‘Courageous move, Minister’: WA Liberal leader’s honesty a smart political move

Mar 10, 2021

A weakened, wounded bleeding WA Liberal Party is asking voters on Saturday to remember a first principle of democracy – a government needs an opposition. Policy is irrelevant. The only issue is whether a dominant Labor government is going to wipe out what is left of the conservatives in West Perth’s Parliament House.

Opposition leader Zak Kirkup at the Liberal campaign launch on WA’s Labour Day holiday did something truly unusual. He cut out all the bulldust. Kirkup gave the Liberals a dose of reality. They were not going to form a government after 13 March. His concession of defeat rocked many in the audience and among the political commentariat but I think he made the right call and Liberal and National Party advertising is now following through with an appeal to voters on the black and white issue of a government having too much power. Will Liberal and swing voters hear the message and hold the line for conservative candidates? That is the question.  It is the only question.

It would not be true to say that the Liberals are trying to save the furniture in West Perth. The tables and chairs walked out the door four years ago when the Liberals were reduced to 13 seats in the Legislative Assembly against Labor’s 41.  The Nationals hold the remaining five.  ABC election analyst Antony Green makes a good point when he says the Covid scare has made such an impact that few voters will remember anything about the first three years of this Labor administration.

WA’s Labor government from the outset decided to go the full monty with Covid and even today I have seen honourable members doing the elbow to elbow greeting. The State’s radical border closure policy was so popular with  local yokels that then Opposition leader Liza Harvey found herself on the outer when she opposed it on behalf of small business.

Outspoken opposition to closed West Australian borders came from NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, who warned WA Premier Mark McGowan that the border policy would come back to “bite him on the bum”. The government’s bottom remains remarkably pristine.

Despite the global economic downturn associated with Covid-19, demand for West Australian iron ore has remained buoyant and the price has gone through the roof. Held up at a railway crossing on the outskirts of Port Hedland a few weeks ago, I did something I have been meaning to do for years. I counted the carriages – 270 wagons full of iron ore pulled by four locomotives controlled by one engine driver. Each wagon holds 100 tonnes of iron ore and the price  quoted that week was $158 per tonne. It has since moved higher. A few hours later returning on the same road we again had to wait for an incoming train of similar dimensions.

The money is rolling in.  On top of the kudos from citizens grateful to their government for keeping out the dreaded lurgy by repelling invaders from the east, the State budget is in the black.  The government has cash and was able to play Father Christmas by giving householders a credit on their electricity bills.  Truly Labor’s West Australian cup runneth over.

Here is the Opposition leader’s point.  Will all this good fortune go to Labor’s head? As if on cue, within a day of Zak Kirkup’s dramatic appeal, Premier McGowan had a rush of blood and said he was thinking of extending the border closure after the passing of the pandemic because a useful side-effect of the policy was a reduction in the flow of illicit drugs into WA.  He was going to discuss this idea with the Commissioner of Police.

McGowan’s arrogance was breathtaking and Kirkup did not miss the opportunity to comment.  McGowan was governing as a committee of one, extending to two — himself and the Police Commissioner. But within hours the Premier was qualifying his thought bubble. The Police Commissioner, meanwhile, is appealing for more stop and search powers at the border.  As far as I am aware, neither Premier nor Commissioner has proposed building a wall from the Kimberley coast in the north to the Great Australian Bight in the south.

The Premier’s over-reach illustrated one of the central concerns of political thinkers around the world about the erosion of established decision-making processes during the pandemic. It is also the subject of “The Great Hysteria and the Broken State”, a book by former Victorian Treasury economist Sanjeev Sabhlok.

In his regular media conferences throughout the Covid era reminding citizens of the rules, Premier McGowan has not droned on in the manner of Victoria’s Daniel Andrews. With his military background, McGowan knows how to keep it short and sharp and even has time for a humorous aside, as with his remark about overpaid footballers. The Premier looks supremely confident.  The Opposition leader looks pale.

Voters cannot complain about a lack of choice. When I voted at our remote polling place I numbered the Legislative Assembly candidates from one to nine. There are the big four – ALP, Libs, Nats and Greens, plus One Nation and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, who are significant players in the Pilbara electorate and were instrumental in Labor’s win here four years ago. Then there are The Western Australia Party and our own Brexit group known as the WAxit Party and a new outfit called The No Mandatory Vaccination Party, which won my second preference because it is fighting what quite a few of us regard as the greatest danger – not the coronavirus but the germ of a police State.

Marking the Legislative Council (upper House) paper was even more fun.  There are independents and  more parties ranging through such diverse interests as cannabis, Christianity and climate change.  t took a while to number them from one to 53. Until a few days ago I saw local issues as the key to any changes in electoral fortunes and it is still possible that a hard-working candidate pushing a local issue will dislodge a sitting member. Now I think the big picture issue is correctly identified by Kirkup. Will we have an Opposition?

The trajectory of Kirkup’s Liberals to acceptance of opposition status was steep. Just weeks ago Kirkup presented a radical energy policy accelerating the move to renewables and hydrogen export.  Such projects look OK on the whiteboard but there are many players in the energy market and timetables are hard to set.  The policy may have young voters in mind, building on the election of 33-year-old Kirkup and the Liberals may be seeking to lure Green preferences from Labor.  Maybe they will.

With 13 members sitting in the Assembly, the Liberals could hardly fill a front bench, let alone the back benches. Against such a confident incumbent Labor Government they will be happy to maintain the status quo.  Winning a few seats from Labor will be a triumph; half a dozen a miracle. Kirkup’s approach is honest, dare I say courageous. He is telling voters that the Liberals are unlikely to form a government but they can form an opposition and do what needs to be done – question, criticise, investigate and offer alternatives, holding the government to account.

I have been asked if the controversy in Canberra over Attorney General Christian Porter will affect the WA vote. I think not. Porter is a West Australian who represents the federal seat of Pearce, the primary target for a Labor gain in the 2019 campaign. He held the seat. The Liberals held all 11 WA seats and Labor struggled to hold their five, which may give some hope to conservatives in the West. I am a member of the ALP and I would prefer to see Albanese keep his nose out of this affair. Voters in my view are looking for solid policy on industry, employment and incomes.

Launching Labor’s campaign, Mark McGowan said: “I will lead a sensible, responsible, experienced government.” Who could argue with him? We have seen a hard-working, disciplined West Australian government. If there are any weaknesses in the team I have not noticed them. Will conservative and swing voters give Labor a tick or will they go to the barricades and heed Zak Kirkup’s dire warning?  We will know soon.

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