02/03/2021 - 12:00

Key seats could make the difference, despite polling

02/03/2021 - 12:00


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WA’s political landscape could be radically altered this month as the state government appears primed for an unprecedented win.

Key seats could make the difference, despite polling
Zak Kirkup campaigning in Mount Lawley with opposition housing spokesperson Tony Krsticevic, and Liberal candidate for Perth Kylee Veskovich. Photo: Dave Henry

Prevailing punditry suggests Mark McGowan, considered one of Australia’s most popular premiers, is odds-on favourite to win the state election later this month.

Having won 41 of 59 seats at the 2017 state election, most expect WA Labor will gain ground at the March 13 poll, if not secure a working majority in both houses of parliament, on the back of Western Australia’s successful management of COVID-19.

An absence of public polling means there is some ambiguity, however.

Newspoll has practically disappeared in WA, given The Sunday Times was sold to Seven West Media in 2016, leaving the state’s voters reliant on a smattering of polls from Labor’s federal pollster, John Utting, and Leederville-based firm Painted Dog Research.

Those polls have routinely put the outcome for Labor at the high end of expectations, giving it a two-to-one advantage in two-party preferred terms, which would be enough for the party to sweep every marginal seat in the state into its column.

They square with the findings of a leaked poll reported in February that showed Labor’s primary vote as high as 49 per cent, an increase of about 7 per cent on 2017. (The scarcity of details about which party commissioned the poll should inform how it is read.)

An onslaught of positive results from pollsters across the political spectrum aligns with the single published Newspoll of this cycle, which gave Labor a 24 percentage point lead over the opposition.

These results contrast with a handful of Essential polls conducted before 2020 that put Labor’s TPP support at between 55 per cent and 57 per cent.

A single YouGov-Galaxy poll conducted in 2018 showed support for the party marginally lower, at 54 per cent, which would be towards the bottom end of where pundits expect Labor’s TPP vote to finish.

While that would equate to a 1.5 percentage point swing away from the state government’s 55.5 per cent TPP result in 2017, it would still be sufficient for the party to retain 38 seats and govern comfortably.

“The party’s do their own polling, so they will have a good idea of what’s going on,” William Bowe, Perth-based election analyst for The Poll Bludger, told Business News.

“The best you can do is observe what the parties are doing and what seats they’re targeting with campaign resources and election promises.

“[That] should be pretty revealing about what their research is showing.”

Mr Bowe said what polling did exist generally indicated Labor was on track to achieve a uniform, 6 percentage point swing, which would be enough for the party to pick up just about every marginal seat in the state.

That would amount to a disaster for the Liberals, with opposition leader Zak Kirkup, who has held the job since November, likely to lose the seat of Dawesville, where he has confronted a well-funded campaign from paramedic and psychologist Lisa Munday.

Mr McGowan and his deputy, Roger Cook, have made several visits to the exurban electorate that takes in a diverse array of working-class suburbs and higher income coastal communities, telegraphing their confidence that they can win the seat.

That includes visits to announce $150 million of upgrades to Peel Health Campus, as well as a handful of smaller developments, including a $3 million multi-purpose community centre and a series of programs aimed at reducing domestic violence in the region.

Still, Mr Kirkup will notionally benefit from the seat’s boundaries having been redrawn to focus on Mandurah’s southern suburbs of Wannanup, Falcon and Erskine, with the loss of booths north of Preston Beach boosting his margin by one tenth of a percentage point.

While Mr Kirkup’s name recognition and profile in the electorate should make him the favourite to win, Labor will undoubtedly relish the opportunity to embarrass the opposition leader in his own backyard.

His high profile may keep him above water in his own seat, but Mr Kirkup’s own words belie a drop in confidence in his party’s overall chances.

Early in the campaign he promised to focus on positive messaging, proposing a diverse array of ambitious policies that included sinking the City West rail and supporting a target for WA to be carbon neutral by 2025.

He’s changed tack in recent weeks and embraced a checks-and-balances message, warning voters against handing Labor “total control” of the state’s Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council.

His messaging is reflected in a host of notionally safe seats, including Churchlands, where advertising has been rolled out to defend high-profile incumbents.

Churchlands is an especially odd choice for advertising dollars to be spent, given Sean L'Estrange, the opposition’s treasury spokesperson, holds the seat on a safe, 12 per cent margin.

That the party is spending to raise Mr L’Estrange’s profile may portend a grimmer than expected outcome for the opposition on election day.

On the other side of the aisle, Mr McGowan's decision to ignore Mr Kirkup’s call for leadership debates indicates confidence in his own approach, which has almost entirely revolved around his personal popularity.

Some figures close to Mr Kirkup and within the shadow ministry privately concede that winning the election will be a difficult task, given Mr McGowan’s enormous popularity and the fundraising advantage the party has amassed courtesy of big businesses and the union movement.

That’s without mentioning the recent financial help the party received from the likes of Nigel Satterley, as well as years of positive coverage courtesy of Kerry Stokes’ media interests.

Mathematically, an outright win for the opposition would require a swing towards the opposition of 6 per cent, in addition to a coalition agreement with The Nationals WA should no party win a majority.

The latter is hardly guaranteed. While Mr Kirkup has repeatedly said he is willing to work with the Nationals, the two parties are still running candidates in a host of three-cornered contests throughout the regions, including Kalgoorlie and Geraldton.

Missives from opposition regional development spokesperson Steve Thomas (Liberal) have also been unhelpful, with his criticisms of the Nationals’ management of the Royalties for Regions program drawing the ire of party leader Mia Davies and her deputy, Shane Love.

If the Liberals have any chance of clinching victory at the March state election, it will run through a series of marginal Labor-held seats in Perth’s northern suburbs.

Both parties appear to be aware of what’s at stake north of the Swan River; Mr McGowan has travelled to these electorates on numerous occasions to address the contentious issue of ambulance ramping at Joondalup Health Campus and put his name to $700 million of upgrades to local roads.

Mr Kirkup, meanwhile, has made several visits to bolster the party’s margins, pledging $30 million to build and upgrade schools for the region’s growing suburbs of Kinross, Currambine and Ocean Reef.

The state’s single most marginal seat, Joondalup, is the clearest priority for both major parties in this region.

Redistributions in the seat have traded Labor-friendly booths in Mullaloo for Liberal-friendly booths in Iluka, cutting Labor’s margin to less than three-tenths of a percentage point.

Tony O’Gorman held the seat for Labor for 12 years until he was defeated by former 40under40 winner Jan Norbeger for the Liberals in the 2013 state election.

He, in turn, was defeated by Labor’s Emily Hamilton by just 27 votes in 2017.

Ms Hamilton will likely need a state-wide swing to retain the seat on its new boundaries, and she has already benefitted from multiple visits from Mr McGowan to announce funding for local sporting groups and schools.

She has faced an energetic, well-funded challenge from Liberal-endorsed realtor Sheldon Ingham, who has made several campaign appearances alongside Mr Kirkup.

Ms Hamilton may be the slight favourite given her incumbency, but the strength of each candidate’s doorknocking and mailout campaigns may be the deciding factor in what’s sure to be a tight contest.

Another key contest lies to the south in the neighbouring electorate of Kingsley, where Jessica Stojkovski, daughter of Mr O’Gorman, won the seat for Labor by a 307-vote margin in 2017.

Her margin has since improved by half a percentage point, with the inclusion of Labor-friendly booths in Balcatta into the seat.

Former attorney general Cheryl Edwardes held Kingsley between 1989 and 2005, and her husband, Colin, narrowly lost it at the 2005 state election before Andrea Mitchell won it back for the Liberals in 2008 and again in 2013.

Ms Stojkovski is looking at another nail-biter in March, when she faces Cheryl and Colin’s son, Scott, in her fight to retain the seat.

While the opposition is optimistic of its chances here, given Mr Edwardes’ profile and his cleverly composed ‘no flats in cul-de-sacs’ slogan, Ms Stojkovski has, like Ms Hamilton, benefitted from the thrust of Mr McGowan’s popularity and will no doubt see her margin increase if there is a swing towards the state government.

To the north of Joondalup lies Burns Beach, which is slightly more amenable to Labor after having elected former police sergeant Mark Folkard in 2017 with 53 per cent of the vote.

Mr Folkard has a few reasons to be optimistic.

The first is that his margin has been bumped up significantly as the seat has lost Liberal-friendly booths to Joondalup and gained a swath of Labor-friendly territory from Butler.

The second is that his 2017 opponent, former environment minister and incumbent City of Joondalup Mayor Albert Jacob, has opted against a re-match.

Mr Folkard now faces former senate candidate Trish Botha, who is contesting the seat on behalf of the Liberals.

These three seats are likely to be among the most fiercely contested in the state, with two other Liberal-held seats in the region likely to come under pressure should the state government enjoy a COVID-19-inspired swing towards it.

Hillarys is the seat most obviously under threat. Peter Katsambanis won a bruising and controversial preselection battle against businessman Simon Ehrenfeld ahead of the 2017 state election, before going on to defeat former City of Joondalup councillor Teresa Ritchie with 54 per cent of the vote.

Labor-friendly Mullaloo has since transferred into Hillarys, though, with the loss of Sorrento dragging Mr Katsambanis’ margin into less than a single percentage point.

Mr Katsambanis has benefitted from a high profile during his first term in the lower house, having served as the opposition’s police spokesperson.

He nevertheless faces steep odds against Labor-endorsed candidate Caitlin Collins, who pulled off an 8 per cent swing against former premier Colin Barnett in Cottesloe in 2017.

Less at risk, though nevertheless marginal, is Scarborough, where incumbent Liza Harvey has kept a low profile since resigning as opposition leader in November.

Mrs Harvey remains personally popular in the electorate and remains the prohibitive favourite to win the seat against Labor candidate Stuart Aubrey, an electrician who is active in the local sports and surf lifesaving communities.

At the other end of the city, Labor will likely seek to secure its dominance in Perth’s expanding southern suburbs, capitalising on the opposition’s renewed support for the Roe Highway extension and the retirement of popular incumbents.

Mr Kirkup will aim to limit his losses south of the river, too, given the party holds just three of 15 seats in the region.

Jandakot will be a top target for both parties.

Joe Francis, who held the seat for the Liberals between 2008 and 2017, was considered a leadership contender before little-known Yaz Mubarakai snatched the south-eastern, outer-suburban seat for Labor.

Mr Francis’s loss at the previous state election was among the state’s most dramatic; his slim defeat masked a 19 per cent swing against him, the largest of any candidate in the region.

Mr Mubarakai’s margin has improved with the loss of Leeming to neighbouring Riverton on the electorate’s north, with long-term demographic trends in Piara Waters and Harrisdale likely to benefit him.

Mihael McCoy, a minister at Wellard-based Freeway Church, will contest the seat for the Liberals.

Further west, Mr Kirkup has telegraphed a desire to contest Bicton, which was a notionally Liberal-held seat upon creation with its base in the blue-ribbon suburbs of East Fremantle.

He’s already made numerous campaign appearances with City of Melville councillor Nicole Robins to double down on the party’s commitment to extending Roe Highway.

A messy preselection battle in the neighbouring electorate of Bateman injured Liberal candidate Matt Taylor in 2017, with eventual winner Lisa O’Malley campaigning as a steadfast opponent of Roe 8 and 9.

Her chances may yet have been bolstered by the opposition again campaigning for the extension, alongside the addition of Labor-friendly booths from Fremantle in redistributions.

Still, having been elected as a local issues candidate, Ms O’Malley may face a tough time retaining the seat past a single term.

Further east, a high-profile fight for Riverton is likely to eventuate.

There, Mike Nahan has built a significant profile since he knocked off Tony McRae in 2008 and defied state-wide trends to secure a safe 8 percentage point victory in 2017.

The opposition has made retaining this seat a high priority, with Mr Kirkup campaigning with Mr Nahan’s endorsed successor, former adviser to Matthias Cormann, Anthony Spagnola.

Mr Nahan’s vocal criticisms of the party’s leadership may complicate matters, however, given he has repeatedly and publicly criticised Nick Goiran, who sits atop the Liberal’s Legislative Council ticket in the region.

The opposition remains publicly optimistic about its chances here, but Labor is reportedly bullish about its own candidate, academic and GP Jagadish Krishnan.

Battlegrounds abound in the East Metropolitan Region, with Labor’s Simon Millman campaigning fiercely to retain Mount Lawley after dislodging then-speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Michael Sutherland, on the back of Greens preferences in 2017.

The seat, which takes in a mix of young professionals, retirees and younger, socially progressive voters, has had no change in boundaries in the intervening years, meaning Mr Millman may again be reliant on Greens preferences to secure victory.

Both parties have channelled significant resources into this race; Messrs Millman and McGowan’s faces adorn advertising space throughout the electorate, while Suzanne Migdale, a councillor for the City of Stirling, has benefitted from more than a handful of campaign appearances with Mr Kirkup over the past few months.

Whoever emerges victorious on election night will likely have preferences to thank, with Lucy Nicol, who had run for the Senate in 2013 with a micro party sympathetic to Julian Assange, contesting the seat for the Greens.

Outside of metropolitan Perth, Kalamunda will likely be a top target for the Liberal Party, given Labor had never won it until former City of Swan councillor Matthew Hughes defeated former health, police and emergency services minister John Day by a 5 per cent margin in 2017.

Mr Hughes’ margin has been reduced with the inclusion of two conservative-leaning suburbs, Mundaring and Pickering Brook, making his fight for re-election that much harder.

He faces a high-profile challenge from Liberal candidate Liam Staltari, another former adviser to Senator Cormann, who has also been a beneficiary of multiple campaign appearances with Mr Kirkup.

South of Kalamunda sits Darling Range, which was an unexpected pick-up for Labor in 2017 when Barry Urban swept to a double-digit victory over incumbent Tony Simpson.

A series of scandals led to Mr Urban’s resignation a year later, and Alyssa Hayden, the current sitting member, won the seat back for the Liberals on a comfortable, 9 per cent swing after she lost her spot in the legislative council a year prior.

While that served as an omen to the state government at the time, the seat has again become competitive with City of Armadale councillor Hugh Jones contesting the seat for Labor.

Mr Jones, who is friends with Mr McGowan dating back to their days in the Navy, has welcomed more than a handful of campaign appearances with the premier as the state government has pledged a slew of capital works in the electorate’s fast-growing suburbs.

Ms Hayden remains a strong contender, though, given her win in 2018, her position in the shadow ministry, and public praise from both Mr Kirkup and his predecessor, Mrs Harvey.

Outside of Perth, securing regional seats is likely to remain important to both major parties, with three-way contests likely to scramble the math and provide a handful of unexpected victories to each party on election night no matter the state-wide swing.

Labor faces steep odds in a handful of seats it holds, including Murray-Wellington, which it only ever won once until Robyn Clarke upset three-term incumbent Murray Cowper there by 652 votes in 2017.

Ms Clarke’s margin has narrowly improved because of redistributions drawing in friendlier territory from neighbouring, urbanised electorates, but she still faces a steep challenge to retain the seat against Liberal candidate and former Shire of Harvey councillor Michelle Boylan.

While the opposition is reportedly impressed with its chances here, the Nationals, which only formed a branch in the electorate 18 months ago, have not nominated a candidate for the seat.

Pilbara, which Labor has held for all but a single term since 1983 owing to the strength of the electorate’s unionised mining towns, is shaping up as a better opportunity for the Nationals.

Former party leader Brendon Grylls transferred himself to the electorate in 2013 and secured a healthy 19 per cent swing on the back of Royalties for Regions’ popularity.

His defeat in 2017 owed largely to his support for a $5 per tonne levy on iron ore mining, a policy his party has since dumped following an advertising onslaught from the mining lobby.

Kevin Michel will again contest the seat for Labor, facing Scott Bourne, who previously contested the federal seat of Durack for the Nationals in 2019.

Camilo Blanco, the controversial, suspended mayor of the Town of Port Hedland, is contesting the seat for the Liberals.

Albany is another significant opportunity for the Nationals; it remains one of the few regional electorates Labor still holds, with Peter Watson pulling off narrow wins at nearly every state election over the past two decades.

His retirement puts the seat in serious jeopardy for Labor’s candidate, City of Albany councillor Rebecca Stephens, even as the loss of the Shire of Jerramungup has notionally pushed the seat in the party’s favour.

Local businesswoman Delma Baesjou will contest the seat for the Nationals, after the party finished in second place in 2017, while Albany City Motors director Scott Leary is the nominated Liberal candidate.

One seat where Labor may be breathing a sigh of relief is in Collie-Preston, where 20-year incumbent Mick Murray is retiring.

Mr Murray defeated several high-profile candidates during his tenure and there were concerns that the former coalminer’s departure might leave the seat open to a strong challenge from the Liberals.

The party’s decision to shift to the left on renewable energy has angered Collie’s mining community, however, and Labor has chosen a strong candidate in shire councillor Jodie Hanns.

Her toughest challenge will likely come from the Nationals’ candidate, former shire president Wayne Sanford; he contested the federal seat of Forrest for Labor in 2019 and will likely make appeals to the town’s rusted-on union voters to prevail on election day.

Conversely, few know what to expect in Geraldton, where Ian Blayney narrowly overcame local businesswoman and TAFE lecturer Lara Dalton by 558 votes in 2017.

Mr Blayney has since joined the crossbench to sit with the Nationals, citing the regional concerns of his electorate, and he will be counting on picking up a significant personal vote if he hopes to retain the seat in March.

Ms Dalton will again contest the seat on behalf of Labor, while the Liberals have recruited local businessman and former branch president Rob Dines.

While there are 16 marginal seats across the state that are being actively contested, there is always the chance for upsets on election night.

Mr Kirkup’s 59-seat strategy appeared designed for this scenario, with multiple campaign appearances in Perth indicating some confidence in a repeat of 2013 when Eleni Evangel pulled off a shock win against three-term incumbent John Hyde.

WA Labor has fewer opportunities simply because it now holds so many seats in metropolitan Perth.

On a good night, though, Bateman, where former transport minister and leadership aspirant Dean Nalder is retiring after two terms, may fall to Labor, as might South Perth, where John McGrath’s retirement opens a relatively winnable seat.

But much of this is speculation. In an under-researched race where expectations have preceded polls, it may be better to approach punditry with some degree of caution.

“Anything can happen in three and a half weeks,” Mr Bowe said.

“It seems enormously unlikely anything could knock [Labor] fundamentally off course over the next three weeks, but you never know.

“You just never know what history is going to throw at you.”


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