|A Crushing Victory: On Election Night in Perth, Western Australia, the provisional count gave Mark McGowan's Labor Party an impressive 60 percent of the popular vote. The Liberal’s received just 21.6 percent.|
IF YOU THOUGHT Jacinda Ardern had a good election in 2020, just take a look at Mark McGowan’s landslide. Last Saturday, 13 March 2021, the West Australian elections saw McGowan’s Labor government win 51 seats in the 59-seat Legislative Assembly. The Liberal Party, including its young leader, Zak Kirkup, suffered an unprecedented electoral catastrophe. The Party was reduced to just 2 assembly seats, and Kirkup was defeated in his own electorate, Dawseville, by Labor’s Lisa Munday. So decisive was Labor’s victory that the ABC was able to call the result a mere 42 minutes after the polls closed.
The emphatic nature of McGowan’s win was attributed by all reputable political journalists and commentators to his handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic. With fewer than 1,000 cases and just 9 deaths recorded across the state, the Premier there, like the Prime Minister here, was rewarded with an astonishing surge of support from across the political spectrum. Prior to election day, the polls predicted catastrophe. Labor was shown nudging 70 percent. McGowan’s approval rating was a stratospheric 88 percent!
In the face of Labor’s looming electoral tsunami, the Liberals simply lost it. Sixteen weeks out from the election they chose as their new Opposition Leader an ambitious 34-year-old policy analyst. (The card he pressed into the hand of former Liberal Leader, John Howard, while still a teenager, read simply: “Zak Kirkup, Future Prime Minister”.)
Just 16 days out from polling day, in an unforgivable display of political honesty, Kirkup conceded to startled journalists that there was no way his party could win the election. As if this wasn’t enough a big enough incentive for traditional Liberal voters to desert their party, Kirkup’s Finance Spokesperson presided over a complete train-wreck of a media conference called to mark the release of the party’s economic policy. This anorexically-thin document turned out to contain almost no reliable information as to how its contents would be funded.
On the night, the provisional count gave Labor an impressive 60 percent of the popular vote. The Liberal’s received just 21.6 percent.
The Western Australian Liberal Party’s stunning defeat is reminiscent of the equally disastrous performance of the Canadian Progressive Conservative Party (I know, I know, it’s an oxymoronic name!) in the General Election of 1993.
Over the course of the previous nine years, the PCP Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, had ruthlessly imposed a hard-core programme of neoliberal “reform” upon the Canadian people. Their response was to slash the PCP’s share of the popular vote from a very respectable 43 percent in 1988, to a terminal 16 percent in 1993.
Under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system the result was a death sentence. From 169 seats in Canada’s House of Commons, the PCP was reduced to just two. Within a few years the PCP was swallowed up by a new right-wing coalition and disappeared from Canadian history forever. Mulroney, himself, only escaped utter humiliation by stepping away from the PCP’s leadership before the electoral axe fell.
It is interesting to speculate what might have happened to the New Zealand Labour Party in the general election of 1990 had its caucus not had the wit, just eight weeks before polling day, to hand over leadership of the party to working-class battler Mike Moore.
Prior to the departure of Moore’s prime ministerial predecessor, the professorial Geoffrey Palmer, internal party polling showed Labour heading for an unsurvivable result in the mid-to-high teens. Had not the Deputy-PM, Helen Clark, and Moore prevailed upon Palmer to step down, Labour may well have anticipated the PCP’s fate by three years by winning only three or four seats in the House of Representatives. As things turned out, however, Moore was able to do what Kirkup couldn’t: “save the furniture”. Labour’s vote in 1990 was an eminently survivable 35 percent of the popular vote.
Had it not been for New Zealanders voting for the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system in 1993, the New Zealand National Party may have suffered a disaster very similar to the WA Liberals in 2002. Under the old First-Past-the-Post electoral system, Bill English’s record low 2002 result of 20.9 percent would, similarly, have slashed the National Party’s parliamentary representation to low single figures. By the same token, a popular vote of 50 percent under FPP would have delivered Labour a huge parliamentary majority.
The existence of MMP renders a debacle of West Australian proportions most unlikely. The voters know that the death-zone for unpopular parties is 5 percent not 20 percent. In sharp contrast to the much smaller NZ First, there’s a lot of ruin in a political party the size of National. Even so, Judith Collins cannot afford to let her party languish in the mid-to-high 20s indefinitely. As she, herself, noted, only a few years ago, the National leader who allows its Party Vote to fall below 35 percent should not anticipate a lengthy tenure in the top job.
The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is no doubt also taking stock of where she and her party stand currently. The latest TV1-Colmar Brunton shows Labour’s level of support pretty much unchanged from Election Night, but her own unprecedently high ranking in the preferred-prime-minister stakes has taken a tumble. (Although, even after shedding 15 percentage points, that still puts Jacinda 35 points ahead of her nearest rival!)
In both instances, Covid-19 continues to call the shots. While the country as a whole still relishes its good fortune vis-à-vis a Covid-raged world; the yo-yoing in and out of Lockdown has left many voters in a grumpy frame of mind. Clearly, Jacinda is being told that, good though she undoubtedly is, she has done – and could do – better.
Zak Kirkup would tell her that there are much worse messages an electorate can send you. While Covid-19 continues going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down in it, Jacinda should not expect to receive the sort of judgement pronounced upon the West Australian Liberals. When the Coronavirus is finally defeated, however, Jacinda will need to find new evils to vanquish, and with an equal measure of success, or she, too, will pay the inevitable electoral price of failure.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 19 March 2021.