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Labor slides its way back to the field

IT has been a year since Premier Geoff Gallop delivered a stirring election night victory speech in which he claimed Labor had emerged from the wilderness. Minutes earlier, Liberal leader Richard Court had conceded.

But just 365 days on, the Gallop Government is looking decidedly unimpressive.

Few expected brilliance or something approaching it.

At least two senior ministers are known to have been targeted by a powerful minister and factional leader, having been identified as mediocre performers.

A third, who Dr Gallop hoped wouldn’t be included in his cabinet, but was added because of factional deals, also may not last the distance of this government.

Moreover, November’s Federal Liberal election win sparked high-level strategy talks among senior Labor activists, since WA Federal Labor leader Kim Beazley failed to become Prime Minister.

Among other things, that campaign involved an embarrassing back down over the Gallop-Ripper premium property tax, designed to fleece ocean and river view landowners.

That back down was prompted by a desire to help boost Mr Beazley’s flagging chances.

To date, the only visible outcome from those talks has been the hiring or relocating of several senior trusted staffers.

But despite this, and the lacklustre leadership of Liberal Colin Barnett (who also may not hold out in his post to the end of the present government), the conservatives have begun clawing back.

According to January’s Morgan Poll report: “Dr Gallop’s State Government appears in danger of having its electoral honeymoon cut short, narrowing their lead to just 1.5 per cent on a primary support basis.

“In November-December, primary support for the ALP slipped 1.5 per cent to 40 per cent with Liberal-National support up 1.5 per cent to 38.5 per cent.”

The Morgan report highlighted several developments over those months, including announcement of a series of sexual and social changes many Liberals claim are making Labor distasteful to mainstream voters.

“WA Attorney-General Jim McGinty said changes giving gay people more equality before the law would be put to State Parliament,” the report says.

“Suggested measures included lowering the age of consent for homosexuals from 21 to 16, banning discrimination against them in employment and giving gay couples access to adoption and in-vitro fertilisation.”

So, in just a year, the Gallop Government has managed to begin reversing the damage Pauline Hanson and Court Minister Doug Shave (remember him?) did to conservatism during 1999 and 2000.

It’s worth reiterating that Labor only scored 37 per cent of primary votes Statewide, so was backed by just more than one in every three voters.

Compare this to the 1983 and 1986 Brian Burke election victories of 53 per cent each.

In Labor’s next victory – in 1989 – the party scored 42.5 per cent, compared to the Liberals’ 43 per cent.

Thereafter Labor slipped further into an electoral trough, with voter backing at 37 per cent (1993), 36 per cent (1996), and Dr Gallop’s equally unimpressive 37 per cent in 2001.

Victory thus came last year only because of the dramatic, and even larger, Liberal slump – to just 31 per cent, or fewer than one in three voters.

WA today has a government, which in a very real sense, holds power only because its opponents were judged to be less appealing.

Things are that bad.

Whatever else one may say of Brian Burke, the two times he faced voters he won more than 50 per cent backing.

That was not the case for any Labor leader since 1986, meaning not Peter Dowding (1989), Carmen Lawrence (1993), and Geoff Gallop (1996 and 2001).

And it’s likely to be a long time before Mr Burke is matched, let alone surpassed.

Nor is the news much better for Labor when the impact of the minor parties, that is, their preferences, are considered.

January’s Morgan report reveals Labor was electorally dependent upon the Greens, with 71 per cent of their preferences going to Labor and 29 per cent to conservatives.

Even more Democrat voters (51 per cent) now prefer the conservatives.

“The ALP two-party preferred support slipped 0.5 per cent to 51.5 per cent while Liberal-National Party support rose 0.5 percent to 48.5 per cent,” the Morgan report says.

“If a WA State election had been held in November-December, the ALP would have won a close election with the help of minor party preferences.”

Another perspective that’s relevant to election 2004 is the Lower House seat make-up.

Labor holds power, under present electoral arrangements, by just six seats.

The swing back in at least six former Liberal-held seats means they’ll probably slip away from Labor, suggesting we’re looking at just three more Gallop years.

Little wonder Electoral Affairs Minister Mr McGinty has put all the Government’s hopes into fundamentally reshaping Lower House electorates, which is now being contested in the Supreme Court.

Without this Labor is destined for more years in the wilderness.

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