Australia is a more independently-minded group than their counterparts in the rest of Australia. Thus, when the two party preferred vote is calculated in Western Australian elections, it is between Labor and the Liberals.
A Labor Sweep
Never has an incumbent government on the state or federal level in Australia had this level of support this close to an election. The last time a party had this level of support, Campbell Newman and his Liberal Nationals roared into power in Queensland in 2012 with a two-party preferred vote between the Liberal Nationals and Labor of 63% to 37%. This left the Labor Party in Queensland with only 8% of the seats in the Queensland Legislative Assembly. However, the Newspoll of Western Australia will have an electoral wipeout that would shake up Western Australian politics.
If the poll is anywhere near right, the National Party will be the largest opposition party in the Legislative Assembly, the first time any state branch of the National Party held such a position since before the Liberal-National merger in Queensland in 2008. The Liberals would be reduced to two seats in the Legislative Assembly, with their young leader, Zak Kirkup, losing his seat of Dawesville.
The effects in the Legislative Council are harder to gauge, but would still be catastrophic for the opposition parties. Labor would be close to holding an outright majority in the chamber, if not holding an outright majority. Because of the inherent rural bias in how the Legislative Council is elected, combined with the single transferable vote system of electing the Council members, it is very hard for any one party to obtain a majority in the chamber. But given the data of this gold standard poll, it is hard to deny the fact that if the election were held today, Labor would have an outright majority in both houses of the Western Australian Parliament.
Campaigning for a Minority
Thus, the campaign is quite different than normal ones. Premier Mark McGowan is refusing to admit the election is a done deal, but Zak Kirkup has already started to wave the white flag. The messaging of the Liberal campaign now is about trying to prevent a Labor majority in the Legislative Council, already conceding that Labor will win a majority in the Legislative Assembly.
However, this implosion of the Liberals in Western Australia is not from unpopularity of the current Morrison Government at the federal level. Rather, McGowan’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Western Australia has been extremely popular among Western Australians, with McGowan’s net satisfaction at +78, a record not just in Western Australia, but across all of the state governments in Australia in any Newspoll. Moreover, Western Australia is the only state government with a budget surplus right now, and the economy is recovering from the COVID downturn. These factors all provide much of the boost Labor sees in this poll. Yet there’s another factor that is helping Labor.
The Liberals have been effectively disorganized since losing the 2017 election in Western Australia. Michigan-native Mike Nahan never bothered to try to mask his American accent, led the party for two years. He never really polled well and not made little impact for the Liberals. He resigned in June 2019, and his deputy leader Liza Harvey became leader.
While she started off better than Nahan, her response to COVID-19 mitigation efforts by McGowan led to even more abysmal polling numbers for the Liberals. Like her predecessor, she resigned after a year. Zak Kirkup was then chosen as leader. This revolving door of leadership changes has hurt the Liberals, especially when their current leader only became an MLA in 2017, and barely won the seat.
It is safe to say that March 13 will bring challenges to some all-time electoral records in Australia. The largest ever Labor majority in Western Australia is set to become even bigger. The question now is how big will it be? Labor getting 60% of the (TPP) is definitely a benchmark that they should clear. Anything beyond that will be extra support for the McGowan government in Western Australia.
This article is broadly correct, though there are a few details I’d like to point out:
1. Two party preferred (2pp) is still often calculated as Labor vs Liberals/Nationals in WA. The WA Electoral Commission made the decision to consider 2pp as being between Labor and either the Liberals or the Nationals in 2017, after using Labor vs Liberal for the 2013 WA state election. This makes a pretty significant difference – Australian pseph Kevin Bonham estimates that a poll showing Labor up 61-39 should probably be closer to 59.5-40.5 (a 3% difference).
2. The biggest problem in Western Australia’s upper house (the Legislative Council) for pretty much all the major parties is the Group Voting Ticket system. Basically, under this system, a voter either has to assign a number to every candidate on the ballot (and there usually are close to 50 of them, sometimes more), or write-in “1” for a single party’s ticket.
If they choose the latter, the party who they vote for gets to pick where their vote goes if the party doesn’t win, which in practice translates into small parties who are complete ideological opposites agreeing to give each other their voters’ votes, often paying someone (look up Glenn Druery) to coordinate such swaps for them. This allows parties with under 1% if the vote to win seats while parties who don’t participate in such shenanigans need to win close to the full 14% to get their seat.
This is in contrast with other proportional representation systems in Australia (e.g. the Australian Senate) where voters can number parties (e.g. 1 Nationals, 2 Labor, 3 Liberals) without allowing the party to direct where their votes end up.
Group ticket voting was originally introduced to deal with high rates of informality, but it’s pretty clear that other places (the New South Wales and federal Australian upper houses) have figured out how to solve informality without allowing parties instead of voters to direct how their votes flow. It’s time that this highly undemocratic system be reformed.