23/01/2013 - 08:19

Election is Barnett’s to blow

23/01/2013 - 08:19


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All the polls may point to the Barnett government’s return on March 9, but election campaigns are unpredictable and neither side can take anything for granted.

Election is Barnett’s to blow

All the polls may point to the Barnett government’s return on March 9, but election campaigns are unpredictable and neither side can take anything for granted.

LET’S not beat around the bush; if the state election were held this Saturday, Colin Barnett and his Liberal-National alliance would be returned for a second term in government, with a useful working majority.

Polling on voting intentions, plus anecdotal evidence on which side is expected to win, point to Mr Barnett occupying the ‘premier’s palace’ at Hale House in West Perth for a further four years.

In fact, despite the close result in the 2008 poll, and with Labor having more members than any other party in the Legislative Assembly, the Liberals and Nationals have consistently outpointed Labor on voting intentions during their first term. Some unpalatable decisions have been made, such as the savage increases in electricity and water charges, but the good ship SS Barnett seems to have sailed on with minimal turbulence.

Labor’s cause isn’t helped by the decision of several veteran members to retire, making their relatively safe seats more marginal because of the absence of a sitting member. Former ministers Tom Stephens (Pilbara) and John Kobelke (Balcatta) come into this category, as does Carol Martin (Kimberley).

So is it a case of put away the glasses, the result on March 9 is a foregone conclusion? Well, despite the polls, the answer most certainly is no.

Election campaigns are dynamic events that can develop their own lives. Governments like campaigns to be as dull as dishwater. They think that, in such a climate voters are more inclined to opt for the status quo and keep them in power.

That is one reason why former Labor premier Brian Burke liked the poll to be in early February. In 1986 he named the election date at the start of January, at the height of the summer torpor.

Keeping the kids occupied during the school holidays is probably the major challenge facing young families. Farmers are holidaying on the coast after the harvest, and everyone else is trying to avoid the heat. The last thing they are inclined to do is pore over election policies, closely monitor the television and radio news bulletins and read the newspapers. That strategy worked well for Mr Burke.

But it didn’t work for Carmen Lawrence (Labor) in 1993, because WA Inc caught up with her. Nor did it help Richard Court (Liberal) in 2001, because he didn’t demote minister Doug Shave over the finance brokers’ scandal, and stumbled in his handling of the forestry debate.

Then there was the early election called by Alan Carpenter (Labor) in mid 2008, which produced its own disastrous dynamic for Labor.

This year is different. School holidays are coming to an end, and normality quickly resumes after Australia Day this Saturday (January 26). Then most voters will be back at work and starting to focus on the leaders and the policies.

According to the latest Westpoll, the Liberals and Nationals lead Labor 59 per cent to 41 per cent on a two party preferred basis. And Mr Barnett tops Labor’s Mark McGowan as the preferred premier by a hefty 16 points.

Significantly, however, 15 per cent of those surveyed on the leaders were ‘uncommitted’. That will attract much attention from both parties as they go about building the standing of their own leader, and denigrating their opponent.

Therefore both leaders must be circumspect in their public announcements. They must both appeal to voters, but also give their opponent minimal ammunition to drag them down.

Surprisingly, the premier has been undisciplined in some of his recent comments, especially last week in which he suggested there was less pressure to be accurate when having a light-hearted chat on FM radio, compared to being interviewed on the AM band, such as ABC 720 and 6PR.

Listening to politicians on radio helps voters make up their minds. The premier is right when he says, in essence, he doesn’t want to sound too earnest to younger FM listeners. But his mistake was that all listeners deserve the most accurate answers he can provide. His suggestion that answers on the FM stations don’t need to be as precise as for AM listeners shortchanges his audience. It was a surprising response, to say the least.

This point was emphasised by the managing director of Nova 93.7, Gary Roberts, in a letter to The West Australian in response to comment on the issue. He noted that his station has 419,000 listeners each week. He conceded that the AM stations attracted more people aged over 55. But his station had “massive appeal” to the rest of the voters over 18.

So the message for Mr Barnett and other political leaders is clear. While FM stations generally have younger audiences, a big proportion of them are of voting age. It is important to engage with them, but they want to hear the facts. And a politician who delivers the facts - palatable or unpalatable - might just earn their respect and support.

Mr McGowan needs to be more disciplined too. Unguarded comments can gain a life of their own. Intended light-hearted references to political opponents can have unintended consequences, especially if the background of the MPs does not fit the Labor template of university degree, followed by some form of political activism, leading to party endorsement for a safe seat.

Mr Barnett’s strong approval rating is a crucial factor in the Liberal campaign. So Labor will naturally aim to seize on any opportunity to damage his credibility. In fact, Unions WA has already authorised a billboard campaign attacking the premier.

The billboard I saw was on Lord Street in East Perth. On a large photograph of the premier was the following message in bold print: ‘Colin Barnett ... Bad Decisions (and) Wrong Priorities’.

It’s a bald message, but one which fits in with Mr McGowan’s strategy that the government has been too focused on the CBD, and issues in the suburbs - where the voters live - have been neglected.

And the four top election issues to emerge in the Westpoll were: health; transport and congestion; economic management; and education. Three of these are bread-and-butter issues where Labor has traditionally done well. During the Gallop-Carpenter years, Labor also established sound credentials as an economic manager under (then) treasurer Eric Ripper.

So the battlelines have been drawn for the next six weeks, with the Liberal-National alliance holding a handy lead. But all campaigns can be unpredictable. A stumble here, an unguarded comment there, an unhelpful announcement from the prime minister or the federal opposition leader - all have the potential to influence the result.

Obviously Mr McGowan has the job ahead of him. He needs a dream run, and to be prepared to chance his arm. Playing safe won’t do it for him.



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