18/10/2021 - 08:00

Going for the high mark, Kirkup plays on

18/10/2021 - 08:00

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More than six months after the state election, Zak Kirkup talks to Business News about his new business and future political ambitions.

Going for the high mark, Kirkup plays on
Zak Kirkup, center, is a co-founder and director of Kolbang. Photo: David Henry

There are two moments that have been integral to Zak Kirkup’s life over the past six months.

The first was his inaugural speech to state parliament in 2017, when, fresh off a narrow win in the seat of Dawesville, he took time to reflect on his Yamatji heritage.

That included a reminder to those present that, among others, his great grandfather was forbidden from marrying, his grandfather forbidden to own land, and father ineligible to be counted as part of the national census.

“My family history is not unique,” he said at the time.

“For centuries of European settlement, Aboriginal people have been discriminated against, segregated and oppressed because of decisions made where I stand today.”

The other occurred less than a month out from a state election in which Mr Kirkup would oversee the deepest and most damaging electoral losses ever inflicted on the Liberal Party at a state poll.

Addressing a Business News Politics & Policy breakfast, he had been asked about what he would do if he were to lose the election or, worst case, his seat.

It wasn’t an outlandish hypothetical to ponder; public polling routinely suggested the party would lose in a landslide, with Mr Kirkup’s own messaging pivoting away from winning and towards checks and balances in reflection of this reality.

Nevertheless, given his party credentials, ambitions, and relative youth at the age of 34, a career after politics wasn’t exactly top of mind for him, as he told Business News earlier this month.

“I genuinely hadn’t had an idea about what that looked like,” he said.

Many are now familiar with Mr Kirkup’s fate.

Having become the first state opposition leader to lose his seat since the 1930s, his story quickly became a parable for opposition parties struggling to break through amid pandemic-induced popularity for incumbent premiers.

In Victoria, his loss poured ammunition on to the fire of Liberal leader Michael O’Brien’s agitators, who called a spill motion to depose him as leader within days of Mr Kirkup’s loss.

He survived that challenge, only to go down to defeat six months later in favour of the telegenic and combative Matthew Guy.

On the other side of the aisle, Labor’s parliamentary ranks in NSW often cited the Liberal Party’s decimation in WA to argue in favour of dumping Jodi McKay from the top job.

In June, she was moved on in favour of the more conciliatory, moderate figure of Chris Minns.

Mr Kirkup, who spoke with Business News earlier this month, doesn’t shy away from describing the difficulties he faced after the election.

While he was clear-eyed about his chances, reflected in his decision to concede in the fortnight before the poll, his loss in Dawesville to paramedic Lisa Munday nevertheless shocked him, going down to defeat after suffering a 14.7 per cent swing.

“Loss is never an easy thing,” he said.

“I obviously called it early that we were not going to win the election.

“I didn’t anticipate that would also mean I would lose my district.

“That was something I was very passionate [about].

“That was my dream since I was a kid in primary school.

“Trying to reorient your entire life to try and do something that is as fulfilling is very hard.”

Mr Kirkup has done what he can to pull himself together in the intervening months.

Having shifted to inner-suburban Perth out of necessity for work, business has been good for the former opposition leader, who created his own management consultancy company that trades under the name of Kirkup & Co.

On top of that, he’s gone into business with ADCO director Adam Di Placido to create Kolbang, a licensed electrical contractor and registered building company that is aiming to grow and sustain a 100-plus workforce of Indigenous trades people.

The strategic path is straightforward; while devoting most of its resources at present towards readying workers for the residential construction sector, the goal is to diversify into building maintenance so that, when the market shifts, their employment can be maintained in the commercial building sector.

Kolbang, which takes its name from the Noongar word for ‘go forward’, has only existed for a few months, but has already recruited 15 apprentices and two tradies, as well as bringing BGC subsidiary Now Living and Belmont-based YHB Group on board as partners.

Speaking to Business News near the company’s headquarters in Beckenham, Mr Kirkup was sanguine, admitting that although the exit from politics had been less than ideal, he and Mr Di Placido had created an outlet through which he could pursue his passion for empowering Indigenous peoples.

“I lost,” he said.

“I felt quite … I was very hollow, almost.

“There’s not the same sense of service that I get in doing business that I had when I was working in parliament, and so this has changed that entirely for me.

“It’s been a very fulfilling experience and something I’m really grateful for.”

His passion for the job is shared by Mr Di Placido, who first met Mr Kirkup while he was working at BGC and playfully refers to his friend and the one-time Liberal leader as ‘Zacky’.

He told Business News he found Mr Kirkup to be an inspiring character, and that, when the time came for him to stake out a career in the private sector, his performance during the campaign highlighted his ability to work under pressure and deal with crises.

“He had such ... a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve in politics,” he said.

“It was just really good to meet somebody that was crystal clear [about what they wanted to achieve] and it wasn’t just a goal he obviously had from 29, it was a lifetime decision to do that.

“Everything he was doing was working towards that.

“It was good; we got along well, he was very driven, and I followed him from then going through the ups and downs of life.

“It was inspiring to watch.”

Asked to describe the strategy behind Kolbang, Mr Di Placido admits the business is competing for talent in a crowded market against mining companies, whose operations are mostly based in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions, that offer similar opportunities to Indigenous peoples in search of a trade.

Where his and Mr Kirkup’s efforts stood apart, he argued, was in guiding trainees through their apprenticeships in metropolitan Perth, where he said the proposition of recruiting, training, and retaining staff for the requisite four-year period often proved challenging.

“By starting up a good, metro base of employment and apprenticeships … I feel like it’s a sustainable option, and I feel our success rate will be a lot higher than the traction that fly-in, fly-out positions are getting, just because of the added burden of that role,” he said.

Political ambitions

While Kolbang lacks an explicitly political bent, it’s clear Mr Kirkup can’t shake his love of policy and current affairs when talking about the business.

He often leans on social issues and the political plight of Aboriginal people, citing employment and imprisonment statistics to make the case that WA’s indigenous population is at a unique disadvantage when it comes to finding employment.

In turn, he admits that not having a political voice in the months following the election was difficult; so, too, was the difficulty of losing his seat, which amounted to losing his job in an uncomfortably public fashion.

Despite this, he professes to being grateful for the opportunity to lead the party, even if the campaign took its toll on a personal level.

“I genuinely feel like I ran over the trench into machine gun fire, knowing that’s exactly what we were running into,” he said.

“[It was] hard to maintain that energy and enthusiasm in the midst of that campaign.”

Further salt was rubbed on the wound in August when Mr Kirkup’s performance came in for muted reception in the Liberal Party’s campaign post-mortem, which dedicated an entire chapter to reviewing the party’s campaign ahead of this year’s poll.

While the authors played down his inexperience as a reason for the loss, pointing instead towards public concern over the influence of power brokers and the party’s proposed green energy transition, the review makes frequent note of his inexperience and at one stage airs grievances in relation to his not wearing a tie to the only televised debate during the campaign.

Mr Kirkup said he resolved from the outset not to complain about the review, which drew significant attention amid the publication of text messages sent between party power brokers who referred to themselves as ‘The Clan’, despite some qualms about publicity that followed its publication.

He’s since made peace with the process, choosing instead to act constructively, such as in lending a hand and campaigning with Senator Ben Small ahead of a federal election expected to be called in early 2022.

“You can complain about it and get down about it or you can do something about it,” he said.

“For me, that was where I was torn … initially I wanted to go through, pick it apart, give my own rebuttal and all that sort of stuff, but I don’t think that’s of anyone’s interest.”

Of course, given Mr Kirkup’s age and credentials, a future political tilt is almost guaranteed, with sparing details of a potential council bid spelled out in July when Mr Kirkup mused openly about entering Subiaco’s upcoming mayoral race.

The move itself would not have been unusual, given Paul Omodei and Bill Hassell had successfully taken on the business of rates and rubbish following acrimonious stints as opposition leader.

They, however, benefited from open races in their safe, blue-ribbon electorates.

Mr Kirkup by contrast spent the past four years representing suburban Mandurah, a far cry from the density debate plaguing his new home in Perth’s western suburbs.

That wasn’t an issue, however, as Mr Kirkup had commissioned preliminary research that showed him narrowly trailing frontrunner Julie Matheson, a former councillor and perennial candidate in her own right, by single digits, a margin he reasoned could have been closed quickly on the back of his strong name recognition and ability to draw down significant campaign resources.

Politically, though, the campaign would have been fraught with risks.

For a job that may ultimately have served as a launching pad for preselection for a safe, blue-ribbon seat in the western suburbs, the troubles of Subiaco’s council are well known.

An inquiry into the city, of which a report was published in May, found it to be “dysfunctional”, a moniker bestowed on such esteemed company as the City of Perth council under the storied leadership of Lisa Scaffidi.

That’s in addition to the public struggles of incumbent mayor Penny Taylor, who announced she would not run for re-election in August due largely to the culture and behaviour she dealt with while on council.

Then there was the possibility of losing a low-stakes contest for a council position, which would likely have killed off his viability as a political candidate at any level of elected office should he seek higher office.

He ultimately decided against the move, with Ms Matheson now in a two-way race against lawyer and councillor David McMullen for the city’s top job.

“After talking to people who were my former political advisers and former political team, the decision was, there’s a lot of risk to that, and what’s the real reward?” he said.

“While I want to continue to serve in public … I just don’t think there was a role for me in local government.

“If I needed to commission research for me to make a decision whether I need to do something, clearly I didn’t feel it in my heart.”

State politics, by contrast, presents more than a few opportunities for Mr Kirkup if he was to make a comeback.

For one, the party’s representation was hammered so aggressively earlier this year that, of the 53 seats not held by Labor in the lower house, at least seven had only ever been held by the Liberals until March.

One could reasonably assume that, ahead of the 2025 state poll, those seats will have hue a few shades bluer than they did this year.

Of them, Churchlands and Nedlands, the first and fourth most marginal seats in the state, are the clearest opportunity for a spot in state parliament, with Mr Kirkup claiming a reasonable path to preselection in either seat by virtue of his new residence.

When asked by Business News about his future political ambitions, Mr Kirkup confirmed he had no intention of making a local or federal tilt.

He admits state politics has been on his mind, though, and he’s clear he would like to get back into the thick of it either at the next state poll or in 2029.

As he contemplates his near future, he’s keen to cultivate a life outside of politics, overseeing Kolbang’s growth, exploring investment opportunities and attaining his MBA so that, come time for preselection, his character and experience is broader than it was in 2017.

“I want to position myself so I’m in the best place to be able to go to a community and say, ‘I seek your vote’, and I think this is a good opportunity now to take stock and build on that,” he said.

“I could spend the next four years doing government relations for some company, do nothing else with my life and then hope to slip back in again, or I can make something of it, make a difference and continue to make an impact.

“I’m committed to doing that.

“That’s what I want to do; to make sure I can be the best possible candidate if [I decide to run for elected office] in 2025.”

Even if he’s open about his desire to keep his political ambitions alive, Mr Kirkup is adamant that, in the short term, his focus will remain on growing Kolbang.

He freely admits circumstances could change in the interim, whether that be through focusing on further growing the business beyond its current ambitions or living outside of what is considered the Liberal’s traditional, blue-ribbon heartland of Perth’s western suburbs.

At present, though, he appears content with where he’s headed, thankful for the opportunities he’s been accorded and what he’s building with Mr Di Placido.

“To try and change my whole life, reorient [my] entire life, has been a difficult process at times, but when you talk to … any of the team here, you realise the impact you’re having on people’s life directly, employing people, giving them a future, is really significant,” he said.

“That to me is probably the most fulfilling and enriching experience I have had for a very long time.”

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