Sixteen days out from the March 13 Western Australian state election, the leader of the Liberal Party, Zak Kirkup, conceded that the party would lose.
Kirkup’s declaration is either a tactical masterstroke or a political miscalculation. I suspect that it is more the later than the former. It is not a particularly a good idea to give electors permission to vote for the other team.
Not that one can blame Kirkup necessarily. He is competing against an exceptionally popular Premier in Labor’s Mark McGowan.
The pandemic has been very good both politically and electorally for McGowan, and not undeservedly so. McGowan managed to keep the state largely COVID free by imposing a stringent border regime that allowed West Australians to return very quickly to life-(almost)-as-usual following the first wave of the pandemic.
The strength of the WA economy further provides few incentives for many electors to vote for change. Strong iron ore prices have kept the local economy buoyant, with midyear forecasts indicating that WA has enjoyed the strongest projected economic growth in Australia.
Moreover, McGowan has not been afraid to activate Western Australians grievances and isolationist impulses. McGowan made easy work of critics of WA’s border restrictions, arguing that the state’s detractors were motivated by “self interestedness”, wanting only to lure Western Australians and their “higher incomes” to the east.
The Premier continues to stoke this message with the promise to reduce WA’s reliance on interstate fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workers.
A weak opposition
The WA Liberals have struggled to offer much opposition to the McGowan Government.
This is, in part, a function of the electoral routing that the Liberals experienced following the 2017 state election. The then Barnett Liberal government was at the pointy end of the “largest swing seen at a modern Western Australian election”. The Liberal’s representation in the lower house was reduced to only 13 of the 59 seats.
Following the Liberal’s defeat in 2017, Mike Nahan emerged as the party’s leader.
While earnest, Nahan was generally perceived as a seat holder until a more suitable replacement could be found. And when that person eventually did come forward, Liza Harvey, she would survive only 6 months in the role before resigning so that that party had “the opportunity to reset [its] election strategy”.
Harvey’s tenure was blighted by the impossible optics of opposing the government during the pandemic. Harvey would quit the leadership 111 days before the election.
Enter stage right Zak Kirkup. While Kirkup was elected unopposed to lead the party, he was also a relative political unknown outside of coalition circles. He is a first term MP, having only been elected to parliament in 2013. Moreover, Kirkup occupies the second most marginal liberal party electorate in the state, the seat of Dawesville on 0.8% margin.
Kirkup’s campaign has not been flawless. But his efforts to position the Liberals as a credible alternative government has also been hampered by snipping from within the party’s ranks over its energy policy, several errant candidates, the retirement of several senior party figures, and the absence of lieutenants who can credibly share the campaign workload.
This is not to suggest that Labor is complacent about victory. Labor is running a hard line against Kirkup, stressing his youth and relative inexperience. While the charges brought against Kirkup are not necessarily disqualifying for office, they are accurate.
Labor’s campaign has been boosted by a parallel campaign by the Australian Services Union, which has been warning that a Kirkup Liberal government will privatise the state’s energy utility, Western Power. While privatisation is not part of the WA Liberal’s current agenda, it has been in the past. In 2017, the Barnett Liberals did propose the sale of the electricity utility.
What might a Labor victory augur?
While retention of government seems almost inevitable for Labor, the party’s prospects of winning a majority of the state’s 36 seat upper house will prove more difficult.
The upper house is afflicted by severe rural malapportionment. In two of the state’s six upper house regions - Mining and Pastoral and Agricultural - one vote can be worth between 4 and 6 times those of voters in the other four regions. Labor has never secured an outright majority in the state’s upper house.
While WA’s malapportioned upper house is in desperate need of reform, it might just be the saving grace for the state. The most recent Newspoll has Labor leading 68%-32% on a two-party party preferred basis.
Modelling by psephologist, Kevin Bonham, estimates that if this poll was translated on a uniform basis at the election , it would be “absolute carnage - the Liberals would retain at most four seats, but could even be wiped out entirely..."
A parliament without a credible major opposition force is not ideal for anyone, including for the government. Oppositions will often thwart a government’s legislative agenda, even an important one such as much needed reform to WA ‘s upper house. But a credible opposition can also ward against government over-reach.
Whether Kirkup can credibly convey to the WA electorate that his party will be able to hold the McGowan Labor government accountable, or that the Liberal’s services are even required, remains to be seen.
Banner image: WA Liberal Leader Zak Kirkup and Premier Mark McGowan. Source: Facebook