15/12/2020 - 11:00

Kirkup takes the 109-days test

15/12/2020 - 11:00

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With about 13 weeks until the state election, can a 33-year-old first-term MP defy the odds and become Australia’s youngest serving premier?

Kirkup takes the 109-days test
NEXT GEN: Zak Kirkup is among the youngest people to serve as opposition leader in WA, as well as the first since Matt Birney to come to the job without ministerial experience. Photo: Jordan Murray

FEW would argue that the tall and telegenic Zak Kirkup, now one month into his tenure as opposition leader, looks like he could be premier material.

Ultimately, however, it’s more about policies than TV perceptions, and it’s on the policy front the Liberal Party WA is playing catch-up ahead of the March 2021 poll.

Mr Kirkup’s first term in state parliament has put him toe-to-toe with the state’s deputy premier and health minister, Roger Cook, a position from which he has developed a reputation for strong parliamentary performances.

His history, while light on private sector experience, features a heart-warming run-in with John Howard at the age of 17 and a deep connection with the Liberal Party, fostered by stints as an adviser and campaign manager.

The only son of a plumber and a retail assistant, Mr Kirkup recounts nightly civic lessons with his father over dinner, coupled with his mother’s passion for environmental stewardship as a member of Greenpeace.

At age 33, he is one of the youngest people to lead either party in WA’s history.

He’s also the first of Aboriginal ancestry to take on the job.

And though some in the party have privately and publicly groused about the speed with which he’s climbed the party’s ladder, few suggest Mr Kirkup wasn’t the obvious frontrunner when the job became vacant in late November, just 109 days before the election.

Mr Kirkup won’t call himself a local celebrity, but he admits the higher profile has been an unusual pleasure, given he’s not yet completed his first term in parliament.

“People want to talk to us about issues and engage with us, which is really refreshing,” Mr Kirkup told Business News.

“I’ve seen a shift in the way people approach me, whether it’s a taxi driver … or ‘Eileen in Forrestfield’ who’s had her home broken into.

“People want to talk to me, and that’s been really overwhelming and … a reflection of the fact the party has deliberately chosen a new direction.”

It’s a change of pace for Mr Kirkup and the Liberal Party WA, which for the past four years has suffered from a diminished standing and highly unfavourable political environment.

Consider that, before Mr Kirkup became opposition leader, neither a former treasurer nor deputy premier was willing to stay on in the role.

Consider, too, that with less than 100 days before the party heads to what is widely considered an unwinnable election, the only other candidate to show any interest in the job was a former transport minister, Dean Nalder.

One of the few ministers left in the party’s thinning parliamentary ranks, Mr Nalder suffered a series of defeats when he decided to drop out, retire from politics and decline to stay on as the party’s shadow treasurer in the space of a single fortnight.

Former finance minister and Afghanistan veteran Sean L'Estrange will replace Mr Nalder as shadow treasurer.

Mr Nalder has since gone on to join a chorus of retiring members calling for Peter Collier and Nick Goiran, two of the party’s most influential members in the Legislative Council, to either resign or relinquish their power amid concerns about the party’s direction after March of next year.

Mr Kirkup has been left to pick up the pieces.

His struggle is not unique. Opposition leaders ranging from Deb Frecklington in Queensland to Alistair Coe in the ACT have struggled to remain relevant in recent months amid a rallying of popularity for incumbents.

Despite their talents, they both saw their party’s share of the popular vote and seats go backwards at their recent elections, despite being within arm’s reach of a win.

Mr Kirkup, meanwhile, will need to more than double his party’s representation in the lower house if he has any chance of becoming WA’s next premier.

Add to that Mark McGowan’s status as Australia’s most popular and well-liked premier, and it’s hard to see where the path to victory lies for a man who eked out his first election win just four years earlier. (Mr Kirkup holds the District of Dawesville by less than 1 per cent.)

“I wouldn’t have sought the endorsement of the Liberal Party if I didn’t think we were up to it,” Mr Kirkup said.

“I’m not naive about the task ahead.”

If not naive, Mr Kirkup is certainly bold.

At present, the Liberal Party WA holds just 13 of 59 seats in the lower house, meaning it would need 17 seats to govern in its own right.

Luckily for Mr Kirkup, eight of the 10 most marginal seats in WA are held by either the Australian Labor Party WA or The Nationals WA.

Winning those marginal seats won’t be easy, nor will retaining Mr Kirkup’s own electorate of Dawesville, but a uniform swing of about 3 per cent towards the opposition (however unlikely) should add them to the Liberals’ column.

Past that point, opportunities dwindle.

Of the next 10 most marginal seats, six are held by the Liberals, with the sitting member in two – Mike Nahan, in Riverton, and John McGrath, in South Perth – retiring.

That may remove the incumbency advantage both had earned over their time in state parliament and make winning those seats a more difficult task than would otherwise be expected.

However, if the party were to achieve a uniform swing of about 7 per cent and negotiate a coalition agreement with The Nationals, Mr Kirkup would notionally be on track to become WA’s next premier.

That would require the party to win about 51 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote.

Unfortunately, public polling before the COVID-19 pandemic routinely put the Liberals at about 45 per cent of the TPP, which is about what the party earned in 2017.

Most pundits expect that number to go backwards in light of Mr McGowan’s astronomical polling, meaning the Liberals will be playing defence in the few seats it does hold.

On initial inspection the most obvious path to victory for the party, if there is one, would start with winning three marginal seats in Perth’s north metropolitan suburbs.

Joondalup, Kingsley and Burns Beach, which border one another, are the most likely targets.

While strategy would dictate that Mr Kirkup devote most of his attention to these seats, he has in his first month as opposition leader committed to an ambitious 59-seat, whole-of-state campaign.

This is a bold and risky move, given elections are decided on a seat-by-seat basis rather than popular vote margin, but Mr Kirkup seems wedded to it.

One notable example he cites is Fremantle, a seat in which incumbent Simone McGurk, who holds the seat for Labor with a healthy 23 per cent margin, will be competing for her third term.

On paper the seat is hardly friendly to Liberals, given its high concentration of younger, socially progressive voters and union-aligned maritime workers.

Consider, however, that the Maritime Union of Australia balked at the state government’s proposed relocation of Fremantle’s port to Kwinana earlier this year, and that the Greens WA register double digit support in the seat.

Military veteran Miquela Riley has been preselected to run for the Liberal Party WA, and Mr Kirkup said the party would put significant investment towards her campaign in hopes of pulling off a surprise win.

“If all those things come the right way, that seat will be severely compromised for the Labor Party,” Mr Kirkup said.

“For us, it’s going to be about making sure that, in seats like that, we’re not just taking an approach based on whether we sit on the sweet spot of the pendulum.

“The whole list of seats the whole way through deserves a look by us, and they are, because we have amazing candidates out there in good seats with an opportunity for us.”

That a Liberal leader believes the party can compete for a seat like Fremantle would have been drawn derision just weeks ago, given former leader Liza Harvey’s inability to land a blow on Mr McGowan throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her standing in the polls suffered greatly as a result, with many in the party reportedly airing concerns with Ms Harvey’s changing stance on border closures.

Mr Kirkup was keen to neutralise Ms Harvey’s major weakness just hours after assuming the party’s leadership, confirming his first policy would be to unequivocally follow the health advice of the state’s chief health officer at all times.

Now, he pledges there will be no difference between himself or Mr McGowan should either be elected.

In doing so, Mr Kirkup is hoping voters will pay greater attention to the party’s pledge to lower taxes and create 200,000 jobs, which he believes is compelling given the anaemic state of the economy up to now.

“People are worried what the future looks like,” he said.

“I think the premier and [the state] government has done a good job in relation to COVID-19.

“They followed the health advice, mostly, and that’s something they should be recognised for.

“The problem is that they don’t have a plan for the other side of it; I don’t think anyone believes they have a plan to get out of it and address the structural issues we face as a society.”

While the opposition regularly lags the state government by double digits in the polls, Mr Kirkup has reason to be optimistic.

Recent political history shows that on at least two occasions – Colin Barnett’s 2009 election win and Scott Morrison’s a decade later – polls and punditry can be defied, supposing a leader runs a disciplined and confident campaign.

The bigger problem for Mr Kirkup is that those campaigns benefitted from running within a hair’s breadth of leaders who were widely seen as unlikable and out of touch on major issues.

The state government – and by extension, Mr McGowan – have tapped into the zeitgeist by marrying themselves closely to border closures and the relative economic prosperity that stance has allowed for.

That’s translated to Mr McGowan regularly enjoying a 90 per cent approval rating and his party a nearly two-to-one advantage in the polls.

Again, it’s not out of the question that a state opposition can come back from the brink of collapse to win power.

Annastacia Palaszczuk took her opposition from a threadbare seven seats to minority government in a single term at Queensland’s 2015 state election, following then-premier Campbell Newman’s widely unpopular hollowing out of the public service.

NSW similarly spent 16 years governed by Labor, until scandal and instability paved the way for the largest swing ever recorded against a state government.

Neither of those situations is particularly instructive in WA, though, where Mr McGowan is more popular than he was four years ago when he led Labor to a 40-seat landslide win.

Moreover, despite his attempts to sidestep COVID-19 and border closures, Mr Kirkup faces unique difficulties, having served as the opposition’s health spokesperson throughout the pandemic.

More so than anyone else in the opposition, Mr Kirkup’s former portfolio carries with it his party’s rapidly evolving stance on public health over the past year.

WA Labor would know this is a major weakness for Mr Kirkup, having already nominated Lisa Munday, a paramedic of 20 years and frontline healthcare worker during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in WA, to take him on in Dawesville.

Mr Kirkup holds the seat by an exceedingly narrow, 400-vote margin, and the state government will likely relish the chance to drag the opposition leader from campaigning in marginal seats to spend time attending to his own political survival.

Already, Messrs McGowan and Cook have travelled to the electorate to announce $150 million in funding for Peel Health Campus, piggybacking off of a popular local issue Mr Kirkup has made central to his time in state parliament.

Unsurprisingly, he was not invited to the state government’s announcement.

“They were entirely predictable in doing what they did at Peel Health Campus,” Mr Kirkup said.

“It was a rushed announcement that didn’t involve local media, and they just dumped it out as quickly as they could.

“You won’t win Dawesville in 102 days’ time by ignoring us for four years and then throwing us cash that won’t flow for another four years.

“You need to listen to the people and understand you’re there to fight for them.”

All of this is without discussing the myriad other attacks that may yet be levelled against Mr Kirkup, including his romantic relationship with The West Australian’s assistant editor, Jenna Clarke.

Labor has already indicated it will make an issue of Mr Kirkup’s coverage in The West Australian, with the party’s first fundraising email of this election cycle mocking the newspaper’s depiction of the opposition leader as Batman’s sidekick, Robin.

Mr Kirkup’s decision to name former Labor staffer Nathan Hondros, who has extensively covered Kerry Stokes and his connections to the state’s political scene during his stint with Fairfax Media, as his chief of staff may neutralise the effectiveness of this attack.

For his part, Mr Kirkup said he had not considered whether his personal life would be treated as a campaign issue.

“I’m fairly confident that all of us will make sure this campaign is about the policies and issues that matter most to Western Australians,” he said.

Discussions of Mr Kirkup’s potential political weaknesses should not overshadow his strengths as both a local member and party leader.

He has been highly visible in the campaign to increase funding for Peel Health Campus, and has no doubt earned increased name recognition since being named opposition leader.

Similarly, few observers believe the Liberal Party WA faces electoral oblivion under Mr Kirkup leadership.

One source close to WA Labor said the party’s internal polling was nowhere near the fantastical results published by national pollster John Utting, whose surveys over the past year have shown the Liberals teetering on the edge of a wipe-out.

Others concede Mr Kirkup is a far more polished performer on the campaign trail than Ms Harvey was, even if he’s far less seasoned or as experienced as she was.

Should Mr Kirkup retain Dawesville, few expect a challenger to emerge for his leadership.

While he’s set expectations high, the party is under no illusion it’s working with a weak base, and a belief that he saved the party from electoral oblivion should earn him enough goodwill to stay on into 2025.

This isn’t unprecedented, as Messrs Barnett and McGowan had to experience the indignity of losing an election before becoming premier.

Barring an electoral wave that crashes through the party’s heartland of Perth’s affluent, inner-west suburbs, Mr Kirkup should be set up to take another punt in 2025 no matter the outcome in March.

That will likely give him time to hone his oratory strengths while adding to his current lack of ministerial experience.

In the meantime, Mr Kirkup insists that, no matter the betting odds, polls or punditry, he’s campaigning for a win in 2021.

“What drives me is a sense of responsibility and duty to the state,” he said.

“We actually deserve to have an election that’s a contest about the future of where we’re going.

“From my perspective, the way this government is acting is almost as if the vote doesn’t matter; the show is over, and March 13 is done and dusted.

“I don’t think that’s the way people should have the hard work they’ve done honoured.

“They deserve to have an election that’s about their future.”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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