How the North West Central by-election could shake up politics in Western Australia

An election in a pocket of Western Australia larger than the entire state of New South Wales – but home to roughly 11,000 voters – has the potential to radically change the structure of politics in WA.

A by-election for the North West Center seat has been prompted by the resignation of National MP Vince Catania after 17 years on the political front.

But due to the unusual constellation of Western Australia’s parliament, this election could trigger something of a constitutional dilemma.

The Labor government dominates parliament and the lower house has only six opposition MPs. Four are nationals and two are liberals.

The Nats and Libs have formed an alliance in opposition, and since the Nationals have more seats, the Leader of the Opposition is Mia Davies of the Nationals.

The by-election was triggered by the resignation of National MP Vince Catania and could cost Mia Davies her position as Leader of the Opposition. (ABC News: James Carmody)

If the Liberal Party candidate wins the by-election, the opposition parties will hold three seats each and a decision will have to be made on the leadership of the opposition.

The Liberal Party could use this scenario, and its slightly higher numbers in the Upper House, to try to get Liberal Leader David Honey to take over.

why this could happen

With Labor not fielding a candidate, the by-election is effectively a two-horse race between the Liberal Party and the National Party.

But many believe this is a done deal, with commentators largely in agreement that the by-election is an almost predetermined outcome that will go in favor of nationals.

The Nats have dominated incumbent Vince Catania’s seat for many years now.

The party is confident it will retain this dominance with its popular local candidate, businesswoman and Carnarvon publicist Merome Beard.

Merome smiles photographed in a waterside setting
Merome Beard is expected to win the North West Central by-election on Saturday. (Facebook: Merome Barbe)

But the Libs threw their hats in the ring with Gascoyne pastor Will Baston.

Both sides campaign on public order and health platforms.

There are 10 other candidates but their chances of stealing the seat are considered a near impossibility.

Despite dominating elsewhere in the last state election, Labor chose not to run for the seat.

The government candidate for the seat in 2021, Cherie Sibosado, won the most first-preference votes in this ballot.

But the Nats’ Vince Catania comfortably retained the seat on preferences, before several months later announcing he was done with politics.

The Catania effect

ABC election analyst Antony Green noted that many of those who voted for Vince Catania in the lower house in 2021 opted for Labor in the Legislative Council.

“In the Legislative Council, Labor’s vote was 50.9 per cent while national support plummeted from 39.7 per cent in the Assembly to 21.4 per cent in the Council,” he said.

“This suggests that Vince Catania had a significant personal vote, likely retaining the support of those who once voted for him as the Labor candidate.

Man stands in front of brick wall smiling while wearing blue jacket
Vince Catania’s retirement from politics came as a shock to many. (ABC News: Kate Ferguson)

“In the Council vote, many voters in Catania returned to the Labor Party.”

Veteran political analyst and former ABC reporter Peter Kennedy said the Nats’ firmness in the seat could depend on how those Labor voters vote.

“The key question here is what happens to the 40 per cent of the vote Labor got last time out,” he said.

“Where will they go? This could hold the key to the election outcome.”

Lack of manpower

Labor’s withdrawal from the race could be seen as a blow to the opposition, allowing them to suggest the government “doesn’t care about the regions”.

This is an allegation that the government has denied from the start.

Mark McGowan announced that the government would not appear at a press conference in August.

At the time, he spent nearly two minutes reading word for word the bullet points from a printed list of investments the government had made in the North West Central.

WA Premier Mark McGowan reads from a sheet of paper.
Mark McGowan has been at pains to highlight what his government has done for North West Central – but Labor has no horse in the race. (ABC News: James Carmody)

The stunt immediately encountered the obvious question from several directions at once: “Why not present a candidate then?”

The Prime Minister conceded that by-elections are difficult for governments to win.

“It’s very unusual for Labor not to be in the field given that they almost stole the seat last time,” said Peter Kennedy.

“But there’s nothing in it for Labour, by-elections usually go against the government of the day.”

“If a swing against Labor happened this time, people would say ‘well, Labor is down’, so Labor avoided doing that.

“He also saved himself money.”

The government may also have hoped that the election campaign would degenerate into internal slander within the opposition alliance.

A smiling man wearing a jacket with a shirt underneath stands in front of trees.
Can Will Baston give the Liberal Party parity with the Nationals in the lower house? (ABC News: Kate Ferguson)

But the Liberals and Nationals have remained particularly collegial throughout, dodging and weaving in attempts to elicit any criticism of the other’s candidate.

High stakes

Peter Kennedy said that despite the civility, there was a lot at stake for both sides of the alliance.

“Nationals need to hold on to the seat, but Liberals need to improve their vote,” he said.

“This is a very important election for David Honey as a leader.

A man in a suit walks beside a building holding a piece of paper.
WA Liberal Leader David Honey will have a close eye on the by-election results. (ABC News: Cason Ho)

“Liberals need to signal they are on their way back and bringing them back after last year’s disaster.”

“They need to poll well, it was a disastrous eight percent in the election last year, they need to poll in the 30s to indicate they are on the way back.”

But Mr Kennedy said his tip was that whatever the outcome, Mia Davies would keep the job of Leader of the Opposition ‘but it might not be easy’.

Who are the candidates?

A record number of 12 candidates entered the race (in order of the ballot):

  • Niels Glahn-Bertelsen (The Greens)
  • Andrea Randle (Western Australia Party)
  • Pierre Boulanger (Small Business Party)
  • Merome’s beard (The Nationals)
  • Gerald Laurent (A nation)
  • Leanne Lockyer (Legalize Cannabis)
  • Jake Adkins McCoull (Liberal Democrats)
  • Antoine Fels (Western Australia Party)
  • Aaron Horman (No compulsory vaccination)
  • Pierre D Dunne (Independent)
  • Tony Stokes (Independent)
  • Will Baston (Liberal)

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