Inside Story

Charismatic, no. Electable, yes

Mark McGowan’s win in Western Australia is good news for Bill Shorten – though not necessarily in the way you’d expect

Paul Rodan 13 March 2017 1076 words

Known quantity: federal opposition leader Bill Shorten mixes with locals at a pub in Midland, in Perth’s east, last Friday. Dan Peled/AAP Image

With the rules of electoral engagement having shifted and volatility on the rise, any attempt to draw general conclusions from a single election result has its hazards. But the weekend’s result in Western Australia at least gives us the opportunity to examine an actual electoral event rather than pore over poll data. What it reveals are fairly clear winners and losers, and some known unknowns in between.

Federal opposition leader Bill Shorten is an obvious beneficiary, and not simply because he is the federal leader of the party that won a landslide victory on Saturday. Premier-elect Mark McGowan, elected state Labor leader in January 2012, was a relatively long-term opposition leader. He had lost one election, in 2013 – hardly his fault after only a year in the job – but hung on to the party leadership and used the next four years to position himself for a credible run at the premiership.

While the NSW Labor right would no doubt have ditched McGowan after his 2013 loss (or maybe even before it), the success of WA Labor’s more patient approach has implications for the federal party and for Shorten. After five years in the job, McGowan was a known quantity: for better or worse, voters knew him as well as they can an opposition leader. And while he is clearly neither charismatic nor a great orator (hardly a novelty in state politics), Labor’s consistent poll lead suggested that the party was electable with him as leader. The danger of being defined by one’s opponents (see Mark Latham in the 2004 federal election) had essentially been neutralised.

Given McGowan’s massive victory, last March’s attempted putsch by Stephen Smith to replace him from outside the parliament now looks more farcical than ever. Presumably Smith, who demonstrated the lack of any necessary correlation between conventional good looks and political judgement, is not waiting by the phone for an offer of well-paid consulting work in the new government.

Bill Shorten is in a comparable, though not identical, situation. He has been through one election and, unlike McGowan’s first, actually won extra votes and extra seats. Federal Labor has been ahead in the polls for quite some time, and while Shorten is clearly charismatically challenged and has a unique style of voice modulation, he is both a known quantity and a given for those expressing a preference for Labor in the polls.

The notion that Labor would be even further ahead with a different leader – a view advanced mainly by Labor partisans rather than the uncommitted voters who decide elections – is simply untestable. What is clearer is that a change of leader would remind voters of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd fiasco and suggest that the party has learnt nothing from its previous self-indulgence. Rudd was dumped in 2010 when Labor was leading 52–48 in the polls, and we all know how that worked out. The party’s recent stability and comparative unity (certainly when contrasted with the Coalition) are electoral pluses.

Labor’s current situation resembles neither 1983 nor 2006–07, when it changed leaders in order to turn a possible victory into a likely one. In the first case, Bob Hawke was a known political celebrity at no risk of being defined by his opponents. Kevin Rudd was less well known than Hawke had been, but his ubiquitous television presence ensured him a more than adequate popular image among swinging voters. Both Hawke and Rudd won substantial victories, which suggested that Hayden and Beazley would probably have won anyway.

By contrast, there is no Hawke or Rudd on the current Labor frontbench. While certain names suggest themselves as potential leaders (Albanese, Plibersek, Bowen), they are comparatively unknown to the electorate and would be vulnerable to definition by their opponents. Moreover, suitability for the job of opposition leader is rarely predictable in advance: only work experience counts.

So, barring any revelations that might cripple Shorten’s credibility, federal Labor is probably best served by following the example of stability provided by WA Labor and Mark McGowan. If the electorate is set on a change of government, history tells us that as long as the opposition leader meets a basic electability threshold, victory is likely. For evidence that the threshold can be quite low, see Tony Abbott.

More attention has focused on the performance of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and its federal implications. Pre-election polling appeared to ignore the fact that One Nation was not contesting all lower house seats, and therefore tended to inflate the vote in individual lower house seats. But that doesn’t detract from the reality of a recorded drop in support during the last week of the campaign.

A more accurate measure of One Nation’s support can be garnered from upper house results, where the party contested all six regions. Its figure of 7.5 per cent is (predictably) superior to its lower house effort (4.7 per cent) and close to its average in lower house seats contested (around 8 per cent). All these figures are a far cry from the 15 per cent predicted in earlier polls, but the upper house vote provides an interesting comparison with the WA Senate vote in 2016. On that occasion, One Nation secured 4 per cent. So, in a comparable contest with the party on all ballot papers, it has nearly doubled its vote in eight months, albeit from a low base.

Even if the Liberal–One Nation preference deal hadn’t generated cultural repugnance among moderate conservatives, the Liberals seem to have overlooked the relative inability of One Nation to discipline its preferences. In times past, the Democratic Labor Party (assisted by elements of the Catholic Church) would deliver around 90 per cent of its preferences to the Liberal–Country Party coalition, and even the Greens average round 80 per cent to Labor. For both organisational reasons (an inability to staff all polling places) and ideological ones (not all of its supporters are disgruntled Liberals), One Nation will struggle to deliver the goods. Liberal Party strategists will need to take this into account when considering the value of a deal for future elections, state and federal. Unless One Nation can deliver around 70 per cent or better, it is probably not worth the pain. •

Author’s note: election figures are from the WA Electoral Commission website and may change marginally as the count continues.