As the pandemic recedes from discourse, and the cost of living and climate change become voter priorities, what does Labor’s political strength in Western Australia mean for the federal election? By Jesse Noakes.

Mark McGowan's message for federal politics

WA Premier Mark McGowan at a press conference with Scott Morrison last week.
WA Premier Mark McGowan at a press conference with Scott Morrison last week.
Credit: AAP / Richard Wainwright

Say what you want about Mark McGowan, he tends to run a pretty tight ship. The former navy lawyer who became Western Australia’s most electorally powerful premier didn’t get there by taking chances or going off the script.

So it must have been by design that the Labor premier promenaded at a riverside press conference with Scott Morrison last week, a fortnight after McGowan had failed to appear in public with Anthony Albanese. The only question is what message the premier was trying to send.

Staffers, strategists and media observers who spoke to The Saturday Paper on the condition of anonymity offered a range of interpretations.

“The premier decided to help make that a story,” was the view of one political insider. “Another Labor premier, with his federal counterparts being so close to victory, would not have given that opportunity to the press and to the prime minister – but he was clearly happy to do it.”

In the view of that analyst, McGowan positioned himself skilfully to take credit whichever way the federal election splits. “Now he’s probably the most dominant politician in the country, playing the role of kingmaker in a sense, and I think he’s enjoying it and making the most of his time.”

Another suggestion, offered by several observers, is that the experience of losing with Bill Shorten in 2019 burned a premier who is more accustomed to winning than most politicians. A more tongue-in-cheek suggestion was that the rigidly media-conscious premier wouldn’t mind the comparison with Morrison, but would suffer if he was standing side-by-side with the trim and fitter opposition leader.

As soon as the prime minister was done swinging into Labor for failing to nail down who would be their Defence minister two months out from the poll, the premier stepped up to the podium and straight into his comfort zone: an update on Covid-19 cases and deaths and details about where they’re trending. It was a neat segue and a window into what has worked in WA in the year since the prime minister was last able to make it through.

Apart from the announcement with the premier of a new bridge largely paid for by the federal government, the major promise that Morrison launched on arrival into Perth was $4.3 billion to build WA’s first dry dock at Henderson in Perth’s south, heralding thousands of jobs in an industry neatly tied to national security. Throughout his week in Perth, Morrison repeatedly referred to national unemployment figures falling to the lowest in decades at the same time as prices soared due to global insecurity.

The connection between national and economic security is not quite so simple in WA, largely due to the obviously outsized influence of China. Consequently, discourse positioning Labor as useful idiots or Manchurian candidates is unlikely to go down as easily here.

The last Liberal incumbent to face election in WA was Colin Barnett, who lost to McGowan in 2017 and thinks a so-called “khaki campaign” will fall flat in Perth this time around. “I think a lot of Western Australians are really quite frustrated and annoyed at the way the China relationship has been handled,” Barnett told The Saturday Paper.

“I think people probably think Morrison and the Liberals will be stronger in relation to China. But equally, I think they’ve mucked it up in WA. Morrison might be spooking people on the east coast, but they probably haven’t dealt with China anywhere near as much as we have.”

Nor did the shipyard announcement land that hard locally, in part because it rehashed promises made at the last election. An engineer at another Henderson naval base explained that the lure came as no surprise. “We’d actually already been across a lot of that,” he told The Saturday Paper. “I guess it was because [Morrison] announced that he was going to start the shipbuilding thing four years ago when he was going to be elected and now, he’s announcing four years later that he’s actually going to start it just as they’re running for re-election again.”

The engineer explained that McGowan’s handling of the pandemic improved his perception of Albanese. “I think there’s a connection there for sure, not all-encompassing but it definitely improves my view of Labor across the board.”

Polling seen by The Saturday Paper suggests this view is not widely held. In the week to March 2, 48 per cent of West Australians had a positive view of McGowan but stated they were unsure about Albanese. In spite of this, the WA primary vote is split 42-31 in favour of Labor in this poll, roughly echoing marginal seat polling in The West Australian earlier this week that puts at least three Liberal seats in play.

Independent polling conducted by the Online Research Unit for the Australian Greens indicates that concern about the cost of living is top of voters’ priorities, ahead of economic management and healthcare, unsurprising in a state where the only real criticism that cut through during the state election was worry about the condition of WA’s hospital system.

The derision McGowan received from some quarters for the decision to defer the reopening of WA’s hard border for a month was largely underpinned by the assumption it was necessary to protect the health system from further strain. So far, it appears to have worked, with daily Covid-19 case numbers plateauing quickly and no sign of system overload.

Climate was the third priority listed by WA voters. As with the rest of the country, it has been a focus this summer, with a record-breaking heatwave documented in Perth and the Pilbara and bushfires breaking out almost daily across the south of the state.

Dorinda Cox, one of two Greens senators from WA, points out how the issue relates particularly to the state: “In Western Australia, we have some of the biggest coal and gas projects in the world, and many of the big corporations are making massive profits and not paying their fair share of tax.”

Her state counterpart, Brad Pettitt, said this is why he is unsurprised by the “chummy relationship” between McGowan and Morrison. “When it comes to fossil fuels and climate change policy, Morrison and McGowan are potentially more aligned than McGowan and Albanese,” Pettitt said.

“The McGowan government is actively looking to expand fossil fuel projects in the state, has no renewable energy targets or legislated 2030 or 2050 emissions target. It is not surprising then that WA is the only state with rising emissions.”

After two years defining the discourse, Covid-19 has quickly faded as a political factor in WA. McGowan’s daily pandemic press conferences were a masterclass in messaging control, coupling mundane and often unchanging data with updates about the swerving nature of public health restrictions in a clear, firm and reassuring script.

With climate and security concerns re-emerging at national and international levels, it will be intriguing to see how much penetrates the WA bubble, now that the hard border is down just as the federal campaign kicks off.

I sometimes describe Perth as “the Australia of Australia” – isolated, insular and a bloody long way away. These qualities were only accentuated by the pandemic. McGowan identified the trend, referring to Western Australia as “an island within an island” while he harnessed that secessionist strand within the WA psyche to win the state election in a landslide last year.

Short, simple messages about safety and strength won Labor absolute power in the state 12 months ago. Standing up for WA, despite lingering contradictions with national and global security concerns, may prove the price for several seats that could swing federal Labor to victory in a few short weeks.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "Battle for the Western front".

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