Savvy premier primes Labor for big WA win

Challenger Zak Kirkup faces likely election defeat against incumbent WA Premier Mark McGowan.
Challenger Zak Kirkup faces likely election defeat against incumbent WA Premier Mark McGowan.

Labor's march to a likely landslide victory at the West Australian election will stand as a testament to Mark McGowan's masterclass in pandemic politics.

It will also force the WA Liberals to conduct a brutal post-mortem examination, having taken the remarkable step of conceding they won't win office more than a fortnight before the March 13 poll.

All incumbent premiers have benefited to some extent from the COVID-19 pandemic by projecting strength to spooked voters.

But that effect has been turbocharged in the west, where Mr McGowan's decisive action in closing interstate borders - creating "an island within an island" - has played out extraordinarily well.

Since introducing the hard border policy last April, WA has avoided community transmission of the virus.

A surging iron ore price has propped up WA's economy and generated a stunning $3.1 billion forecast budget surplus.

And with the exception of a brief lockdown last month, West Australians have largely been free to go about their normal lives - a point the premier relishes making whenever his border policy is questioned by eastern states critics.

Voters have rewarded Mr McGowan with record approval ratings, with polls predicting the Liberals could be reduced to a handful of seats.

And the low-key leader, who was barely known when he won office in 2017, has gone viral on TikTok and been immortalised in a young fan's tattoo.

Not bad for a former naval lawyer who was born and raised in NSW.

"If he's accused of being parochial, he's obviously tapped into the West Australian psyche very effectively," veteran political commentator Peter Kennedy says.

"His handling of COVID-19 has shown extraordinarily good judgement by stressing keeping Western Australians healthy.

"And the harder he gets criticised from the east, the more his popularity seems to go up."

The premier's snub of visiting federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese - who was not invited to publicly campaign alongside Mr McGowan this week - highlights that the government's re-election bid is effectively a one-man show.

With Labor encouraging voters to elect their "local Mark McGowan candidate", the premier has promised to continue keeping WA safe and strong.

Opposition Leader Zak Kirkup, a first-term MP who has only held the reins since November, has pivoted to warning of what Labor might do if it claims "total control" of parliament.

He pounced this week on a rare slip-up by Mr McGowan, who was forced to backtrack on a suggestion that authorities might continue to track anyone who enters the state beyond the pandemic.

The tactic of effectively conceding the election is aimed squarely at traditional Liberal voters at risk of switching to Labor.

Whether it shifts any votes remains to be seen.

Mr Kirkup's policy platform, including an ambitious clean energy plan that was savaged by his own state and federal colleagues, hasn't helped the cause.

But the WA Liberals' issues run much deeper.

Three leadership changes since the last election is widely seen as a reflection of infighting and a shallow talent pool within the party's ranks.

With Prime Minister Scott Morrison avoiding the campaign, the Liberals have also been abandoned by much of the business community.

About 170 corporate elites this week attended a glitzy fundraiser for WA Labor, co-sponsored by property developer and Liberal Party member Nigel Satterley.

Mr Satterley has heavily criticised the influence of Liberal powerbrokers Peter Collier and Nick Goiran in controlling preselections.

Candidates in several seats, some linked to conservative churches, have caused headaches for the party.

One linked 5G technology to the COVID-19 pandemic, while another promoted an unproven anti-parasite drug as a potential cure.

Mr Kennedy, whose reporting on WA politics dates back half a century, says the party is in a parlous state.

"It's the lowest point the Liberal Party in WA has been at since the party was formed in 1945," he says.

"Since World War II, Western Australia has generally been a Liberal and National Party state. So it's been a remarkable turnaround."

Any hope of a Liberal resurgence evaporated almost 10 months ago when former leader Liza Harvey called for WA to start reopening its borders.

Just weeks later, Victoria began to experience a second wave of infections which was ultimately responsible for more than 800 deaths.

Ms Harvey backed down but the damage had been done.

The question now is whether the Liberals can rebuild in time to be competitive in 2025, when voters return to the polls under WA's fixed-term elections.

John Curtin Institute of Public Policy executive director John Phillimore points to Queensland as proof of how quickly the tide can turn.

The entire Queensland Labor opposition could notoriously fit in a mini-van after being reduced to just seven MPs at the 2012 election.

But three years later, the party under Annastacia Palaszczuk secured a stunning 14 per cent swing to return to office.

"Major parties are never really absolutely down and out," Prof Phillimore says.

"There have been wipeouts in other states before and parties have come back. So I would hold off proclaiming the death of the Liberal party, even though it will be obviously very difficult for them."

The Liberals currently hold 11 out of 16 federal seats in WA, although they may lose one under a looming redistribution.

Prof Phillimore said West Australians had typically been happy to split their votes at a state and federal level, noting that even during Labor's big win under Kevin Rudd in 2007, the party had lost net seats in WA.

But Canberra-based Liberals will undoubtedly be watching nervously ahead of a possible federal election this year.

"If they're not worried now, they should be," Mr Kennedy said.

"In the present circumstances it's hard to imagine them holding those 11, and they might lose three or four of them.

"That, I imagine, would have the prime minister very worried."

Australian Associated Press