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Desperate times, desperate measures and odd echoes from the wild, wild West


It’s been called unprecedented, but a state political party throwing in the towel before an election has even been run is a tactic Queenslanders have seen before, writes Dennis Atkins

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In politics, history quickly and regularly repeats; what happens more often is it rhymes, which we’ll see in just over 10 days when a state election is held in Western Australia.

Incumbent Labor Premier Mark McGowan is going to be easily returned for a second term. Seldom has the phrase cruising to victory been more apt.
WA Labor is poised to win as many as a dozen seats off the Liberal and Nationals opposition parties – that is more than half the numbers on the non-government benches.

With its commanding 41 out of 59 seats in its pocket, Labor will go to the WA Governor Kim Beazley with another 11 to 13 seats in their column. It’s lopsided, defined.

This needs to be put in a political context: the last WA election four years ago saw the biggest swing to Labor recorded in the west since 1980 – and this followed the biggest swing to the conservatives (5.4 percent across the state) in the modern era.
They don’t call it the wild west for nothing.

Yes, it’s another COVID election and McGowan is surfing a bigger wave of “thanks for keeping us safe” sentiment than was seen here in Queensland four months ago.

Unlike Annastacia Palaszczuk, McGowan’s re-election was not in much doubt prior to the unwelcome arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. He didn’t have the baggage of a scandal-laden deputy like Jackie Trad and the state economy had plenty of power and some homegrown policy imagination.

However, McGowan and Palaszczuk will continue to meet – virtually or in person – at gatherings of leaders, whether it’s Scott Morrison’s secretive and exclusive national cabinet or the more traditional structure which allowed the vital third tier of administration (local government) a seat at the table.

McGowan and Palaszczuk have proven close and steady allies during the past 12 months, working together on responses to the pandemic, especially when it comes to border closures and quarantine. They plan to continue to cooperate as the resource and commodity sectors receive sustained demand from China and other Asian economies.

This bit of modern day political rhyming isn’t the only tempo that has struck people watching the WA election who also have some corporate memory of Queensland electoral history.

Last week the WA Liberal leader, Zak Kirkup, who is young in looks and experience, gave everyone a bit of a shock who he all but conceded defeat, tweeting out a very premature concession by saying wherever he went people were convinced McGowan would win and they were not too upset about that.

Reporters and commentators dipped into the cliche cabinet and pulled out “unprecedented” which was fine but while it was crazy, brave and risky, bold, it was anything but unprecedented.

In fact, a short walk back into Queensland history turns up a similar “low balling” tactic played by Anna Bligh and Labor when they were up against the insurgent Campbell Newman in 2012.

Twitter wasn’t so pervasive a decade ago, so Labor got the message out with a guerrilla leaflet dropped into letterboxes. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” warned the desperados from their Peel Street, South Brisbane citadel.

It was a genuinely desperate act from a party that knew their goose was cooked and they were just waiting for voters to put a fork in them.
Would it be seen as too desperate? Would people see it as a sign of defeat? Would voters think, ‘well, if you don’t think you’ve got a chance, why should we give you a second glance?’

In the end, people thought this desperate play was a sign of all three of these propositions. Labor had no faith in itself, why should voters?

McGowan, who is playing an almost faultless confidence game during his campaign, grabbed this opportunity and ran with it. He declared he’d never admit defeat, adding any admission of giving up would not have kept Western Australians safe or protected the state’s way of life and economy.
It’s not often you see a softball tossed up so gently and hit with such consummate ease.

When Labor played its desperate card in 2012 – as an incumbent government, it must be noted – they didn’t think they’d end up with a minivan of MPs who would be led by a “last woman standing”, the now Premier.

Also, at the time no one, even in an intoxicated dream, would have dared to imagine they would take back government from Newman just three years later in an equally wild swing of votes and seat changes.

Politics did become more volatile about a decade ago with big swings producing unexpected outcomes. At the moment, we’re in a pandemic hiatus that is protecting and favouring incumbents.

This won’t last. All of the baggage that is being collected in the corridors – rorting, appalling behaviour, lies and policy three card tricks – will not be forgotten or forgiven forever. There will come reckoning.

It won’t come just yet and it certainly will be nowhere to be seen on Saturday, March 13 in Western Australia.

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