Labor's victory was always predicted, but its historic triumph leaves the State Liberal Party enfeebled, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.
A POLITICALLY-CRIPPLED Opposition Leader who conceded a fortnight out that he would lose. A Premier protected, feathered and lined by the worst global pandemic in a century. It would have been impossible to conceive of defeat for Western Australia’s Mark McGowan. In his position, a newt would have won.
From the start, McGowan made it clear that whatever Fortress Australia could do, Fortress Western Australia could do better.
The closure of borders at the mere mention of a few cases of COVID-19 in other parts of Australia ran well with the State’s populace. But it was the decision made on 2 April 2020 when the coronavirus outbreak on the Sydney-docked Princess Ruby had reached a critical point, that the hard border policy was introduced. The policy banned all travel into Western Australia subject to special exemptions.
Throughout the pandemic, McGowan kept to the line that borders would only be open where 28 consecutive days without community transmission was recorded in any part of the country.
This was a view encouraged by the Chief Health Officer, Andy Robertson, who warned that the State was:
“... probably one of the most susceptible … if an infection were to get in here.”
While seen as admirable by such epidemiologists as Mary-Louise McLaws, an advisor to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the threshold of 28 days was seen as “beyond caution.” Total eradication of the virus, she warned, would not be possible.
McGowan remained resolute, even bellicose. He accused states of being “self-interested” in wanting WA’s borders opened.
“We have higher incomes, we have people that are more used to travelling and therefore will have more tourists go from Western Australia to the east.”
When called upon to use the lockdown option, he was unhesitating. With a hotel quarantine worker testing positive for COVID-19 in late January, the Premier placed metropolitan Perth, Peel and the south-west region into a five-day lockdown.
The measure had the effect of distracting attention from the failings of WA’s own hotel quarantine arrangements. Mask wearing for workers had not been mandatory, even for those on hotel floors with returned travellers who had tested positive.
WA residents were impressed. One fan inked a tattoo of the Premier on his leg. 'Certainly having your face tattooed on some bloke’s leg is a bit unusual,' McGowan told Guardian Australia.
Another went so far as to paint a picture of him using vegemite.
The local artist and actress Esther Longhurst saw it this way:
'A man who understands dignity should be celebrated in the finest of mediums: vegemite.'
McGowan’s response via a post was teasingly grateful:
'I know we’ve been trying to stop the spread, but I think this qualifies for an exemption.'
Before the March 13 poll, McGowan already knew he had barely an opposition to contend with. Zak Kirkup of the Liberals had made one of the more unusual moves in political history by conceding defeat a touch over two weeks before the vote. The admission had a nonsensical note of Dada to it.
In late February, he stated:
“I have to be real with the people of Western Australia and they are telling me that they expect Mark McGowan will still be Premier.”
Heading into March, the signs were ominous for the Liberals. Kirkup found himself doing the inconceivable: campaigning in traditional safe Liberal seats. The Australian’s Newspoll pointed to a solid drubbing, with Labor leading 68% to 32% on a two-party preferred basis. Translating that lead into votes would see a 12.5% swing in favour of the Government, leaving the Liberals with a barely noticeable two seats.
Within the first half-hour of electoral coverage on March 13, the ABC had already told us that Labor had retained government through a fly-crushing majority. Throughout the evening, Antony Green could barely conceal his astonishment, being “gobsmacked” at “remarkable results”. He found the Labor gain in the seat of South Perth “astonishing”.
Ditto Churchlands, held by the Liberals with a margin of 11.7% and Bateman, a Liberal stronghold on a margin of 7.8%. The concept of the safe seat – at least from the perspective of the Liberals – had ceased to be meaningful.
On the ABC electoral panel, Mike Nahan, former Liberal Opposition Leader, was doing his best to keep his composure but was honest enough to blurt out that he was “shocked at the results". Good candidates from his party found it impossible to withstand this “tsunami”. He even had to concede, almost shaken, that the Liberals had been in some cases outpolled by the Australian Christians.
Kirkup’s prediction was admirably accurate. Having already fallen on his political sword, the electorate assisted in driving it in further. The loss in Dawesville was the first by a major party leader in the State in 88 years and formally terminated his political career. As an apt metaphor, the beginning of Kirkup’s (second) concession speech was blighted by microphone issues.
He told supporters:
“Over the next four years with a very small number, we must do all we can to hold Labor to account.”
As figures stand in the Lower House, that small number looks comically small: David Honey of Cottesloe and Libby Mettam of Vasse. Historical perversion has prevailed by delivering the Liberals the very thing the Party doesn't prioritise: gender parity. The way has been left for the Nationals, led by Mia Davies, to become the official voice of the Opposition.
To make matters discomfortingly interesting, Davies risks a challenge from her own party. On ABC radio, Nationals MP for North West Central, Vince Catania said he was “not saying ‘no’” or “saying ‘yes’” on contesting the leadership.
Commentators were left with nothing much to ruminate over except the obvious: the McGowan COVID-19 safety brand; a disastrously inadequate campaign by the Liberals marked by a spray of poor candidates; their energy policy promising to close all publicly owned coal-fired power stations by 2025 (eye-popping for the conservative base); the continuing Pythonesque hold of the power brokers Nick Goiran and Peter Collier.
There was little by way of analysis to bother the viewer, no nuanced voting patterns or telling idiosyncrasies to decode. Liberal candidates were simply being marched into electoral oblivion. Before the gun known as the electorate, there was little to do. Churchlands MP Sean L’Estrange preferred more potent imagery.
He told supporters:
“This is ground zero for the Liberal Party. The nuclear bomb has gone off.”
Towards all of this, Chris Uhlmann, Nine News’ political editor, adopted an apocalyptic tone:
“What we are seeing is the worst election result for a party in state history in any state in Australia at any time.”
From a broader perspective, such results are never good for democratic health. Punishment takes the place of balance. Political representation becomes a matter of rampant, thumping majorities, sidestepping the importance of Parliament as a whole. All governments with such figures find themselves risking a fall into hubris.
McGowan would be mistaken to assume that the Liberals have vanished. Vast majorities are eventually whittled away. In the short term, the numbers in the Upper Chamber will have to be counted. For believers in accountability, there is still hope for some measure of Opposition.
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