Politics

The battle for Pearce: who will replace Christian Porter in the Perth electorate? | Australian election 2022

If anything can be guaranteed in the Western Australian seat of Pearce, it is that whoever replaces Christian Porter, it will not be a man.

The urban fringe division that hugs the coast north of Perth has belonged to the Liberals for 33 years, with Porter holding Pearce for nearly a decade before his dramatic fall from grace.

But Labor has hopes of overturning the 7.5% margin from the 2019 election, with the help of favourable boundary changes, and poll watchers say it can only be a woman to step into Porter’s shoes after this year’s revelations about the toxic culture in federal parliament.

The Labor candidate is the Wanneroo mayor, Tracey Roberts.

The likely Liberal candidates include a former navy officer, Miquela Riley – who lost the race for Fremantle in the state election – and Roberts’ fellow Wanneroo councillor Linda Aitken.

Roberts, Riley and Aitken all declined to speak on the record about the campaign.

But even though the odds are that a woman will win the race, there is one man who could have a crucial, albeit indirect, influence – Mark McGowan.

Some observers predict that the popularity of the WA premier could tip the balance in Pearce, even though it is well outside Perth’s traditional Labor heartland.

In March, McGowan led WA Labor to one of the biggest election landslides in the nation’s history.

Mark McGowan celebrates with his wife, Sarah, after Labor’s crushing election win in March.
Mark McGowan celebrates with his wife, Sarah, after Labor’s crushing election win in March. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

William Bowe, of the Poll Bludger blog, says his money is on Labor in Pearce, with the latest Newspoll showing a 9% swing to the opposition across the state.

“Will McGowan play a role in the federal election? That’s the million-dollar question. He is certainly playing a role in the polls,” Bowe says.

“McGowan has definitely improved Labor’s brand in WA, and also Labor is coming off a very low base there. They haven’t done well in a federal election here in a very long time.

“Labour can pick up a lot of ground in WA off the back of an improved image for the party.”

The tradies’ electorate

The seat of Pearce covers a fast-growing belt of new coastal subdivisions on the northern outskirts of Perth, home to British and African migrants and young mortgaged-up families who have to commute for up to an hour to reach the city. Further to the east is a thriving agriculture region.

A lack of rail connections, a shortage of healthcare facilities and the risk of bushfire will be key issues in the campaign.

The general manager of the Wanneroo business association, Lauren Bell, says border restrictions and a lack of backpackers have left some businesses struggling to find workers.

“There are a lot of businesses that are doing really well, but they cannot get tradies and services to fill jobs that they have ready to go,” she says.

“Some people are just not getting a single applicant for jobs.”

A significant boundary change in August deprived Pearce of all its territory outside the Perth metropolitan area.

Pearce has the highest percentage of construction workers of any electorate in Australia.
Pearce has the highest percentage of construction workers of any electorate in Australia. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

Once a mix of urban and rural, it has lost its Liberal-leaning regional component, leaving it as a “tradies’ electorate” with half of the voters new to the area.

“It has the highest percentage of the workforce of any electorate in Australia employed in construction,” Bowe says.

“The Liberal party would be worried that these new young families are going to flip en masse – and if they do, they are in big trouble in Pearce.”

A two-horse race

Porter won the seat with a 3.5% swing in 2019, but announced this month he would not stand again. Earlier this year he confirmed he was the subject of a historical rape allegation against an unnamed minister published by the ABC. Porter strenuously denied the allegation and settled a defamation case against the ABC after it published a statement indicating it did not intend to suggest Porter had committed the alleged offence.

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In September, Porter left the front bench after declaring he had received anonymous donations from a trust to help with his legal fees in the case, but insisted his declaration complied with the relevant rules.

Before his decision to quit, internal party polling suggested Labor was ahead in the seat.

Dr Yvonne Haigh, a public policy expert at Murdoch University, says it is crucial for the Liberals to preselect a woman, but that was no guarantee of winning.

Wanneroo mayor Tracey Roberts will contest the seat for the ALP.
Wanneroo mayor Tracey Roberts will contest the seat for the ALP. Photograph: Chris Kershaw Photography

“There have been rallies in Perth with women demanding change and saying this is not good enough and [the Liberals] can’t ignore that. They know they have a problem around having enough female representatives to run for seats, even though they find it impossible to say ‘we need to adopt quotas’,” she says.

Women make up 31% of the 151-member House of Representatives, and 53% of the 76-strong Senate, but the Liberals score worse than Labor for representation.

On Sunday the federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, told the ABC’s Insiders program the Liberals needed to do more to recruit female candidates.

Martin Drum, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Notre Dame, says with no sitting member and the Liberals beginning the preselection process late, Roberts would start favourite.

“There’s no third-party candidate that has a realistic chance of winning,” Drum says.

Pearce is a “very different ball game” at this election thanks to McGowan’s popularity, he says.

“We have seen at state level that northern metropolitan area swung fairly vigorously at different times, depending on the election.

“Mark McGowan did extremely well in that area at the state election.”

The Greens and One Nation will also stand, but any independent campaign is unlikely.

“It’s not a politically engaged electorate,” Bowe says. “Independents can emerge in seats like Wentworth and Kooyong, but they don’t tend to emerge in seats like this.

“This is a two-horse race.”

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