One of the most dominant premiers in recent Australian political history, Mark McGowan, has resigned as Western Australian premier and the member for Rockingham.
Put simply, McGowan has dominated WA politics since becoming premier in March 2017. His Labor Party holds 53 of 59 seats in the Legislative Assembly, and for the first time ever, controls the Upper House as well.
But this does not begin to adequately describe his dominance. He has been the driving force of the Labor government, personally selecting cabinet ministers. Since 2021, he has been both premier and treasurer, which amounted to him holding the two most significant roles in government at the same time. He has centralised much of the decision-making across government in his own office.
Then there is his public profile. To many Western Australians, McGowan is the government. Many voters regarded him as the principal person to thank for keeping COVID-19 at bay during the pandemic. When many other Australian states endured long lockdowns, WA was COVID-free for the vast majority of that time.
At the 2021 election, the Labor party asked voters to vote for McGowan, not for the Labor brand or for local candidates. There are many anecdotal stories, often told by his political opponents, of voters coming up to them in various electorates, asking how they could vote for him.
Explaining his popularity
McGowan was already a popular politician before COVID. He won a landslide victory in WA in 2017, and the primary vote for Labor was at that time its highest ever. Even before COVID there were recriminations among his opponents, and a sense that he would be premier for at least two terms.
But the advent of COVID took his popularity to completely new levels. McGowan’s most popular policy was the closure of the WA borders to other states from mid-2020. Opinion polls indicated that as many as 91% of WA voters approved of his handling of the pandemic.
When mining magnate Clive Palmer took WA to court to try to bring down the border, and this was initially supported by the federal government, McGowan’s popularity only grew, as he was depicted as defending WA against elite interstate interests.
More significantly, the closed border policy tapped into WA parochialism, a sense that wider Australia might not have the interests of WA people at their heart. This has always been a factor in WA politics, evident in debates around the GST allocation, but it reached new levels during COVID.
Change in the political landscape
McGowan’s legacy will be immense. In political terms, his party is dominant, with a massive structural advantage in seats, human resources and funds. His chief opponent, the once dominant Liberal Party of WA, is in ruins. Even the Federal Branch of the Liberal Party is a shadow of its former self, smashed at the Federal election of 2022.
But McGowan’s departure does present real opportunities. The new premier will not have the same latent personal support that McGowan commanded. A change in leadership may free some voters up to switch their allegiances.
The new premier will have to make their own mark and notch up new achievements to define their leadership and government. As a start, they will need to make inroads into some of the policy challenges the government faces, which did not receive the same visibility during the pandemic. This includes homelessness, since housing has become less affordable and the waiting list for public housing has grown significantly.
There is also a profound skills shortage that is affecting public and private sector projects, especially in the construction industry. Tourism needs to be rebuilt – the government previously told people not to come to WA, and now has to convince them otherwise.
Finally, there have been disturbing and challenging problems in WA’s juvenile detention system that require urgent attention.
Who might succeed McGowan?
Because of McGowan’s dominance, there has been less opportunity for his colleagues to shine.
Roger Cook has been deputy premier for the duration of the McGowan government. He was health minister for the vast majority of the pandemic, and over that time he had the second biggest profile in government. The health portfolio was a challenging one, and Cook stepped away in 2021. His profile has not been so significant since that time, but his current portfolio of state development, jobs and tourism is very economic focused, which would not be a bad stepping stone to the premier’s role.
The other potential candidate is Minister for Health Amber-Jade Sanderson. She has been elevated quickly within the government, taking on the environment portfolio and then the hot seat of health. She is in just her first term as a minister and at 46, would represent something of a generational change at the top.
The new leader will have a considerable period of time to settle in. The next state election is not due until March 2025. This should offer the new premier an opportunity to make their own mark and set a new direction before facing the voters.