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Thursday, 21st August 2014

Narelle Miragliotta and Campbell Sharman

Western Australia

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The election outcome in Western Australia was greeted with relief by most parties given the unusual conditions in which the campaign was contested. The Australian Labor Party (ALP), in particular, did not experience the electoral losses which had been widely expected. The party had suffered a severe and unexpected setback in the polls following the Tampa incident involving asylum seekers and the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States. The drift away from Labor in Western Australia was compounded by the announcement in mid-September that the Gallop state Labor Government planned to introduce a tax on expensive suburban properties (which it later retracted). These events had the effect of destroying any electoral gains that had been made by federal Labor in the first six months of the year (West Australian, 19 September 2001). The swing away from Labor was confirmed by the party's internal polling which revealed that it would lose all four of its marginal seats in Western Australia (Canning, Cowan, Stirling and Swan) in the House of Representatives as well as fail to secure the newly created, and notionally Labor, seat of Hasluck.

Fortunately for Labor, the worst fears of party strategists were not realised. In fact, the party regarded the result in Western Australia as "particularly pleasing" (media statement from Stephen Smith, 26 November 2001). The ALP managed to retain 3 of its 4 marginal seats and to win Hasluck. The swing against the ALP on a two party preferred basis was slightly less than half of the national average (1.08% in the west compared to the national average of 2.01%). The ALP made a small gain of 0.95% in its primary vote in the House of Representatives in contrast with the 2.26% swing against Labor nationally. At least 9 out of the party's 15 candidates in the lower house increased their margins with substantial gains in Kalgoorlie of 7.44% (which it did not win) and Cowan of 4.14%. Despite a 5% drop in its primary vote in the Senate (33.32%), the ALP easily retained its 2 Senators.

The Liberal Party also had reason to feel satisfied with its gains in Western Australia, particularly in light of the poor performance of the Liberal Party at the state general election 10 months earlier. The Liberals had suffered a major defeat at the 10 February election with its primary vote dropping by 8.74% (Australian Government and Politics database). This was one of the worst election results attained by the party in 51 years and there was apprehension that this result might be repeated at the federal election. Despite the concerns of party insiders, the Liberals managed to increase its primary vote by 3.24%. It retained the seat of Kalgoorlie against the expectations of many in the party including the Prime Minister (West Australian, 22 October 2001). The Liberals regained the seat of Canning, which it had lost to the ALP in 1998, with the effect of increasing the size of its Western Australian contingent in the House of Representatives from 7 to 8 members. The Liberals also returned 3 Senators, 2 on primary votes and the third with the assistance of preferences from the National Party and Pauline Hanson's One Nation party (One Nation).

Many of the small parties could also salvage something positive from the final results even if most did not win representation. This was a difficult campaign for small parties and Independents given the political polarisation over the attitudes to terrorism and refugees which characterised the election. Although the vote for small parties and Independents in the House of Representatives was 3.96% less than 1998 figures, both the Greens WA (GWA) and the Democrats managed to increase their primary vote. Support for the Democrats rose by 0.70% to 4.66% in the House of Representatives. The party also managed to secure Andrew Murray's re-election to the Senate despite fierce competition among a number of high profile candidates for the sixth Senate vacancy. The vote of the GWA increased by 0.94% to 5.99% in the House of Representatives. Despite narrowly losing to the Democrats in the Senate, the GWA managed to gain more primary votes than the Democrats in 13 out of 15 House of Representative electoral districts.

Even One Nation had grounds to claim that it was still a significant force in Western Australian politics. While it suffered a substantial electoral setback in losing one third of its support, the decline in its primary vote was not as great as that experienced by the party in others states, particularly Queensland and New South Wales, where its primary vote was effectively halved. One Nation achieved 6.26% of the first preference votes cast in the House of Representatives and 6.31% in the Senate making it the third most successful party at the election.

The only party that had little to celebrate from the election outcome was the National Party. The long term decline in the party's primary vote in the House of Representatives continued, dropping 0.29% to 1.02%. The Nationals also failed to increase substantially its state wide share of the first preference vote in the Senate despite running a high profile candidate, Hendy Cowan, a former deputy premier and leader of the state party. Cowan attained 1.93% of the primary vote which was an increase of just 0.67% from the previous federal election. This was an unsatisfactory result for the Nationals because Cowan was the party's best hope of electing a National Party Senator from Western Australia since its last representative, Drake-Brockman, resigned from politics in 1978.

Parochial politics: Preselection and preferences

The most distinctive features of the Western Australia campaign were not the policies of the parties or the final election scores but the internal machinations of parties, particularly in relation to the preselection of candidates and the negotiation of preferences. A number of parties struggled to keep preselection battles from spilling into the public domain. Labor experienced problems in Kalgoorlie when the candidate they had preselected for the seat in 1998 (Butson) decided to run as an Independent against the official Labor candidate. This was a frustrating outcome for Labor because Kalgoorlie was seen as a potentially winnable seat on the basis that it had been held continuously by the party for 15 years until 1996 and had been won by the Liberal Party in 1998 on only 28.08% of the primary vote (Australian Electoral Commission 1998). Butson's presence not only threatened to split Labor's vote but his decision to direct preferences against Labor in the seat weakened the electoral position of the party's official candidate (West Australian, 8 October 2001).

One Nation also had its share of preselection dramas when the WA party's state executive and the party's founder, Pauline Hanson, clashed on the matter of local Senate preselection. Hanson had objected to Graham Campbell being preselected to the number one position on One Nation's Senate ticket. Hanson's major complaint was that Campbell had made derogatory remarks about her in the past and that his association with the League of Rights brought the party into disrepute (ABC Public Record, 4 May 2001). Hanson threatened to resign from the party leadership and run as an Independent if the WA state executive defied her by endorsing his candidature. Hanson's insistence that she have the final say on the matter put her at loggerheads with the party and led to a public declaration from the vice president of the party that the preselection of candidates was a decision to be made by the party and not by Hanson (ABC Public Record, 22 May 2001). Hanson's authority was undermined when the 23 members of the WA state executive ignored her wishes and voted unanimously in support of Campbell (West Australian, 2 July 2001).

There was public brawling within the Liberal Party over preselection in the Senate. The decision by the serving WA president of the state Liberal Party, David Johnston, to seek preselection led to a fierce fight for the first three positions on the Senate ticket as none of the three serving Liberal Senators up for re-election had indicated an intention to resign. The party's decision to preselect Johnston resulted in Senator Winston Crane being demoted to the unwinnable fourth position on the party's Senate ticket. Crane, who had previously occupied the number one spot on the party's ticket in 1996, appealed the decision on the basis that proper procedures to determine Senate rankings had not been observed. When the decision was confirmed, Crane lashed out saying that he might consider running as an Independent or even as a One Nation candidate (ABC Public Record, 23 April 2001).

Crane was not the only Liberal Senator candidate to express displeasure about the decision to preselect Johnston to the number two position. Senator Ross Lightfoot was also unhappy about being placed behind Johnston and accused senior party members of using staff to stack branches (West Australian, 3 July 2001). Lightfoot believed that elements within the party were actively seeking to prevent his re-election to the Senate because of his vocal support for the party to swap preferences with One Nation (West Australian, 12 November 2001). There appeared to be some truth in Lightfoot's claim when it was revealed that a senior Liberal party member, who was a strong One Nation critic, had urged Cowan to stand for the Senate as a way of jeopardising Lightfoot's chances of election (West Australian, 14 July 2001).

Intra-party brawling on preselection had implications for inter-party negotiations on preferences. This was particularly true for the conservative parties. The fierce competition for preferences among parties and candidates produced a number of unusual preference arrangements. Crane's demotion to the number four position on the Liberal's Senate ticket resulted in his decision to adopt an unorthodox preference strategy that risked disciplinary action from his party. Crane posted a letter to over 710,000 households across WA asking electors to ignore the official instructions of the Liberal Party and to place him in the number one position on their ballot papers (West Australian, 5 November 2001). Crane's letter did not encourage voters to allocate their subsequent preferences to his Liberal Senate colleagues but only requested that they give him their first vote (letter from Senator Winston Crane, not dated). Lightfoot was also concerned about his chances of re-election. He had been shunned by many of the other parties contesting the Senate election as a consequence of his unpopular pro-One Nation views. The Liberals for Forests (LFF), the National Party, the Australian Democrats, the ALP and the GWA all ranked Lightfoot below either his Liberal running mates or Cowan in a bid to prevent his re-election. This represented a threat to Lightfoot's hopes of reelection given that the Liberal Party vote in the Senate could be eroded by the presence of other conservative groups such as the LFF, the Nationals and One Nation. However, the decision of One Nation to favour Lightfoot in their preference allocation had the effect of neutralising the tactics of other parties to defeat him (West Australian, 29 October 2001).

Lightfoot was alone in being discriminated against by the preference decisions of other parties at the election. One Nation candidates continued to be isolated by the mainstream parties in Western Australia. Earlier in the year, One Nation had been given reason to believe that the Liberals in Western Australia were willing to permit their candidates to trade preferences with One Nation (Australian, 30 July 2001). The defeat of the Country Liberal Party (CLP) at the Northern Territory election, a loss which had been largely attributed to the decision of the CLP to trade preferences with One Nation, provided the anti-One Nation elements within the Western Australian Liberals with the opportunity to force a reversal of the earlier decision (West Australian, 21 August 2001). While the Liberal Party's decision would normally have provided grounds for One Nation to initiate its anti-sitting member preference strategy against all parties, political circumstances dictated otherwise. The Coalition Government's tough stance on asylum seekers forced One Nation to abandon such a strategy in order to avoid alienating potential supporters in Liberal held seats who were pleased with the Government's hard line immigration policy (West Australian, 9 October 2001). Instead, One Nation opted to place the GWA and the Democrats last on their how to vote cards in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Liberals were favoured with One Nation preferences ahead of the ALP in the Senate and in 12 of the 15 Western Australian lower house seats.

The decision by the Western Australian branch of the ALP to issue a split ticket, dividing its preferences between the GWA and the Democrats in the Senate marked a significant departure from the nature of Labor's allocation of preferences. This was the first time in three federal elections that the GWA would not be the beneficiary of all Labor's preferences in the upper house (Australian, 23 October 2001). Both the GWA and the Democrats regarded access to ALP preferences as critical because the ALP typically has a higher Senate remainder than the Liberals. Labor's decision to split its preferences was made by the state party only after pressure from the national body. The offer by the Democrats at the national level to give preferences to the ALP in 15 marginal seats (none of which were in WA) was viewed as important for Labor's chances of winning Government. The Democrats added further pressure by threatening to assign preferences away from the party in its four marginal seats in Western Australia if the ALP did not agree to a deal over Senate preferences. To minimise the ire of GWA over the deal with the Democrats, Labor was forced to agree to a series of policy concessions on environmental matters. Without this concession, GWA had indicated that it planned not to support Labor with its preferences in the lower house (Greens WA Press Release 25 October 2001).


The result of the election in Western Australia did little to alter the political make up of party representation from the west in the federal parliament. Nevertheless, the election prompted a great deal of vigorous political activity both in the public arena and within political parties. It demonstrated the critical role which parties play, for better or worse, in the electoral process by selecting candidates and trading preferences. Such activities are never simple and provide a good example of the ways in which the complexities of running for office in a system of representative democracy can be accommodated.

Narelle Miragliotta, Department of Political Science, University of Western Australia
Campbell Sharman, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Western Australia

Originally published in John Warhurst and Marian Simms (eds), 2001: The Centenary Election, St Lucia, UQP, 2002.

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