The Labor government’s crushing win in the West Australian election on March 13 was a referendum on its response to COVID-19. Labor is projected to win 52 seats, reducing the Liberals and Nationals to a rump of only seven seats between them.
Labor ran a presidential-style campaign focussed on Premier Mark McGowan, cashing in on the popularity that has accrued to all incumbent leaders, exemplified by their regular COVID-19 press conferences.
The WA government was aided by two interrelated factors: the state’s relative isolation meant that COVID-19 arrived quite late and was never very widespread. This made keeping the virus at bay by closing WA’s borders very popular and less costly politically and financially than the extensive lockdowns deployed in Victoria.
The state Liberal Party completely misjudged the mood: former opposition leader Liza Harvey first criticised the policy before backtracking and resigning. Even worse was the initial support by their federal colleagues to mining magnate Clive Palmer’s attempt to overturn the border closure in the High Court. The Liberals did not recover, winning just two or three Legislative Assembly seats.
The National Party went from five to four seats, partly insulated from the massive swing to Labor by the collapse of the One Nation vote in rural electorates. As a result, the Nationals who are not in a formal coalition with the Liberals, will be the official parliamentary opposition.
However, even in the Agricultural Region of the Legislative Council which takes in the National Party heartland of the Central Wheatbelt, Labor won 45% of the vote, relegating the Nationals and Liberals to 27% and 12.5% respectively.
The Legislative Council is heavily gerrymandered in favour of rural and regional areas. This has traditionally made it impossible for Labor to win a majority there. However, thanks to the size of the swing Labor will now control 23 of the 36 seats in the Legislative Council.
With a majority in both houses, Labor will be able to reform the Legislative Council and so end the profound under-representation of city voters, although it has not yet committed to do this.
It also raises the possibility of ending group voting tickets, where the vote is distributed according to a party’s preferences, instead of allowing voters to number the boxes above the line. The tight preference deals brokered by preference whisperer Glenn Druery will likely help Legalise Cannabis and the Daylight Savings Party win a position in the Legislative Council.
The Greens will almost certainly be reduced from four seats to one, with Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt picking up their only position in the South Metropolitan region. In a further blow, it seems North Metropolitan MP Alison Xamon, who is an outspoken social justice advocate, will not be returned.
While the Greens’ statewide vote shrunk by about 1%, the main reason the party failed to maintain its numbers was the surge to Labor, meaning there were no leftover Labor quotas to flow on.
Typically, in the metropolitan regions in the past, Labor would score around 2.3 quotas and the Greens 0.7. This led to Labor winning two seats and the Greens one, with the remaining three going to conservative candidates. This time in North Metropolitan, Labor won 4.1 quotas (and 4 seats) in its own right, with the leftover 0.1 of a quota not being enough to top up the 0.7 scored by the Greens.
It is notable that Green vote increased by 1% in Perth and by 7% in Kimberley. In Fremantle, the Green vote dipped by only 0.5% and the Socialist Alliance vote increased by 1%. In Kimberley and Fremantle, the swing to Labor was only 3.5% and 6% respectively.
This indicates that Labor did lose some votes from people angry about climate change, homelessness and the housing affordability crisis, fracking (particularly in the Kimberley) and the proposed closure of Fremantle Port. However, it more than made up for this by taking votes from the Liberals.
There is no reason to believe that, despite its crushing majority, the McGowan government will deviate from its neoliberal economic and social policy, nor its enthusiastic support for the mining and fossil industries. In this sense, the election has resolved nothing and the stratospheric approval rating of incumbents is more fragile than it appears.
McGowan cut the state’s stock of public housing by around 1300 and has belatedly promised to replace these and build only 1300 more over 10 years. In WA there are 15,000 applications on the public housing waiting list with an effective wait time of seven years. This is expected to double as JobKeeper and JobSeeker are wound back and the restrictions on private residential evictions are lifted.
A social explosion awaits. When McGowan’s bubble bursts the challenge for the left will be to as much as possible direct people's anger and disillusionment in a positive direction to prevent it being channelled towards the Liberals and the far-right.
[Sam Wainwright was the Socialist Alliance candidate for Fremantle.]