Tomorrow, 15 March, in 44 BC Julius Caesar was assassinated. In Shakespeare’s homonymous play a fortune teller warns Caesar of his fate with the words “Beware the Ides of March”. The date has thus become notorious for politicians and politics generally, and comes with a lesson: Caesar was assassinated because he wanted too much power, but more on that later.
Zak Kirkup and the Western Australian Liberals had their ‘Ides’ in the state election held at the weekend, being reduced to as few as two seats in the Lower House, with leader Zak Kirkup losing his own seat. The party of Sir David Brand and Sir Charles Court reduced to something akin to the two old men in The Muppet Show, Waldorf and Statler. The recriminations have no doubt begun but it should be clear: the reasons for this disaster are very much the Liberals’ own making.
In politics, as in life generally, the old saying is right. You make your own luck. Premier Mark McGowan has been a very lucky politician who has ridden his luck expertly with the ‘hard’ border and iron ore mining royalties masking the lack of service delivery in key areas such as health and transport. He’s also had a local media that cheers his every word. Against all this, the Liberals faced an uphill battle, particularly against such a wily political operator. However, by making a first-time MP in Kirkup Opposition Leader after Liza Harvey fell on her sword, the Liberals made their own luck, for the wrong reasons. By not selecting former transport minister Dean Nalder for leader, but not going for ‘a safe pair of hands’, they allowed themselves to be played by one of the oldest political tactics in the book: an attack based on inexperience.
There have been several precedents for this. The Conservatives used it to great effect against the “Welsh Windbag”, Neil Kinnock, in the 1992 British election, using the ‘L-plate’ for the first letter in ‘Labour’. In the 2004 Federal Elections here in Australia, the Coalition used the same tactic ruthlessly against Mark Latham, going on to win control of both Houses. And who could forget Ronald Reagan’s devastating line against his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale in the second debate before the 1984 Presidential Election: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” That was the moment Reagan won 49 out of 50 States.
The ‘L-plate Liberal’ ads and billboards have been almost ubiquitous in Perth over the last few weeks, and Kirkup certainly made beginner’s mistakes, giving the attacks even more credibility. Peta Credlin observed on Sky News a day before the election that the WA Liberals “sent a boy to do a man’s job”.
Yet as wily as he is, McGowan is no genius. He gave the Liberals a gift to exploit just before the campaign officially began: a needless lockdown of two million people for one positive case, of a hotel quarantine worker who was not appropriately attired in PPE and was moonlighting as an Uber driver, a complete balls-up that had talkback radio listeners seething with rage. What did Kirkup do? Have himself photographed with a mask stating that he fully backs the ‘health advice’. Sir Charles Court would never have let such an opportunity slide. Neither would his son Richard. When then Liberal leader Barry McKinnon was floundering against the popular Carmen Lawrence, even though the stench of WA Inc hung over her government, the Liberals turned to Richard Court whose daily pounding of Lawrence on the issue won him government within months. Kirkup not once attacked McGowan on his lack of accountability on the lockdown, or any other issue, such as record levels of ambulance ramping and spending $2 billion on Metronet without laying a single metre of track.
Attack is the best form of defence, as Mark Isimides noted in his piece a couple of weeks ago. Conceding defeat before an election is held is another tactic destined to fail, and there are precedents for this as well. Against a very popular Bob Carr in 2007, then Liberal leader Peter Debnam acknowledged a couple of weeks out before the state election that he could not win, imploring the electorate not to give Carr total control in a landslide. What happened? Bob Carr was returned in a landslide. The sentiment in WA in relation to Kirkup’s concession was toxic. What confidence can you have in someone who thinks he can’t win? What kind of leader lets the enemy know he thinks he’s lost?
Political parties usually change leaders for one reason – to stop bleeding votes. The new leader has the responsibility of ‘shoring up” the base. This is why the Liberals turned from Turnbull to Abbott in 2009, and Labor from Gillard to Rudd in 2013. One would have thought Kirkup’s job was to do the same. Yet he seemed to do everything to alienate the conservative base when votes were already at a premium. Witness the lunacy of shutting down state-owned coal-fired power stations within four years, a policy more extreme than anything the Greens would propose. It made McGowan look irresponsible, as if he needed any help in that department already. It was a proposal that was always going to be ridiculed and exposed for being nothing more than a thought bubble – similar to Colin Barnett’s canal from the Kimberley to deliver water to the Perth metropolitan area in the 2005 election. However, Barnett learned his lesson from that experience to return in 2008 in an unexpected victory.
In TV commentary on election night, Barnett noted the dangers of what has essentially become one-party rule in WA, with no real opposition. McGowan goes into his second term as Premier with government coffers that are pumped full of iron-ore royalties. As Paul Garvey noted in The Australian, the challenge will come when the uncertainty of the pandemic – and the wonders it has done for his popularity – permanently fades. There is a precedent for a thumping victory being followed by a thumping loss: remember what happened to Campbell Newman in Queensland?
Brian Burke had plenty of good fortune during his time as Premier, yet eventually arrogance, highly questionable dealings and incompetence did him in. In these pages, Caroline Di Russo, Charles Pier, an anonymous writer and myself, among others, have warned of the dangers of a re-elected McGowan government.
He now has a huge backbench to deal with. Julius Caesar became very popular after his military victories, yet many of his friends turned on him when it became apparent he wanted too much power. Notwithstanding his ability, Caesar treated the Senate as a mere advisory council, which many Romans resented as disrespectful, and he behaved as a dictator in doing so (does this sound familiar?). So, on the Ides of March, Brutus, Cassius and co put an end to Caesar’s ambitions for good.
In other words, for how long can McGowan ride his luck, allowing his hubristic style to mask his true substance and that of his government?
Dr Rocco Loiacono is senior lecturer at Curtin University Law School.
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