01/03/2021 - 14:00

Force not with federal leaders

01/03/2021 - 14:00


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The absence of federal political leaders on the WA campaign trail speaks volumes about the current state of play.

Force not with federal leaders

Federal leaders of political parties traditionally enjoyed a high profile in Western Australian election campaigns, with their presence seen as important in giving their state counterparts a helping hand as polling day approached.

Until the mid 1970s, federal leaders would generally join in the traditional Forrest Place lunchtime election rally, at which city workers and shoppers would crowd in to hear the leaders speak from the back of a truck. It was great theatre.

But times are changing and, COVID-19 issues notwithstanding, the Forrest Place rally is a distant memory, while the presence of the leaders is no longer considered so important.

Four years ago, both (then) prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten joined their respective WA Liberal and Labor counterparts – Colin Barnett and Mark McGowan – on the campaign trail.

This year, however, there appears a marked lack of enthusiasm for a repeat, although for different reasons.

Mr McGowan’s popularity as premier has skyrocketed, due in no small part to the disdain he has expressed for events relating to COVID-19 on the eastern seaboard. He has made a virtue of “keeping West Australians safe” whenever there has been a suggestion of a case of the virus being uncovered.

Border closures have been vigorously enforced and 14-day quarantines for arrivals – whether from certain states or overseas – has applied much of the time.

It hasn’t helped Mr McGowan’s ratings in the east. In fact, he has attracted criticism from other state and opinion leaders. But the stronger the attacks, the better his local approval ratings. With early voting now under way, Mr McGowan and WA Labor have been the beneficiaries.

Call it superficial, but many people like to be associated with winners. Politics, where winning is the name of the game, is no exception.

So Mr McGowan is riding high. His federal Labor counterpart, Anthony Albanese, is not. In fact, the latest Newspoll on national politics had support for Mr Albanese as (alternative) prime minister at just 26 per cent, compared with Scott Morrison at 61 per cent. His approval as Labor leader was just 38 per cent, with 45 per cent dissatisfied.

On the other hand, Mr Morrison had a 64 per cent satisfaction rating as prime minister, with 32 per cent dissatisfied.

Based on the belief that politicians like to be associated with winners, Labor is unlikely to be making strenuous efforts to lure Mr Albanese west. And although Liberal leader Zak Kirkup would no doubt welcome Mr Morrison’s assistance, that might be hard to arrange given the PM’s busy schedule, let alone the travel uncertainties linked with the pandemic, such as lockdowns and compulsory quarantine.

The opportunities for public exposure of the national leaders have been greatly diminished since Forrest Place was closed as an election forum in the mid 1970s following a wild rally during the March 1974 state election campaign.

Labor PM at the time, Gough Whitlam, who had led his party to victory in 1972 after 23 years in the political wilderness, was the star attraction at the rally to support Labor premier John Tonkin’s re-election campaign. But it backfired.

The crowd was big, estimated at more than 8,000, including up to 1,000 farmers protesting against the Whitlam government’s decision to remove the bounty on superphosphate, which was important for farming light soils in the WA Wheatbelt.

The imposing Mr Whitlam was a polarising figure, loved by Labor supporters and disliked intensely by many of his opponents. The WA farmers fell into this latter group, and when the PM arrived wearing a pale blue suit, it was the signal for a missile barrage including tomatoes and the occasional pie and can of soft drink.

The microphone cord was cut, the booing drowned out the PM’s speech; there was pushing and shoving, and the odd punch was thrown in the crowd. There were real fears for the PM’s safety, and considerable relief when he drove away. It effectively marked the end of the Forrest Place election rally.

And it might have been better for Labor if Mr Whitlam had stayed away, given Mr Tonkin lost power to Sir Charles Court’s Liberals.


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