Australia

Liberals avoid the Perth and Fremantle by-elections, and it’s all part of the plan

You'd never know it, but most of the by-election voting this weekend is set to take place in Western Australia.

Compared to the "Super Saturday" hype on the east coast, WA's campaigns have been dull and uneventful.

A number of tough-fought political contests are underway in Longman (Qld), Braddon (Tas) and Mayo (SA) , but it is a very different story when it comes to WA, even though it's the only state where there are two federal seats notionally up for grabs.

The reality is, the Perth and Fremantle by-elections have not been the political focus of the major parties and therefore have avoided the limelight.

WA has had no campaign visits from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and nothing like the big-ticket promises made in other states.

About the most notable event in WA was Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's visit to launch Labor's Perth campaign, while high-profile frontbenchers Penny Wong and Anthony Albanese also made appearances to lend support.

Anthony Albanese and Patrick Gorman hold a press conference in an outdoor location in front of micrphones.

Eyes on the bigger prize

From the outset, the Liberals decided not to contest Perth or Fremantle, giving Labor a clear run to retain the two safely-held seats.

It all appears part of a bigger strategy, which sees the party willing to cop some small-term pain as they keep their eyes firmly on the bigger prize.

There was division in WA Liberal ranks when the party revealed it would not contest Perth and Fremantle.

Fremantle was less of a surprise having long been a Labor stronghold. But with the margin less than 4 per cent in Perth, some Liberals believed their no-show was a let down to the traditional supporter base.

Those who supported the decision argued that, with the Liberals unlikely to win either seat, they were better "prioritising limited resources".

A surprise scalp

The party instead turned its attention in WA to the hotly-contested by-election for the state seat of Darling Range, which became vacant when Labor MP Barry Urban quit in disgrace for lying about his qualifications.

Former Darling Range MP Barry Urban speaking in parliament, wearing a blue suit and an RUOK? badge

The Liberals unexpectedly won that race in June — with Labor suffering a devastating 9 per cent swing against it that many did not predict.

It was a particularly bad result for a Labor Government only elected just over a year ago in a landslide, and one compounded by Premier Mark McGowan's apparent attempt to turn it into a presidential style campaign.

But despite the WA Liberals morale-boosting win, many have continued to question the party's decision not to run in Perth and Fremantle.

A GST referendum denied

Scrutiny of the decision was heightened after Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison earlier this month announced the Turnbull Government's proposal to fix the GST system.

West Australians have long argued they have not received their fair share of GST distributions and both major parties are acutely aware it is an issue which resonates strongly with WA voters.

Mr Morrison's proposal would deliver WA, which currently receives just 47 cents for every GST dollar it sends to federal coffers, an extra $4.7 billion over eight years.

Some have queried whether the Liberals missed a big opportunity to turn the Super Saturday races in WA into a referendum on their proposed GST fix, particularly in the seat of Perth.

The thinking was that if the Liberals managed to reduce Labor's margin in Perth by pushing a GST fix platform, it would have rattled the ALP and put question marks over Mr Shorten's proposed alternative GST solution.

While all of that may be true it does not appear to take into account the bigger long-term factor that has always been at play for the Liberals.

Sandbagging seats the top priority

The party's eyes have always been firmly focused on the bigger prize — the looming Federal election.

Prior to the Government's proposed GST fix being announced, Labor made no secret of the fact it believed at least five Liberal-held seats in WA were vulnerable at the next federal poll, including those held by senior Turnbull Government ministers Christian Porter and Michael Keenan.

Many Liberals believe ducking contests in Fremantle and Perth will give them the best chance to focus their resources on sandbagging Mr Porter and Mr Keenan's seats of Pearce and Stirling, which both party's polling has indicated are vulnerable.

Composite headshots of Turnbull Government ministers Christian Porter and Michael Keenan.

WA Liberals were hugely relieved after Mr Morrison's announcement, none more so than Mr Porter who acknowledged reaching that point was no small feat.

"To find a binding resolution has been like climbing Everest and we all probably would have liked to have gotten there a few weeks, maybe a few months, earlier. But I've got to tell you it was bloody difficult," he said.

It is not known exactly when the federal election will happen. Mr Turnbull enjoys the Prime Minister's advantage of being able to pull the trigger at a time most politically advantageous to him and his colleagues.

He has consistently said it will take place next year, but an election could be called later this year, particularly if the Coalition polls well on Saturday in the east coast.

While the Government's GST fix proposal is yet to be locked in, you can expect the Liberals to have it front and centre of its campaign in WA whenever the federal poll is called.

Meanwhile, when it comes to Super Saturday, expect the focus to very much be on the results in Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania, where the contests have been hard fought.

Four of the five seats currently belong to Labor and while the by-elections will be a test of both federal leaders, it is Mr Shorten with the most to lose.

If Labor loses Braddon or Longman it will be the first time an Opposition has lost to the Government in a by-election for almost a century.

Original Article

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