The Battle for Albany

Before discussing the battle for Albany, I’ll give a plug for my 2021 Western Australian election guide that is now available on the ABC website.

The guide has all the usual bells and whistles, backgrounds on all seats, maps with 2017 polling place results, background on candidates, and indexes by candidate name, electorate name and electorate margin. The site is not static and is updated on a daily basis. Full lists of candidates will be added after the release of nominations on 12 February, and upper house calculators will be launched once group voting tickets have been lodged.

But back to this post’s subject – Albany. It is almost an anti-bellwether seat, having been retained by Labor for two decades, against all state-wide trends, almost entirely due to the personal vote of sitting Labor MLA Peter Watson.

Watson is retiring at the 2021 election. Albany is Labor’s 10th most marginal seat with a margin on 5.9%. Without Watson, can Labor hold Albany?

Albany is the oldest white settlement in Western Australia, settled in 1826, three years before the establishment of the Swan River colony. Until the construction of a safe inner-harbour at Fremantle in the 1890s, Albany was the stopping port for mail boats and the main port of arrival for Western Australia.

Albany is one of only four electorates that have been contested at all 40 Western Australian elections. The other three are Bunbury, Fremantle and Geraldton. All four are port cities.

Albany has been held by all three of the state’s major parties over the decades, Labor, Liberal (and predecessors) and Country/National. It was held by Labor from 1956 until 1974 when it was lost to the Liberal Party on the defeat of the Tonkin Labor government, a rare case of a one-term state government. The Tonkin government had scraped into government with a one-seat majority, giving it little chance of withstanding the backlash against the Whitlam government when facing re-election in 1974.

Labor went backwards across large parts of rural and regional Australia during the period of the Whitlam government, and the 1974 WA elections was the first of several bad results for state Labor parties. The Queensland Labor Party opposition was reduced to a cricket team of members at the 1974 state election. In 1975 the otherwise popular Dunstan Labor government scraped back into office after spending the campaign distancing itself from Whitlam. In 1976, the Victorian Labor opposition suffered a larger than normal triennial thrashing, and even in May 1976, Neville Wran only just achieved office against a past its use-by-date NSW Coalition government. The Sydney Morning Herald famously described Wran as ‘Mr Whitlam writ small’ in an rare front page editorial.

But back to Albany. The loss in 1974 looked to have ended Labor’s history in the seat. Over the next three decades, the seat became relatively safe for the Liberal Party. It was left a marginal seat by the swing to Labor on the election of the Burke government in 1983, but otherwise remained a Liberal seat with a reliable double digit margin. It was represented by Liberal Leon Watt from 1974 until 1993 when he was succeeded by Kevin Prince.

Then came the 2001 election and a confluence of issues that led to the defeat of Prince.

A running issue in the second term of the Court government had been failures in regulating the mortgage broker industry. This had been the responsibility of Doug Shave, and the issue cost the Liberal Party his ultra-safe Perth seat of Alfred Cove. But Prince had been dragged into the controversy due to a past business associate.

Then there was another second term Court government issue – saving the south-west forests. Diane Evers was a candidate of the un-registered Liberals for Forests party in 2001 and polled 8%. Evers is now a Greens MLC for South West Region.

Third was the re-emergence of One Nation. The party had been a serious threat to the Howard government in 1998, but had slipped from attention. It came roaring back at the 2001 WA election and elected three MLCs. As the three major parties had adopted a policy of putting One Nation last on how-to-votes, One Nation decided on a policy of putting all sitting members last. With more sitting members than Labor, that was bad news for the Court government, and Kevin Prince in particular.

At the time older voters had been growing irritated about the recently implemented GST. If no one was going to be worse off, why weren’t retirees better off? The way the GST built into the consumer price index also created a problem with petrol tax indexation – the tax was set to rise 1.5 cents a litre in the campaign. After the WA election, and the landslide Labor victory in Queensland the next weekend, the Howard government abandoned petrol tax indexation and developed a new package of GST compensation for retirees.

In Albany at the 2001 election, Kevin Prince’s vote crashed 25 percentage points to 33.0, just ahead of Labor’s Peter Watson on 31.6%, Labor’s vote also down 2.2 points. One Nation polled 16.2%, the Greens 8.5% and Liberals for Forests 8.0%. Watson swept up preferences from everywhere and was elected on a swing of 15.6%, the largest in the state.

Affectionately known as the ‘flying postman’, Peter Watson was Australia Post’s Albany postal manager before the 2001 election. The description ‘flying’ came from his former career as a middle-distance runner. Watson was the third West Australian after Herb Elliott and Keith Wheeler to break the four minute mile, and he represented Australia in the 1500m at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, though his run at the games was affected by illness. Early in 2000 Watson had another touch of Olympic glory, running through the Albany district with the Olympic torch. His Labor pre-selection for the 2001 election had its downsides, having to give up the local radio sports show that he had run for the previous 13 years.

After his first victory, Watson was narrowly re-elected in 2005 with a 2.3% swing against him. However, he faced an enormous hurdle at the 2008 election when Labor’s long cherished policy of one-vote one-value electoral boundaries was introduced. The Labor vote in its two marginal port seats, Albany and Geraldton, was swamped by the inclusion of surrounding rural areas. Watson’s 2005 two-party preferred vote of 51.4% was reduced to 47.7% on the expanded boundaries.

The map below shows the scale of the change. If you tick the box to show 2005 boundaries, you can see how the compact urban electorate of Albany expanded in size.

None of this mattered in the end. Despite the new boundaries, and despite a statewide 4.1% swing against Labor, Watson achieved a 2.5% swing towards him, the best Labor result in the state. His margin of victory was 89 votes or 0.2%.

Then in 2013, despite a state-wide 5.4% swing against Labor on the re-election of the Barnett government, Watson was re-elected with a 1.8% swing in his favour.

Watson’s retention of Albany in 2013, and Labor colleague Mick Murray’s similar result in Collie-Preston, assisted Labor to win the 2017 election. Without regional footholds in Albany and Collie-Preston, Labor’s clamber to office would have needed an extra two seats in Perth. As events turned out, the size of the swing made concerns about whether Labor could achieve majority government academic.

The graph below shows how much better Peter Watson has done in Albany compared to Labor’s state-wide and non-metropolitan two-party preferred vote. (Dotted lines). There are two line for Albany, the grey one representing results 1989-2005 which includes the big Labor rise in 2001, and the black line showing the redistributed 2005 result and election results since.

On redistributed 2005 results, Labor’s two-party vote in Albany was five percentage points below its state-wide level, but in 2013 Albany’s result was 10 points above. That’s a 15 percentage point turnaround. Labor’s vote in Albany has risen at the three elections since 2005 while Labor’s statewide dived twice before the massive re-bound in 2017.

In 2017 Peter Watson achieved a result in Albany that was on par with Labor’s state-wide result, a far cry from how Albany’s Labor vote lagged its state vote before Watson first won the seat.

Watson has been the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly since 2017 in what was always going to be his final term in Parliament. At 73 he has earned his retirement. And like the good runner he was, Watson is cleanly passing the baton to new Labor candidate Rebecca Stephens.

She will face a three-cornered contest against Liberal candidate Scott Leary and National Delma Daesjou. You can read more about the contest at the Albany page on my election guide.

The Nationals gave the seat a shake when Kevin Prince was first elected in 1993. In 2017, the Nationals finished second, so the two opposition parties will be battling each other as well as Labor in 2021.

Until the arrival of Covid-19, you would have tipped Albany as a Labor loss. Such a prediction must be made with less certainty post-Covid.

On election night, the focus is on the big picture, which means local contests can be over-looked. One that shouldn’t be overlooked on 13 March is Albany, Western Australia’s least bellwether electorate.