Inside Story

More closure in Western Australia

A premier chooses when to depart, with potential federal implications

John Phillimore 1 June 2023 1030 words

No box: WA premier Mark McGowan is applauded by colleagues including Roger Cook (second from right) after announcing his resignation on Monday. Richard Wainwright/AAP Image

When Julia Gillard lost the prime ministership to Kevin Rudd in 2013, Paul Keating reportedly consoled her by saying “Luv, we all get taken out in a box.” Federally, this is undoubtedly true. The last prime minister to leave voluntarily — rather than being defeated in an election, torn down by their colleagues or dying in office — was Sir Robert Menzies in 1966.

At state level, however, boxes aren’t so often needed. Labor premiers Bob Carr (New South Wales), Steve Bracks (Victoria) and Peter Beattie (Queensland), for example, all retired on their own terms in the mid 2000s after securing three election victories.

WA premier Mark McGowan seemed likely to follow suit. After winning office easily in 2017 and then spectacularly in 2021, a comfortable election win in 2025 was assured. It was widely assumed he would then hand over the leadership to someone else. But on Monday this dominant figure in WA politics shocked almost everyone by announcing his resignation as premier and from parliament.

With the benefit of a few days’ hindsight, perhaps we should not have been quite so surprised. Remaining in office until the next election, due in March 2025, and for a respectable period after that would have meant three more years in the job — three more years of “normal” politics in which the only direction was down, given the heights McGowan had reached.

And what heights! Politically, McGowan achieved the greatest electoral victory in Australian history in 2021, securing almost 60 per cent of the primary vote for Labor — which translated into fifty-three out of fifty-nine seats in the state’s Legislative Assembly — and reducing the Liberal Party to a derisory two seats.

On top of that, Labor took outright control of the upper house for the first time in its history, and promptly reformed the electoral system to remove Australia’s last case of egregious rural vote weighting. McGowan then played a pivotal role in Anthony Albanese’s bid for the prime ministership, helping Labor win four WA seats from the Liberals at last year’s federal election.

Added to that, McGowan’s period as leader has been accompanied by record budget surpluses, driven by booming iron ore and gas prices and a deal brokered with Scott Morrison that ensures at least 70 per cent of GST raised in Western Australia is returned to the state. The economy is strong, and McGowan has a respectable record of reform on issues such as voluntary assisted dying, environmental protection and public transport investment through Labor’s signature Metronet suburban rail project.

All of this, of course, was underpinned by McGowan’s deft handling of the Covid crisis, in which his hard border closures fed into Western Australia’s inherent independent streak. By becoming “an island within an island,” the state largely kept Covid out, allowing daily life to continue almost as normal while the mining industry powered on. Toss in disputes with Clive Palmer, the Morrison government and the NSW Liberal government, and the rest is history.

Of course, there were failures — most noticeably in the youth detention system, the destruction of Juukan Gorge, and lax regulation of Perth’s only casino (which led to a royal commission) — as well as problems in health and housing. But overall, McGowan’s legacy is assured politically, economically and financially.

What happens now?

After a day of factional drama on Tuesday within the Labor caucus, deputy premier Roger Cook has emerged as the premier-elect. Cook has been Labor’s deputy leader since he entered the parliament in 2008. Like McGowan, he had a good pandemic: as health minister he was often by the premier’s side, and the state’s low incidence of Covid gave him a prominent and largely positive public profile in a portfolio that is often a poisoned chalice for an ambitious minister.

As Covid’s prominence fell during 2021, though, problems in the health system mounted and Cook was shifted into the economic portfolios of state development, tourism and science. He later added hydrogen industry to his responsibilities, and he has been active in promoting the state’s critical minerals industry. In retrospect, the shift was shrewd, allowing him to demonstrate a breadth of interests.

Cook has promoted himself as the continuity leadership candidate, but he does represent a departure from McGowan in some important respects. He has described himself as “born and bred” in Western Australia — subtly differentiating himself from McGowan and his main challenger for the leadership, health minister Amber-Jade Sanderson, both of whom were born in New South Wales.

He is also the first strongly factional Labor leader for many years, having been senior in the party’s Left faction. By contrast, McGowan — like former premiers Geoff Gallop and Alan Carpenter — was factionally unaligned.

Cook has always had a strong interest in Aboriginal issues, having worked for several Aboriginal advocacy organisations before entering parliament. Whether this leads to a change in the government’s hard-nosed approach to juvenile detention — for which McGowan was increasingly facing criticism — will be closely watched.

The main issues facing the new premier and his government will be those facing most state governments around the nation — health and housing systems under stress, cost-of-living pressures, and labour and skill shortages. Unlike in other states, however, Cook has a large budget surplus, a strong economy, a weak opposition and a massive electoral buffer. He now has twenty-one months to prove himself.

For Anthony Albanese, McGowan’s resignation is undoubtedly a blow. Before 2022, Western Australia had been a Liberal stronghold federally. But McGowan’s popularity saw massive swings to Labor, with four seats switching to Labor, which also gained a senator. With McGowan gone, those seats are potentially back in play.

Western Australia’s support for the Voice referendum may also come into question. Albanese has been diligently paying attention to the state, visiting twelve times in his first year, including holding a cabinet meeting in Port Hedland in the state’s Pilbara iron ore region. While some state and territory leaders have raised the possibility of rewriting the state’s GST deal now its architect is leaving the scene, there is little prospect of that happening. It would spell certain electoral disaster in Western Australia for any federal political party. •