24/10/2012 - 03:28

Labor leader needs to come out fighting

24/10/2012 - 03:28

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Mark McGowan needs some positivity training, if recent comments are indicative of the mood inside Labor.

Mark McGowan needs some positivity training, if recent comments are indicative of the mood inside Labor.

WHEN I was a kid being pounded into the dojo floor at Brian Mackie’s Karate Academy of Japan on Milligan Street, there was a sign on the wall that read: ‘When the going gets tough the tough get going’.

It was just about the only motivational slogan I remember at the club.

There was no inspirational photo accompanying the words - it was just a simple, black-and-white statement that was in keeping with the academy’s teachings of sparse, singular, disciplined and committed focus.

This statement is not as popular as it once was, no doubt due to the macho connotations it evokes, but it is a statement that someone should be whispering to state Labor leader Mark McGowan.

The opposition leader’s muddled and defeatist reaction to a disappointing Newspoll was not the response of a man with the singular and committed focus of becoming premier of Western Australia.

To put things into context, the latest Newspoll had Labor losing some its previous gains on the government, with its primary vote dropping from 35 to 30 per cent and, on a two-party preferred basis, behind 57 to 43.

All of state Labor’s previous gains had appeared to drift back to the government, leaving Labor at best spinning its wheels and at worst going backwards. Or was it?

The Labor leader’s personal approval rating remained high at 48 per cent, mostly at the expense of that of Premier Colin Barnett, whose own approval rating fell a further three points during the quarter, making it a nearly 20-point collapse in his approval rating since the beginning of the year.

If you were tuned in to the responses from the Labor leader, however, you would not have thought there was anything good at all. In fact if you had been listening to talkback radio you would have been forgiven for thinking that Mr McGowan was making a concession speech ahead of next year’s election.

Not only did he break the cardinal rule of commenting directly on the poll, he went even further by linking the poll to his own performance and credibility.

“I would have hoped for better,” Mr McGowan told a media conference outside parliament.

“Obviously I haven’t achieved that and I think what’s absolutely clear out of this is that Labor are the underdogs and the Liberal and National parties are favourites to win the election.”

The defeatist tone only got worse when Mr McGowan then linked the government’s better-than-expected poll result to it’s ‘Big Picture’ advertising campaign.

Not only was this a highly questionable conclusion, its also undermined his own attacks on the government’s campaign to promote major capital works projects, some of which were first started under the previous Labor government.

“My view is they waste money on political advertising campaigns to sell themselves, which no doubt has paid them political dividends,” Mr McGowan said.

“As to whether we are going stale, I mean that’s up to the public to decide, I’m going about my job with as much energy and enthusiasm as I can.”

Mr McGowan followed these comments in a weekend interview with The Sunday Times, which would have made depressing reading for his colleagues and the Labor faithful.

“I don’t think anyone should be too critical because someone loses,” he is reported to have said.

“Colin Barnett lost badly in 2005. I don’t think it was dishonourable.

“I want to win.

“But if I lose, that’s part of the democratic system.”

These statements should be sounding alarm bells in the Labor caucus because it almost sounds as though Mr McGowan has run his race and will be struggling to make it to the finish line early next year.

There is nothing positive or upbeat here; it suggests that, in his mind, it is all a bit too hard.

There was no analysis or suggestion in his response that the Newspoll may have reflected wider issues to do with the Labor brand, especially since the poll was taken immediately after the introduction of the carbon tax.

If the initial reaction to the poll lacked urgency and determination, Mr McGowan’s weekend newspaper attack on Julia Gillard, in a bid to distance state Labor from the problems of the Gillard government, was equally muddled.

There is no doubt that federal Labor’s problems weigh heavily on state Labor, and that Mr McGowan does need to create a point of difference.

The message, however, was delivered poorly; accusing the Gillard government of being ‘too close’ to the Liberal-National government and allowing the state government to take credit for federal Labor initiatives.

“What the federal government has done is give the state a lot of money, which is wonderful but allowed the state to take credit for their spending. And that has been a grievous political error,” Mr McGowan was reported to have said.

“What they have also done is often thought that Mr Barnett was their friend, which they should not have.”

Few Western Australian federal Labor members would share that view, given the relentless attacks the state government has made on the federal government on nearly every issue over the past three years.

It is even further removed from reality given the premier’s, and some of his senior ministers’, at times highly personal attacks on the prime minister.

Our system of government requires a strong opposition to keep the government of the day accountable and on its toes.

The comments from the Labor leader suggest the malaise that descended upon the state Labor Party after the 2008 election loss still lingers, and seems to be manifest in their leader’s lack of confidence and optimism.

One poor and questionable opinion poll five months out from an election hardly seems the stuff to have thrown the opposition a curve ball and exposed an attitude within the Labor party that sends a very poor message to the electorate.

Ordinarily it would be something a political leader should take in their stride, but it has now become something of a boost for the Liberal Party.

Things will only get tougher politically for the opposition leader over the coming months, and he may well need to remind himself of that old macho saying hanging on the dojo wall if he and his party are to prevail come March next year.

• Paul Plowman is a former head of the state government's media office and is currently MD at Plowman & Co, which specialises in business-to-government relations.

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