03/05/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - The numbers don’t do it for Labor

03/05/2005 - 22:00


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Last month, State Scene outlined how the National Party handed the balance of power in the upper house to the Greens by way of a secret, ideologically contradictory cross-preference deal, rather than ensuring it went to the conservatives, with whom most r

Last month, State Scene outlined how the National Party handed the balance of power in the upper house to the Greens by way of a secret, ideologically contradictory cross-preference deal, rather than ensuring it went to the conservatives, with whom most rural voters identify.

Although that column drew no fire or attempt at justification from the Nationals, it upset Labor’s state secretary, Bill Johnston, who launched a rather condescending and contradictory broadside in a letter that appeared in WA Business News.

His criticism opened with this paragraph: “I am always amused to read Joe Poprzeczny’s weekly back-page opinion piece”.

Paragraph four, which we’ll return to, read: “Indeed, our [Labor’s] 2005 election win means that the ALP has won five of the past seven WA state elections”.

And paragraph nine read: “I am sorry Mr Poprzeczny, but it wasn’t that the conservatives failed to gain government – Geoff Gallop and Labor won.”

That amazing assertion was accompanied by swipes at former Liberal leader Colin Barnett’s dismal record, which naturally led State Scene to believe Mr Johnston, in fact, agreed that the conservatives had lost the election rather than the unimpressive Gallop Government having won it.

Mr Johnston’s concluding paragraph returned to his amusement theme: “Mr Poprzeczny’s column will continue to amuse me, but I just hope that no-one in the WA business community thinks that what he is doing is analysing politics.”

Other paragraphs carried generally unwarranted self-congratulatory rhetoric, so are best ignored.

The most significant claims were thus in paragraph four, which stated that Labor had won five of the past seven elections, and Mr Johnston’s call for analysis of the state’s political order.

In light of this, let’s give him what he wants. Let’s consider the past seven elections – 1983, 1986, 1989, 1993, 1996, 2001 and 2005 – to see just how Labor performed in each, and overall.

Labor won the first three in 1983, 1986 and 1989. The next two, 1993 and 1996, were conservative victories. And the last two, 2001 and 2005, were Labor’s.

So far Mr Johnston’s is on target and seems in order.

But closer inspection, or analysis if you like, of those five victories severely qualifies his delight with his very selectively chosen run of elections.

Why, for instance, did Mr Johnston shy away from looking at Labor’s electoral record over, say, the past 10 elections, those from 1974 until 2005?

Why opt only for the past seven?

Was it because he prefers saying five in seven victories rather than five in 10?

Inclusion of the 1974, 1977 and 1980 elections, all Labor losses, would mean having to say precisely that.

Such selectivity, I’m sure Mr Johnston agrees, is evading stringent analysis.

But since he’s opted for the more palatable seven, let’s go along with his selective choice and see how it pans out for Labor.

In 1983 Labor’s primary vote was 53.2 per cent, to the conservatives’ 45 per cent.

The two-party preferred outcome was Labor 55 per cent conservatives 45 per cent. In other words, a solid Labor victory.

In 1986 Labor’s primary vote was 53 per cent compared with the conservatives’ 45 per cent, with the two-party preferred outcome again 55 and 45 per cent respectively.

Labor in 1983 and the succeeding contest, 1986, was led by Brian Burke, far and away the party’s most successful post-war campaigner.

Before retiring mid-term Mr Burke handpicked Peter Dowding to be leader and to lead Labor into the 1989 election.

In that contest, Labor’s primary vote slumped to 42.5 per cent compared with the conservatives’ 47.4. Yet, despite this huge turnaround, amazingly, the conservatives lost.

In two-party preferred terms, victorious Labor gained just 47.5 per cent to the conservatives’ 52.5 per cent.

Therefore, even though Labor well and truly lost on both measures it retained power because it held a handful of crucial marginal seats.

If the Burke Government’s 1987 redistribution hadn’t been effected, Dowding-led Labor would not have survived Mr Burke’s departure. Yes, Mr Johnston, the 1989 election was Labor’s, but few in Labor ranks ever wrote home about it since that victory was more a quirk of the electoral system than anything else.

Next came two resounding Labor losses.

Both the 1993 and 1996 contests were won by the Richard Court-led conservatives and can be regarded as virtual mirror images of Labor’s, or more correctly, Brian Burke’s, impressive 1983 and 1986 wins.

In 1993 the conservative primary vote was 49.5 per cent compared with Labor’s 37.1 per cent, which in two-party preferred terms was conservatives 55 per cent, Labor 45 per cent.

In 1996, Labor’s primary vote was an even more dismal 35.8 per cent, compared with the conservatives’ 45.7 per cent, or 45 and 55 per cent respectively in two-party preferred terms.

So in the last three elections of last century Labor attracted 42.5, 37.1 and 35.8 per cent respectively of the statewide primary vote.

Hardly something to write home about, even if in the first case, the 1989 election, Labor just scraped home with minority voter backing.

Labor’s support further deteriorated during the first two elections of this century when led by Geoff Gallop, and when Mr Johnston emerged as the party’s state secretary.

In the 2001 contest Labor’s primary vote slumped to, wait for it, 37.2 per cent compared with the Coalition’s equally disgraceful 34.4 per cent, thereby ensuring victory for Labor.

And in 2005 – the bizarre Barnett canal-at-any-cost election – Labor’s primary vote wasn’t much better, 41.9 per cent to the conservatives’ again dismal 39.9 per cent.

Labor thus won power in 2005 with a lower backing than in 1989, when it just scraped home.

Mr Johnston, without putting too fine a point on it, your party is moribund.

And the dismal voter support you’ve attracted since 1989, when Labor managed to be just returned without majority statewide backing, is clear evidence of this.

Only the 1983 and 1986 Burke victories stand out as impressive. 

With the remaining three – 1989, 2001 and 2005 – Labor gained power but each time with less than 43 per cent of the statewide vote.

This means that, without the two impressive Burke victories, Labor would have lost seven of the past 10 elections, and would have won the remaining three, each with less than 43 per cent of the statewide vote.

That’s simply disgraceful for what was once a great and proud political party that ensured WA’s working men and women became participants in our political system.


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