One year out from the WA election, coronavirus and the economy loom as the major political wildcards

One year out from the WA election, coronavirus and the economy loom as the major political wildcards


March 14, 2020 09:36:41


Liza Harvey will be looking to boot Mark McGowan from office after just one term at the state election in 12 months. (ABC News)

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WA’s economy is far from well prepared for the coronavirus storm that is about to hit

In any other election cycle, 12 months until polling day would be a major milestone marked significantly by the major parties.

Instead, the looming West Australian election flew almost completely under the radar this week in a news cycle dominated by coronavirus, leaving other events starved of oxygen.

But with polling day edging closer, both the McGowan Government and the Opposition have a firmer eye on March 13, 2021, as Labor looks to secure four more years and the Liberals look to defy the odds and knock off a first-term administration.

So what are the key questions left to be answered in the 12 months we have left before WA voters go to the polls?

What will be the coronavirus effect?

One thing is now obvious: COVID-19 will have an impact on the WA election campaign.

At the very least, the parties will have to reassess their plans over the coming weeks and months due to a news cycle dominated by coronavirus.

But just how wide that impact will be remains to be seen.

Nearly every issue that normally dominates a state election campaign — from the economy to the health system and even the education sector — could be dramatically altered by the global pandemic.

How the virus plays out in WA could have a big bearing on the voters’ opinions of their leaders.

If the health system crumbles under a crisis it would be dire for Labor, yet if the situation is handled capably it could help the Government make a strong re-election pitch to voters.

Where will the economy sit?

This is just one of many coronavirus-related mysteries, but it may be a key one.

Labor pledged to voters that it would fix the state’s economic woes, but three years later the situation is still rather bleak — and that’s even before the full business impact of the pandemic hits.


WA’s economic outlook was looking bleak before the coronavirus outbreak. (ABC News)

Unemployment is relatively high and growth is low — a combination that could be problematic for a Government that came to power on the back of its “plan for jobs”.

Premier Mark McGowan has warned the economic hit could be worse than that of the Global Financial Crisis, so the impact could ultimately be severe.

Will Liza Harvey emerge from the shadows?

In the first few days of her leadership, Liza Harvey made a raft of policy calls — locking in the Roe 8 highway extension and ruling out the sale of Western Power, in particular.

Since then, she has been so rarely seen in press conference settings that some of her colleagues firmly believe she is being hidden.


Opposition Leader Liza Harvey has been keeping a low profile. (ABC News: Benjamin Gubana)

In stark contrast to a long list of predecessors as opposition leader, Harvey only fronts the television cameras in organised press conference settings once every few weeks at the most — a tactic that has raised eyebrows within Parliament House.

But, at a business breakfast this week, she indicated that strategy might change.

“You can’t become premier of a state by winning an election campaign if you are in hiding,” she said, before holding two press conferences in the two days immediately after that event.

What will the Liberal platform look like?

Harvey’s lack of media appearances has left something of a mystery over what policies the Liberal Party will take to voters.

Two key positions are clear — not selling Western Power and building Roe 8 and 9, with the Liberals promising this week to begin construction within 100 days of the election, a pledge dismissed as impossible by critics.


Liza Harvey has pledged not to sell Western Power should she win office. (ABC News: James Carmody)

But little light has been shed on anything else, with the Opposition Leader saying policies will not be unveiled until the second half of 2020.

Harvey has dismissed any suggestion of a “small target” election campaign, suggesting bold policies may be on the horizon.

“I intend to be a really big target, because I want to be premier,” she said this week.

What fresh ideas will Labor have?

Labor went into the last campaign promising a platform of significant change, highlighted by a planned multi-billion-dollar investment in public transport.

Those Metronet plans have been slower to get going than some will have liked, but with construction on most projects due to start soon, they will likely be a big part of Labor’s re-election strategy.


Labor focused its last election campaign on a multi-billion dollar investment in public transport. (ABC News: Andrew O’Connor)

But strategists on both sides of the spectrum have long acknowledged a voter attitude best defined as: “What have you done for me lately?”

With years of large surpluses on the horizon, Labor has a sizeable war chest with which to make big-ticket promises, but what those will look like remains to be seen.

Which seats will Labor defend?

The landslide of 2017 was beyond Labor’s wildest dreams, netting the party seats it never realistically dreamed of winning.

Now Labor goes into the election with a 10-seat majority and plenty of typically conservative territory to defend, in an election where even the most optimistic of Labor strategists believe a swing to the Opposition is the likely outcome.


Labor currently enjoys a 10-seat majority, but even party strategists concede it will be difficult to retain a lead of this magnitude. (ABC News: Pamela Medlen)

How many of its 40 seats it vehemently defends remains to be seen, but given the size of that buffer it is unlikely to be all of them.

Will One Nation play a part again?

Pauline Hanson’s party became the dominant story of the 2017 campaign, with a preference deal with the Liberals proving toxic for Colin Barnett’s government and One Nation surging in the polls before voting day.

Its final result of three Upper House seats fell well short of its own public benchmark, but One Nation still played a crucial role — through preferences and securing a share of the balance of power in the Legislative Council.


Pauline Hanson’s One Nation played a crucial role in the last WA election. (AAP: Dan Peled)

It has not all been plain sailing since then. One of its three MPs quit the party last year, and tensions continue to be a problem for the party, but One Nation will be hoping it can hold onto its Upper House spots and potentially pick up more.

One Nation got nearly 6 per cent of the vote in WA’s Senate election last year — a tally which would give it reasonable hope of maintaining a presence in State Parliament, but would offer no guarantees.

Where do things stand?

While the accuracy of polling has faced plenty of criticism — particularly on the back of last year’s unexpected Federal Election result — regular surveys provide at least some insight as to where things stand on the national political scene.

But there has been virtually no WA political polling since the 2017 election — making it much more difficult to gauge the state of play.

With media companies cutting back on the expensive exercise, it could be some time until we get any hints about how the Government is viewed by the electorate.









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