As many of our politically active followers may have seen in an article by the ABC recently, Zak Kirkup and the WA Liberals have changed tack, warning against allowing Labor “absolute control”. This is seemingly an indication of the Liberal Party’s view that they are unlikely to win government, and that they may very well be on track for a very large defeat. What does this change of tack potentially mean and why is Kirkup concerned over a Labor majority in both houses?
A Labor majority in the Legislative Council means they will be able to pass legislation relatively unhindered, which could result in some of their more ambitious policies being passed into law. The last time a government held a majority in both houses was the Liberals and Nationals in 2013, however it’s worth noting that they did not have the same formal coalition that exists at a national level. They did have a formal coalition in 1996 however, where they won both houses, with the Liberals holding an outright majority in the Assembly. One imagines the Liberals did not protest so much when they were enjoying their majorities. A major concern one can expect from the Liberals (and the Nationals) is the prospect of a Labor majority, meaning the long fought for “One Vote, One Value” policy can be implemented.
Currently, regional districts in the Legislative Council are more heavily weighted than their metro counterparts, in effect giving regional voters a ‘stronger’ vote. Regional seats have 50 per cent of the members of the Legislative Council despite only accounting for 25 per cent of the population. A similar case was seen with lower house seats prior to Labor introducing “One Vote, One Value” to the Legislative Assembly in 2005 for the 2008 election. The Liberals and Nationals are likely to be uneasy about any such change, as it would create great difficulty for them in achieving a majority in the Legislative Council at future elections.
So, what does Kirkup’s change of tack mean for the coming election? Well it could be a sign of things to come, with the Liberals being on track for a large defeat and resorting to this as a ‘furniture saving’ tactic. It likely means the Liberals feel they are better off positioning themselves as a bulwark against previously disliked Labor policies (such as the Gold Tax) than they are to present new policies that will win them voters. Kirkup seems to have identified they are better off seeking to win back previous Liberal voters than to win the election by targeting voters at the centre. This could be reflective of a sentiment that the Liberal policies that have been announced have been ineffective in winning over votes. However, he runs a risk in this change of tack – the suggestion to voters that the party has no confidence in themselves, that they lack credible policy to seek to win government, and/or they are only seeking to retain seats in the Legislative Council.
The tactic relies on the assumption that voters who have shifted from Liberals to Labor will switch their votes out of concern for a Labor double majority, or that voters value a robust opposition over their preferred candidate winning. Now I’m not one to discount the want for a robust opposition – having a strong opposition is important in any democracy; however, this does not strictly mean a robust opposition can’t exist when a party has majorities in both houses. More typically conservative voters may well be more fearful of a Labor double majority and, as a result, Kirkup’s new message may resonate with them. However, this still risks the possibility that people will vote Labor in the Assembly and Liberal in the Council, which could see many Liberal seats at risk to Labor in the Assembly, including Kirkup’s own seat of Dawesville. Additionally, the tactic may indicate a level of desperation to protect Liberal seats more so than it reflects a genuine concern for a robust opposition: a sentiment that may see this message fail to translate.
For more typically Labor or left-voting Western Australians this message is likely to be ignored or fail to assist the Liberals in attracting votes. For more progressive voters that may be looking to vote Labor but are concerned about a double majority, they are more likely to switch towards the Greens or other progressive parties than they would Liberal. If the Liberals are true to their word about simply not wanting Labor to have a majority, they shouldn’t mind even if it costs them some potential votes.
The Liberals’ switch to this new position will certainly be interesting as it could see them start to build back momentum as they bring attention to Labor’s more disliked policies and present themselves as a champion of minority views in parliament. Or, it could see them pushed further into an electoral rut. It’s a gamble but it seems to be one Kirkup is willing to take.
Mike Anderson is a Political Science and Employment Relations Student. Ask him about Psephology if you’re ever having difficulty sleeping.
Words by Mike Anderson
Declaration: Mike Anderson is a member of the Australian Labor Party.