Western Australian polls set to impact nation

Ruling Coalition likely to lose to Labor over fading fortunes as OneNation makes inroads

The state of Western Australia holds a crucial election today which is set to have ramifications well beyond the nation's west.

With opinion surveys indicating that the ruling Liberal-National party alliance will be toppled, the ballot is set to shape the futures of two figures who are not even candidates: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and right-wing anti-migrant firebrand Pauline Hanson.   

Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett, 66, has been in office since 2008 and is the nation's longest-serving state leader. But the Liberal leader is expected to face a backlash over the drastic turnaround in the state's fortunes following the end of the China-fuelled mining boom.

In four years, the state has gone from being Australia's best-performing economy to its worst. House prices have plummeted, the unemployment rate of 6.5 per cent is the worst in the country and residents are flocking east for jobs.

An estimated 20 per cent of Western Australia's Uber drivers were formerly earning high wages in the mining or engineering sectors.

The state seems particularly ripe for an outpouring of voter frustration. It has growing numbers of discontented citizens who have lost jobs or struggled to benefit from a mining boom that is now in decline.

One Nation candidate Tshung Chang putting up a campaign sign in Perth last Saturday. The party's performance could shed light on the extent of support for populist, protectionist, anti-migrant politics in the country. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Opinion surveys indicate that Mr Barnett's ruling Liberal-National Coalition is set to be toppled by the opposition Labor Party. A Galaxy poll released last Sunday found Labor ahead by 54 per cent to 46 per cent - a result that would lead to a crushing loss for Mr Barnett.

But much of the media's attention  has been focused on neither Mr Barnett nor 49-year-old Labor leader Mark McGowan.

Instead, Ms Hanson has dominated headlines after travelling to Western Australia to spend a week campaigning on behalf of local candidates.

The election is being closely watched across the nation as a test of her support - which, in turn, could indicate the level of support in Australia for the sort of populist, protectionist, anti-migrant sentiments that helped to fuel the recent victory of President Donald Trump in the United States and the decision by Britain to leave the European Union.

Ms Hanson, a Queensland-based federal MP who gained prominence as an anti-Asian parliamentarian in the 1990s, is now known for her strident opposition to Muslim immigration, free trade and foreign investment.

Her One Nation party was originally tipped to gain up to 15 per cent of the vote, but the latest opinion surveys indicate that its support has slipped to about 8.5 per cent, partly owing to her extreme views and party infighting.

But the party could still potentially gain the balance of power in the state's Upper House. This follows a highly controversial vote-swapping deal between One Nation and Mr Barnett's Liberal party.

The state election is also set to have an impact on the standing of Mr Turnbull.

Western Australia is typically a conservative state, and a Liberal loss here would add to the pressure on Mr Turnbull. Since toppling former prime minister Tony Abbott in 2015, Mr Turnbull has struggled in federal opinion polls and his approval ratings have plummeted.

He has come under increasing pressure - not least from Mr Abbott - and  a poor result for the Liberals in Western Australia will only lead to further scrutiny of his leadership of the federal Liberal Party.

Veteran political commentator Michelle Grattan said yesterday that a loss for Mr Barnett would mean that "the Coalition backbench and the wider conservative constituency will become even more agitated in an already volatile climate".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2017, with the headline 'Western Australian polls set to impact nation'. Print Edition | Subscribe