Why Western Australia doesn’t necessarily spell the end for Gillard


Saturday’s state elections in Western Australia were not good news for the Labor Party or for its leader, Australian prime minister Julia Gillard (pictured above).WA flag iconAustralia Flag Icon

First off, it’s important to note that no one expected Labor to win the election — premier Colin Barnett faced an electorate largely satisfied with the direction of the state’s economy and governance since he came to office in 2008.

Barnett’s center-right Liberal Party won 47.2% on Saturday to just 33.6% for the center-left Labor Party.  The leftist Green Party finished in third place with 7.9% and the conservative agrarian National Party in fourth with 6% — the National Party competes separately in Western Australia against the Liberal Party (unlike in federal elections, where it competes more or less in tandem with the Liberal Party as part of the Liberal/National Coalition).

Barnett’s victory gives him an expected 32 seats — an increase of eight — in the state’s 59-member lower house, the Legislative Assembly, which means that he’ll be governing with a majority for the first time; his previous minority government required a coalition with the Nationals.

Labor will drop from 28 seats to 20, the Nationals rise from five seats to seven.

That has resulted in yet another round of hand-wringing over Julia Gillard’s Labor government, which is seeking reelection in a vote scheduled for September 14 later this year — one former Western Australian Labor minister argues that Labor will suffer a ‘crucifixion’ at the polls if Gillard leads it through the election.

But while Gillard’s government — and her Labor leadership — remain on shaky ground, it seems doubtful that Western Australia, as such, should necessarily be the final domino to topple Gillard.The swing away from Labor wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been — it lost just 2.2% from its 2008 state result and it retained its strongholds in Perth, the western Australian capital.  In contrast, the Greens (which support Labor federally) lost nearly 4%.  The result could have been much worse, especially in light of the fact of Barnett’s popularity and general satisfaction with the state government.

Western Australians, who are known for their anti-Canberra streak, elected a Labor government through much of the years of prime minister John Howard’s federal Coalition government, so it’s not necessarily fatal that Gillard’s Labor, in power in Canberra since former Labor leader Kevin Rudd won the 2007 federal election, is unpopular in the state.

Gillard, formerly Rudd’s deputy prime minister, became prime minister after Rudd’s Labor colleagues sacked him over allegations of a dysfunctional management style in 2010.  Gillard subsequently eked out the narrowest of victories in the 2010 federal election, installing Rudd as her foreign minister, though she sacked him from that role in February 2012 after Rudd and his supporters seemed increasingly likely to mount a challenge to Gillard’s leadership.

Gillard thereupon called a snap leadership vote, which she subsequently won in a decisive 71-31 rout. Rudd pledged not to challenge Gillard again for the leadership (at least through the next general election), though he remains Labor’s most popular figure and, arguably, the most popular politician in Australia.

That means that Rudd and his supporters have sniped in the background ever since, at varying degrees of volume, that Gillard cannot win the next election.

The Coalition, under the leadership of national Liberal leader Tony Abbott, would win an election by a 52% to 48% margin today, according to Australia’s latest mid-March Newspoll, which is somewhat of a more narrow result than earlier polls in February, which showed at one point a 56% to 44% advantage for the Coalition.

While Gillard isn’t incredibly popular (with a 57% disapproval rating), neither is Abbott (with a 55% disapproval rating) — the latest poll also shows that voters think, by a narrow margin, Gillard would make a better prime minister than Abbott.

But voters by far also prefer Rudd to lead Labor into the next election, and they would elect a Rudd-led Labor by a 56% to 44% margin against Abbott’s Coalition.

Rudd’s top backers have been frothing for a while, but at an even more frenzied pace since Saturday, arguing that Gillard’s top lieutenants need to convince her to stand down for the good of the party.  While Rudd isn’t likely to initiate a leadership challenge anytime soon against Gillard, he and his backers certainly seem happy to throw wrenches from behind the scenes.  One potential compromise candidate, in the event that Gillard steps down, is Bill Shorten, the current employment minister.

But all of that dysfunction long preceded the Western Australian election, and the Rudd-Gillard cold war seems likely to proceed for the foreseeable future, which is likely to be much more crippling to Labor in advance of the September elections.

Western Australia is the country’s largest state, occupying the entire western third of the island of Australia, though it’s home to just 2.4 million people, making it Australia’s fourth-most populous. It’s also Australia’s richest state, with the highest gross state product in the country, due in large part to its rich mineral wealth.

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