Tonight will see the first leaders’ debate of AusVotes 2019, in Perth. The debate brings a rare focus of attention on Perth and Western Australia. In light of the tightening of the polls, the number of seats possibly in play in WA means that the election could well be won on the western side of the Nullarbor. Both major parties know this. The debate and the activities of the party leaders while in WA, are worth a closer look.

The national media doesn’t usually pay much attention to politics in Western Australia, and it shows. Earlier in the campaign I saw a few major reporting gaffes: one story (since corrected) confused the MPs for the seats of Canning and Stirling and another omitted Attorney-General Christian Porter’s seat of Pearce in a list of Labor target seats in WA while listing less marginal seats. The balance has been redressed somewhat with a detailed online article from the ABC’s WA state political reporter Jacob Kagi, and another from Sydney Morning Herald’s Shane Wright (formerly of the West Australian), but a little more background and debunking wouldn’t go amiss.

In many federal elections, by the time the WA results are announced, we know who the government will be. To be fair, that could well be the case this time too, with so many seats in Victoria seen as likely to shift to Labor, and so many seats in Queensland genuinely contested. However, even if not a single seat in the eastern states changes hands, Labor could still win government by winning its target seats in WA.

WA is more progressive than the stereotype

The common image of WA is that it’s Australia’s Texas, a mining state with a conservative streak. Even if that’s true, it is a Texas where Austin, a famously liberal city, has 80% of the state’s population. There are 16 seats in WA, 13 of which are in metropolitan Perth. In the marriage equality postal survey, WA voted 64% in favour, only one per cent less than Victoria’s 65% Yes vote.

Since Federation, Labor has been in power in WA for about 44 of 118 years, including about half of the past 40 years. The current Labor state government was elected in a landslide in 2017, winning 41 of 59 lower house seats. The current state government remains sufficiently popular that the WA version of the Bill Bus, Labor’s campaign vehicle, includes a photograph of Premier Mark McGowan alongside photos of Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek.

WA seats to watch

Labor is targeting five seats in WA, in order of margin:

Hasluck, 2.05% margin, currently held by Ken Wyatt, who was Minister for Indigenous Health and Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care in the previous government. Fun fact – he is the cousin of the current state Treasurer of WA, Labor’s Ben Wyatt. The Labor candidate is James Martin.

Swan, 3.59% margin, currently held by Steve Irons. Hannah Beazley, daughter of the former Labor leader Kim Beazley, is the Labor candidate.

Pearce, 3.63% margin, currently held by Christian Porter, who was Attorney-General in the previous government. The Labor candidate is Kim Travers.

Stirling, 6.12% margin, formerly held by Michael Keenan, who is not standing again. Out of a field of five candidates, four of them women, Vince Connelly has been nominated to run for the Liberals. The Labor candidate is Melita Markey.

Canning, 6.79%, currently held by Andrew Hastie. The Labor candidate is Melissa Teede.

Union volunteers have been campaigning in Labor’s target seats, including Canning, which is likely to fall only if there is a large swing to Labor, given that Hastie doesn’t seem as personally unpopular as Porter. GetUp is actively working on unseating Porter in Pearce, and included Andrew Hastie in its long list when asking supporters to vote for the MPs they wanted GetUp to target, but he didn’t make the cut.

The Liberals have one stated target seat, Cowan, which Labor gained from the Liberals in 2016 and holds on a two-party-preferred margin of 0.68%. The current MP is Anne Aly and the Liberal candidate is Isaac Stewart. Although Perth has a margin of 3.33%, the Liberals are not targeting it in this election – nor did they target it in the 2018 ‘Super Saturday’ by-election, despite the fact that there was no incumbent, Tim Hammond having resigned his seat for family reasons. The Liberals didn’t run a candidate in either Perth or Fremantle in the Super Saturday by-elections last year, preferring to save their resources for a state by-election around that time, which they won.

What about Julie Bishop’s former seat of Curtin?

There has been some speculation about whether the Liberals could lose Curtin following Julie Bishop’s decision not to seek re-election. The Liberals nominated Celia Hammond, who was previously the Vice Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame, a private Catholic university. Some of her statements on feminism and climate change seem out of step with the generally liberal views of the electorate in Curtin, which voted 72% in favour of marriage equality on a high turnout.

Labor originally nominated Melissa Parke, a former minister and MP for Fremantle who now lives in Curtin, but she withdrew from the contest after a dispute over some of her remarks about Israel, and was replaced by the relatively unknown Rob Meecham.

Following Parke’s resignation, the focus has been on independent candidate Louise Stewart. Over the weekend, poll results showing a massive swing towards Stewart were published, with the West Australian reporting that that Curtin was ‘hanging by a thread’. However, by this morning, doubt had been cast on the poll, with Ucomms, who purportedly conducted the poll for ReachTel, denying any involvement. Stewart’s campaign says that the polling was provided to them by a third party.

Even without the loss of Parke, Labor was unlikely to achieve more than a substantial erosion of Bishop’s margin from 2016, and Stewart probably entered the campaign too late to have a chance of winning over enough voters. Curtin is the safest seat, let alone the safest Liberal seat, in WA with a 20.70% margin. None of the state constituencies included within Curtin’s boundaries elected a Labor state MP in 2017’s landslide.

As a result, despite the sound and fury, Curtin is not a seat to watch in WA. Stirling, rated by the Australian Electoral Commission as only ‘fairly safe’ and where Melita Markey has been campaigning for over a year, will be much more interesting.

Issues to watch for in the debate

The leaders’ debate tonight is being conducted by Seven West Media, which owns both channel 7, the host of the debate, and the West Australian. At the time of writing this post, few details were available as to the format of the debate and who would be hosting/moderating/asking questions. The debate is clearly being used as something of a promotion for the West Australian, with a special edition promised for the day after the debate. At the West, as it is known locally, major redundancies were recently announced and a new editor is seen to be taking the paper in a more tabloid-style direction.

Beyond showcasing the West, there are certain issues that are likely to be raised. The West itself has trailed a revival of the franking credits issue. The leaders’ recent announcements in WA might suggest where they think the questions will be, and that is jobs and employment. WA’s employment rate is still above the national average at 6%, and nearly double the rate during the mining boom of a decade ago. Labor campaigned heavily on job creation in the state election in 2017, so federal Labor will likely want to stick with a winning formula.

Other issues that might come up include infrastructure, which has lagged behind population growth for some time, and the government’s last-minute approval for a uranium mine at Yeelirrie near Kalgoorie – well, 500 km away, which is near by WA standards.

The Liberals’ preference deal with Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party may also come up, with former WA Liberal Premier Colin Barnett criticising the deal.

Leaders’ debates rarely change much in an election campaign. The Perth debate at least offers the opportunity to hear how Western Australia sees federal issues – similarities and differences.