There has been speculation recently that Barnett is on the skids, but some of it has seemed, in theory, questionable. For instance, should anyone really care that Standard and Poors has downgraded WA's credit rating when that agency has a recent history of predictive failure? And if the answer is really Troy Buswell, one would hope that the question was pretty stupid. Now, however, we have something concrete: Colin Barnett is not well liked. It came as some surprise to me to find that his -20 is in fact the worst netsat by a WA Premier in the admittedly spotty and discontinuous 27-year history of Newspoll ratings.
When discussing federal politics, I've often pointed out that Prime Ministers seem to be able to get away with more or less any level of unpopularity - not just as a freak event but seemingly routinely. Hawke won after a term in which he'd been down to -25, Keating from -44 and Howard in successive terms from -31 and -36. Since 1986, the break-even term-low for an incumbent PM (the rating that gives them a 50% chance of retaining office after the next election) has been a remarkably bad -27.
At state level, it's remarkably different. The following is a table showing every State Premier since 1986 who has polled a term-low Newspoll netsat of worse than -10, together with their fate at the end of that term. (These are by no means the worst ratings ever recorded - for instance short-term Tasmanian Premier Harry Holgate made it down to -59 in Morgan polling before Newspoll started.)
The part of the chart above Barnett is especially striking: only one of sixteen previous Premiers to have copped -20 or worse at any time has finished that term triumphant.
If we look at the history of Better Premier ratings at state level there's not a lot of good news for Barnett there either. In general Better Premier shows the same pattern at state level to federal level: there's a huge advantage to incumbents, so if the Opposition Leader is ahead then either the Premier or their government is on the nose, usually both. However, at state level it's more common than at federal level for the leader of a defeated government to hang around for a while, and if their replacement is off to a rocky start some odd figures can emerge. Carmen Lawrence was considered better as Premier than Richard Court by a massive 61:27 soon after Court took office, and Joan Kirner led Jeff Kennett by a point in his first poll as Premier. When well established Premiers have trailed in a two-way Better Premier question, they have never won the election afterwards. Iemma, Rees, Keneally, Bligh, Bannon, Arnold, Olsen, Rann all trailed and all lost or were removed.
What I have not looked at closely yet, and may examine later, is the interplay between the personal ratings of Premiers and their party's 2PP polling - a complicated issue in many states because of OPV, three-cornered contests and the patchiness of published 2PP results. It's no surprise that many of the above Premiers were not only unpopular but in charge of governments that were trailing massively and clearly doomed. The important thing is that they were not all like that. For example, at the time that Iemma and Brumby became about as unpopular as Barnett is now, the 2PP polling in their states was 50:50. If, as at federal level, bad leader netsats are an advance indicator of worsening 2PP polling, then a bad rating for the Premier in the context of an average 2PP isn't something to be ignored.
Why the difference between state and federal patterns? I believe one reason is that state governments are nowhere near as resilient to bad polling as federal governments. Voters grumble about federal governments a lot, but see dismissing even an unpopular federal government from office as a big thing. Changing state governments, should some reason arise, is a much less dramatic step, and so the incredible recoveries from shocking polling that we see governments pull off federally are distinctly rare events at the next level down.
Another possible reason for this is that the federal picture significantly impacts upon state elections. It is a massive disadvantage for a state government to be of the same party as the party in power federally. We don't know yet whether this will still be a problem for Barnett in 2017, but it has plenty of potential to drive some troubling ratings for his leadership and his party in the meantime.
I won't be writing off the Premier of WA just yet, though this time I won't go so far as to try to passionately deter others from doing the same. Just because there is a history of leaders not successfully recovering by the time of the next election from ratings like this does not mean it can't be done (eg Tony Abbott becoming PM despite the history of lastingly unpopular Opposition Leaders always losing). Plus it is early in the term with plenty of time to turn things around given the chance. Bloated by federal factors as it was, Barnett's win earlier this year was by an enormous margin and Labor will be needing to win seats on margins of around 9% (and on smaller margins but with their opponents being assisted by sophomore effect) to win government. That task does become easier if a few independents help out by winning safe Coalition seats.
The obligatory disclaimers noted though, the historical record says two very different things about bad personal ratings for PMs and Premiers. Bad personal polling for Prime Ministers is just a challenge to be overcome, and enough of them have done so down the years. Bad personal polling for State Premiers, on the other hand, is usually an advance sign of political doom. After this result, should Barnett fail to make it to the next election, or lose it, no-one should be at all surprised.