Liberal party faces up to 12 years in Western Australia wilderness after historic Labor landslide

The Liberal party in Western Australia could face up to 12 years in opposition after a once-in-a-century wipeout that delivered Labor the biggest majority and the strongest two-party preferred result of any modern Australian government.

On Sunday premier Mark McGowan moved to ease concerns about what his government would do with an overwhelming majority in both houses, telling voters there was “nothing to fear”.

“People have seen with me and my government that we’re very centrist, we’re very middle of the road, we’re very progressive, we’re caring but we’re responsible,” McGowan said at a press conference, where he was flanked by his family, the day after the election.

He also made a pitch for the traditionally Liberal-leading small business sector and tradespeople.

“I’m just very happy that my team is very community minded, very middle of the road, very centrist, and while we are still there for working people I also have a lot of time for small business people, for tradies,” he said. “You’ve got to always make sure you continue to appeal to those people and they don’t feel like they have got to vote for someone else just because they change jobs.”

The WA election win has been compared to Campbell Newman’s historic 2012 victory in Queensland, in both a flattering and unflattering light.

Newman secured 87.5% of all seats in the Queensland parliament for the LNP and left just seven Labor MPs standing.

On the current count, the McGowan government is on track to hold 88% of all lower house seats in WA – 52 of the 59 member legislative assembly – leaving the National party with a predicted four seats and the Liberal party with three, or on some counts two. Labor is also on track to win a majority in the upper house for the first time in the state’s history, potentially winning 22 of the 36 seats.

With just under half the votes counted on Sunday, Labor was headed toward a two-party preferred vote in the high 60s – higher than the previous record of 64-36 in the NSW election in 2011, where Barry O’Farrell led the Liberal party to a 16.5% swing against the Labor government led by Kristina Keneally.

Newman squandered his majority in three short years, carrying out what Griffith University political scientist Dr Paul Williams called “an exercise in how not to be premier” by doing “everything that is contrary to Queensland political culture”. Labor won the 2015 election with a record swing against the Newman government of 14%.

“Mark McGowan will not make that mistake,” Williams said.

That makes it extremely unlikely that the Liberal party will be in shape to seek government at the next state election in 2025, or even 2029. With Nationals leader Mia Davies shaping up as the likely opposition leader, “the opposition leader will not even be someone you could put forward as alternative premier,” Williams said.

“It could be 12 years before they come back.”

The swing needed for the Liberal party to win government is much greater than Labor required in Queensland in 2015: even a 10% swing would just put the Liberal party back in the position it was in following the 2017 election, which was, before Saturday night, the biggest election win in WA history.

“If you’re a longtime observer of state politics here, the state of the carnage of the Liberal party is hard to fathom,” says Notre Dame university political commentator Dr Martin Drum. “This is a fairly conservative state. There’s a whole bunch of areas that would never have considered voting Labor in their lives. Really leafy riverside or coast-side areas, multimillion dollar houses, old money … and some of them are on a knife-edge, some of them are already gone to Labor.

“Historic doesn’t begin to describe it. It was pretty historic last time. This time is absolutely phenomenal … 2017 was really bad for the Liberals and it only seems not so bad because of this result.”

That means an end to WA’s fairly regular pattern of switching government every two terms.

“I think it will be really hard to win the next election for [the Liberal party] because they’re coming from such a small base,” Drum said. “They’re going to have very few personnel and resources to be able to compete.”

Despite the imbalance, concerns among commentators about what the McGowan government may do in an environment where the ordinary checks and balances of parliament are significantly reduced are low.

Drum says Labor will not take the opportunity to progress a more progressive agenda. “McGowan’s a pretty centrist, cautious premier and a lot of his focus has been on infrastructure and economic development,” he said. “I don’t think that will change radically.”

The most controversial reform on the agenda is potentially changing the electoral system to do away with malapportionment representation in the upper house, which is weighted toward rural and regional votes.

Prof John Phillimore from Curtain University says the double-majority may put increased pressure on Labor to produce more robust policy. Arguments like the one used against strengthening the draft Aboriginal heritage laws to give traditional owners the right to veto the destruction of heritage sites – which outgoing Aboriginal affairs minister Ben Wyatt said would never get upper house support – can no longer be used.

“In some respects it gives them nowhere to hide,” Phillimore said.

Phillimore said it was likely McGowan would continue to govern in a similar vein to his first term, which was pinned to the idea that he was stable, responsible, and cautious.

“McGowan is not the same sort of crash or crash-through type as Campbell Newman or even [former WA premier] Colin Barnett,” Phillimore said. “He doesn’t seem to have the same potential for violent dislike that was aroused by both Newman and Barnett eventually.”

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