At a recent dinner party with some of my very intelligent friends, the topic of politics and the upcoming State election came up. Everyone at the table echoed similar views.
“He’s done a fantastic job!”
“We are so lucky here in WA!”
“I’m not so sure – I think he’s done a few questionable things lately.”
Stunned silence. People looked at me with a surprised uncertainty. This group of astute, intelligent people with whom I would usually share my criticisms of politicians from a variety of political parties, was clearly unused to hearing criticism of our beloved Premier.
2020 was a big year for Mark McGowan, a leader who just months before was describing banning mobile phones in schools as though it was one of his proudest achievements. Whether intentionally or not, WA has waltzed into a bizarre place of cult loyalty to this once quite uninspiring man, with very little critical thought in sight.
And don’t get me wrong – the fact that the Labor Party is all but certain to take out the election in a few weeks’ time and secure another term in government is fantastic news to me. I’d much rather that than the alternative.
And I understand the origins of this feeling: the collective anxiety of a pandemic during which McGowan managed to ooze competence and – through a mix of good decisions and, it must be said, dumb luck – keep WA one of the most COVID-free places on the planet. It’s hard to describe the lucid experience of spending all day at home stressing about an existential threat that lies just beyond the front verge, waiting for Daddy Mark to come on at 11:30 am and give you the calm, comforting presence your day needs. I’m no psychologist, but I imagine his role through last year as the strong and reassuring voice keeping us safe whilst our anxiety neurotransmitters were working overtime, has seeped into our subconscious in more ways than we can realise.
Then came the memes, the Facebook groups declaring he should be Prime Minister, the events encouraging us to clap for him outside the front of our homes (and I’ll confess, I did this – solitary applause echoing around the silence of my cul-de-sac). And it was fun, we were all bored with too much time on our hands; taking to Facebook to worship a leader who had a competent social media team was as productive a use of our time as most of us could manage.
But nearly a year on from our first COVID-19 restrictions coming into play, McGowan’s popularity endures. The simple fact is that it isn’t healthy for a democracy to view a leader as a superhero. McGowan did a good job, sure, but he isn’t perfect; and he should be held to the same standard as other political leaders. Australians are usually overly critical and cynical of politicians; which is why the idolisation of McGowan is so fascinating. Nearly overnight, he has, to WA residents at least, joined the class of untouchable Aussie icons like Shannon Noll and Steve Irwin. For him, this is fantastic; for us, less so.
Following our recent five-day lockdown some criticism did emerge claiming that he had seen polling on the popularity of lockdowns and this had informed his decision. This was quickly dismissed and is unlikely to have any impact on the election outcome, but I think even this missed the point. Politicians are motivated by politics – that is nothing new. The problem isn’t McGowan, who is doing as good a job as any Premier operating within the political realities of the day. The problem is us. We made our minds up a year ago and have swiftly tuned out of any resulting debate.
The impact this has on WA politics is already beginning to show. Understanding that they have their traditional voter base locked down even more so than a typical election year, WA Labor have made the (correct) political choice to go chasing votes in the centre.
In January, his government bypassed the Fremantle Council to claim ownership of Pioneer Park so they could send in police to demolish a city of tents housing rough sleepers. These people were placed on buses and sent to hotels around the city, moving them away from the homelessness services providers they had relationships with, with McGowan committing to housing them for just two weeks. The Fremantle Council, Greens and even Kirkup’s Liberal Party had all called for an approach that would have centred around talking to people experiencing homelessness about their needs and working with not-for-profits to find more long-term options.
Simultaneously, Kirkup has been left desperately trying to find a group of voters to support him – rushing to the left on issues such as social housing and climate, as McGowan appeals to the centre. It feels symptomatic of the broken nature of this election campaign that not a single line of criticism from the many, many, many Kirkup has tried has remotely cut through. His recent public concession, a full two weeks before the election, is further evidence of this.
The McGowan government knows they have locked down (pardon the pun) certain groups of voters; young people living in Perth are at the top of that list. Continuing to let Labor off scot-free will do nothing to motivate them to start caring about issues which matter to us. The possible (likely?) outcome of them taking control of both Houses won’t help this either. Criticising Mark does not make you pro-Liberal or anti-hard border. It is just the sensible thing to do.
Luke Barber once brushed shoulders with Bob Katter and is still processing the encounter.
Image provided by the author.