An open letter to Mark McGowan

Jun 2, 2023
Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan speaks to media during a press conference at Dumas House in Perth, Monday, May 29, 2023. West Australian Premier Mark McGowan has announced his resignation, midway through his second term in office. Image: AAP/Richard Wainwright

WA premier Mark McGowan was rightly popular and admired as a consequence of his leadership, especially during the Covid crisis. Now he has a real opportunity to make an even more important contribution beyond state borders.

Dear Mark,

Many thanks for your leadership over recent years. Unless you are a congenital attention-seeker or egomaniac, such jobs must be all consuming, ‘exhausting’ and exasperating at times. Reconciling potentially competing policy priorities and dealing with self-important windbags like Clive Palmer or some of WA’s very own larger than life plutocrats would test anyone’s mettle.

However, now that you’ve got a bit of free time you might consider cashing in some of your considerable and hard-earned political capital to do yet more good, and not just for WA. My personal mantra is ‘do what you can, where you can’. Unfortunately, in my case this turns out to be next to nothing. But you could continue to make a difference, possibly even the much-needed planet-saving variety, not least because you are finally free of the constraints of office.

As you’ll have noticed, one of the problems of being the leader of a political party in a democracy is that, not only do you have to keep getting re-elected, (something you were exceptionally good at), but you must maintain ‘party discipline’, too. Saying no to new resource developments would not have made you popular with your colleagues, or most of WA’s notoriously parochial electorate either, no doubt.

Your federal counterpart Anthony Albanese (who arguably owes his job to you) faces similar, even more consequential dilemmas. The decision to buy nuclear submarines, despite being pilloried by former Labor luminaries like Paul Keating and Bob Carr, was always going to happen given the perceived necessity of looking ‘serious’ about national security.

And yet not only are the strategic arguments dubious, as even senior former military figures recognise, but the wasted money cannot be spent on more immediate problems like alleviating climate change, which poses a rapidly growing threat to our collective future.

As the father of a young family, it must have occurred to you that your children may not actually have much of a future, or not one that’s worth living, at least. I’m not sure if they have begun to draw this to your attention, but they undoubtedly will, despite the fact that they have the good fortune to live in what is probably the most secure place in the world; as your skilfully managed Covid response reminded us. Unfortunately, not even WA will be safe from the ravages of unaddressed climate change.

Most former political leaders don’t seem to have their policy epiphanies until they’ve been out of office for a few years, and their impact and credibility is diminished as a consequence. You, however, are in a possibly uniquely powerful position to say thoughtful and creative things about the most important public policy issues of the day.

The WA public would undoubtedly pay attention to anything you chose to say; whether your colleagues in Canberra would is another question. But without a radical change of thinking and policy direction at the individual, local, state, national and international level, it’s no longer controversial to suggest we’re doomed.

Once you’ve got your breath back and had a chance to collect your thoughts, I’d implore you consider the contribution you can still make; at much less personal cost and effort than being premier, and with much greater potential impact nationally and even internationally. As you may have also noticed, there’s a lot less competition for the role of ‘progressive international influencer’ than we might have hoped or expected at this moment in human history.

You could even make a virtue of standing down. Being in an independent position to consider the biggest of pictures and speak truth to power in a way that powerholders might at least feel obliged to respond to, is an opportunity few of us have. You do.

Suggesting that there might be more useful and Labor-like uses of scarce public money than buying submarines might be a good start, even if WA loses some investment and a few jobs. In any case, would you really want your children to have careers creating weapons systems designed to kill strangers in faraway places for reasons that don’t bear serious scrutiny?

You may feel you’ve done your bit and deserve at least a year or two off or on the lucrative post-politics speaking circuit. Maybe so. But before you definitively hang up your policy boots there’s one vital public service you’re uniquely placed to perform: giving hope to the younger generation that at least some members of the political class take their concerns seriously and are still willing to try and do something about them before it’s unambiguously too late.

Thanks, and best wishes,


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