The path ahead for Premier Mark McGowan will be a challenging one, writes Simon Withers.
Mark McGowan is at the top of the mountain. It has been an incredible achievement but there is no “up” from here.
The path ahead is downhill and it will be challenging. Campbell Newman demonstrated how an enormous majority can be fragile. Colin Barnett went from invincible to toxic in the course of a parliamentary term.
What looks like a cushy ride to the next election is, in reality, a very dangerous journey. Mr McGowan made history at this election. Whether he becomes a legend will be determined by how he and his team navigate the next four years.
The most impressive thing about the McGowan team is the way they have stuck together through thick and thin.
When McGowan was steamrollered by Colin Barnett in the 2013 election, the party stood by him. When there was a move to replace him with Steve Smith because some people thought that he (McGowan) couldn’t win the 2017 election, the party stood by him. And in government it has – at least publicly – remained disciplined and unified behind him.
This election result is, in part, the reward for that discipline.
The challenge they are now facing is to maintain that discipline and to continue playing as if they are in a one-point game, even though when they look across the chamber all they will see is more Labor MPs.
On the other side the Liberal Party will be addressing the question of what just happened?
There are two separate issues that should not be conflated into a single issue. The first is why did the Liberal Party get wiped in the election? Some people are already blaming Zak Kirkup’s leadership but that approach does not address the main problem.
Zak Kirkup was a revelation and his campaign was inspired. He took many risks and some of them backfired but, given what he had to work with, his campaign was impressive.
The problem was that he was up against a juggernaut. During COVID the McGowan government shut the border in the face of intense criticism and it didn’t waiver in its pursuit of public safety. Consequently, Western Australia has been one of the safest places on the planet during a global pandemic that has killed millions of people.
Nonetheless, Labor sensibly ran a very grounded campaign, without any triumphalism or victory laps. We can see now that there was no scenario where the Liberals were going to do well.
The second issue is whether the Liberals can pull themselves into shape so they can go into the next election as the alternative government. They cannot rely on electoral gravity to bring the election pendulum back because the election pendulum is merely a diagram. It was created by Malcolm Mackerras, not Galileo. It doesn’t swing back. You have to earn the swing.
Everyone knows what the problem is: cronyism has poisoned the Liberal Party’s selection process. Consequently, the Liberal Party no longer attracts or selects enough good candidates.
Fix the selection process and you fix the problem. It’s that simple. And Mr McGowan has given the party a vacancy in almost every seat in parliament. This is a once-in-a-100-year opportunity to reset the parliamentary party.
The prognosis, however, is not good. In recent years, when a blue-ribbon seat has become vacant there has been a desperate hunt to find one good candidate. Now they need to find a large number of good candidates.
The starting point should be to accept that the traditional selection process doesn’t work anymore. This is a system where well-regarded professional people who want to give something back to the community run for preselection in the belief that it is a merit-based process. First their name is leaked to the press, then some party hack with not much of a CV gets selected, and then they discover that the result was fixed before they even nominated.
A parliamentary party is just people. To perform well in government or opposition you need good people. Mr McGowan recognised this and when he became leader of the opposition he set about recruiting a new generation of candidates to refresh the parliamentary party.
Good people won’t apply for Liberal Party preselection unless they think the process will be fair. A better preselection system would be a small panel of well-regarded people with a mandate to choose candidates based on merit.
The problem with achieving any change in preselection is that for the past 40 years Liberal Party power brokers have preferred exercising power to winning elections. That is not the best approach to succeeding in a democracy. They need to learn from the Labor Party under Mr McGowan, which has been solely focused on winning elections.
The results speak for themselves.
- Simon Withers was mayor of the Town of Cambridge between 2007 and 2015.