West Australian Liberals gamble on youth

Nov 26, 2020

Like a football club hoping to climb up from the bottom of the ladder, the West Australian Liberals have gone for youth in their latest leadership selection.
Zac Kirkup, elected unopposed to the Liberal leadership on Tuesday, is 33-years-old. He is in his first term in the State Parliament, having been elected in 2017 on a thin majority in the seat of Dawesville, south of Perth. His success was widely anticipated and may be seen either as a bold move by the WA Liberals or a sign of desperation, or perhaps a bit of both.

Politics is a funny sort of job and some people are cut out for it. Zac Kirkup is one of them and I expect him to be a formidable opponent, even for the tough hombres on the Labor front bench in Perth. I had never heard of Kirkup when I surveyed the West Australian scene in July for a post in Pearls and Irritations but I was assured by my government informant that he was leadership material. The general public will soon get to know him, judging by the impression he has made on colleagues and opponents in his first term in the Parliament.

Kirkup replaces Liza Harvey, who never showed the same spark in the top job that appeared so promising when she was. deputy to Liberal Premier Colin Barnett. Neither Harvey nor Dean Nalder, the mover and shaker behind Liberal leadership rumbles in recent years, stood for the job after the defeat of the Barnett Government in 2017. They left the Opposition leadership to economist Mike Nahan, who made a good fist of it and scored a by-election victory against the Labor Government. Harvey took over from Nahan in June 2019. Nahan was critical of the latest leadership change and called on Harvey’s deputy, Bill Marmion, and Liberal power-broker Peter Collier, to follow him into retirement at next year’s election. They did not accept his advice.

Labor won 41 of the 59 Legislative Assembly seats in 2017 in an unprecedented and unexpected landslide The Liberals hold 13 seats and opinion polls in the last weeks of Liza Harvey’s leadership were rumoured to be so bad that even further losses were feared in the election due on 13 March next year. Labor added to the pressure on Harvey. The West Australian newspaper on 17 November featured a full-page advertisement in colour with a picture of Liza Harvey looking worried. Labor was attacking the Opposition leader on the submarine maintenance issue.

Even by today’s standards it was a nasty ad and it was produced for two reasons. To let the Liberals know that Labor in WA has so much money it can afford to run full page advertisements four months before the election and to give a taste of the ruthless campaign that lies ahead. On the Labor side, Premier Mark McGowan exuded confidence as he opened the renovated West Australian Museum, which is one of Perth’s most spectacular and exciting projects in recent years.

The Government’s Treasurer, Ben Wyatt, is retiring from Parliament at next year’s election..His safe seat of Victoria Park goes to Hannah Beazley, who will become the latest parliamentarian in this family dynasty. It was Wyatt who first stepped up to challenge then Labor Opposition leader Eric Ripper but the challenge stalled and McGowan took over from Ripper in 2012. McGowan then led Labor to defeat against the Barnett-led Government in 2013, only to score a massive victory four years later with the same policies, placing a strong emphasis on public transport in greater Perth. They were good policies in 2013 and they were good policies in 2017. In earlier posts I have speculated on the reasons for their eventual success.

Libby Mettam from the south-west electorate of Vasse was unopposed for the Liberal deputy leadership. She and Zac Kirkup have a formidable task. To stop the rot, the Liberals need to pick up a few seats in next year’s election. The main criticism I hear from people close to the action is that the Opposition simply is not working hard enough. Kirkup and Mettam bring youth and energy but they will need to get their limited numbers working as a team and that might be a problem.

A dominating issue like Covid 19 favours the incumbent government. Voters are even less interested than usual in party politics. They are looking for consensus and bi-partisan policy. As a member I receive emails from Labor headquarters. The Party is fund-raising and door-knocking but there is not a lot of enthusiasm around the traps. After the extravaganza of the American election most of us have political indigestion and we are looking forward to a summer watching cricket.

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