The shock result in the Darling Range byelection is likely to have Premier Mark McGowan and his strategists on edge.
In only a little over a year since Labor’s landslide victory at the state election, the party has suffered a devastating 9 per cent swing against it that most did not predict.
There is certainly no single nor simple explanation for the result.
The circumstances of the byelection, the nature of the campaign and the complexities of the huge electorate point to a range of factors playing a part.
Mr McGowan was front and centre on the hustings most days with his candidate Tania Lawrence, and appeared to almost turn it into presidential-style campaign.
“The people of Darling Range have a choice. They can vote for me and the government that’s fixing the problem or they can vote for Mr Nahan and the Liberals that created the problem,” Mr McGowan argued passionately and repeatedly last week.
Given the nature of those comments, it is very difficult for Mr McGowan and his colleagues to argue the result is anything but bad news in terms of how they are travelling.
Barry Urban affair blamed
But a day after the poll, Mr McGowan was quick to reject any suggestion the result was a vote of no confidence in his leadership and government.
Instead, he pointed the finger of blame largely at matters surrounding Barry Urban, the former Labor MP who triggered the byelection after he quit the WA Parliament before he could be sacked for repeatedly lying about his qualifications and service history.
“His activities, I think, coloured the entire byelection campaign, which made it very difficult right from the very beginning,” Mr McGowan said on Sunday.
“Mr Urban and all of his shenanigans made it difficult to cut through.”
Mr McGowan did take personal responsibility for Labor running a candidate in Darling Range, admitting it was against the advice of some in the party.
“I think not to have run would have been an act of cowardice,” Mr McGowan said.
He also acknowledged Labor had compounded already difficult circumstances after its first byelection candidate Colleen Yates pulled out of the race for misrepresenting her education history.
‘A referendum on Mark McGowan’
As you would imagine, Liberal Leader Mike Nahan was keen to play down the impact of the ghost of Barry Urban.
He said in many parts of the electorate, voters were not even familiar with his name.
“It was really all about, a referendum if you wish, on Mark McGowan,” Dr Nahan said.
“Tania Lawrence was never front and centre of the campaign. It was always Mark McGowan.
“They hid her behind Mark McGowan the whole campaign.”
The Liberals ran a campaign focused on the government’s broken promises and its hikes to household fees and charges — factors Dr Nahan said clearly resonated with many voters.
In the lead-up to Saturday’s poll, most had predicted a tight result, but it in the end it was anything but.
Indeed, one opinion poll published in WA’s daily newspaper last weekend showed Labor set to win with a two-party-preferred vote of 54 per cent to Alyssa Hayden’s 46 per cent.
At the end of counting on Saturday night, the result was almost the opposite, with the Liberals on a two-party preferred of 53 per cent to Labor’s 47 per cent.
Nahan’s job safe for now
The Liberals’ decision to piggyback off a community-led campaign highlighting government cuts to regional services, including the closure of Moora College, may also have played a role in an electorate that includes some semi-rural areas.
The Liberals, the WA Nationals and those fighting the cuts to regional services joined forces with a campaign launched in the critical final week before the poll which urged voters to “Put Labor Last” on the ballot paper.
There was speculation from Liberals during the campaign that a bad result for the party could put more pressure on Dr Nahan’s leadership.
He dismissed the notion on Sunday, questioning who else would want the job and declaring he would not only lead the Liberals to the next election but would be premier after it.
While that may seem far fetched to most, including his parliamentary colleagues, the byelection result has cemented him in the job for the foreseeable future.
It has also provided a much-needed morale boost to an opposition that only a short time ago suffered a devastating election loss.
The Liberals now have four women in the WA Parliament, and hopefully the voters of Darling Range and the rest of WA can finally put the ghost of Barry Urban behind it.