The decision that cemented Mark McGowan’s extraordinary popularity came three weeks into the coronavirus pandemic. On 2 April, when the Ruby Princess outbreak was reaching its peak and Australia recorded its 24th death from Covid-19, the premier announced he would introduce a hard border banning all travel into Western Australia, with limited exemptions, turning the state “into its own island within an island – our own country”.
The border was criticised outside WA, but that seemed to only increase its popularity within the state. WA had recorded relatively few cases of Covid-19, and most had been imported via the Ruby Princess and other cruise ships. By closing the bulkhead door, WA was able to make a swift return to normal life. And, with the exception of a five-day lockdown this month, during which Perth residents became one of the last groups in the world to scramble to buy face masks, normality has reigned.
Visiting Perth from the eastern seaboard is like stepping into 2019: nightclubs are open, handshakes are back. West Australians know how fortunate they are to be living in this alternate reality. And will tell you they have McGowan to thank.
“The borders have ensured that we were kept safe,” McGowan says. He is speaking to Guardian Australia a week after the five-day coronavirus lockdown was lifted and a bushfire that destroyed 86 homes in the Perth Hills was contained. It has been a busy month and will get busier: postal voting for the 13 March state election begins on Monday.
“We have had one outbreak in the past 10 months,” McGowan says. “One. That’s been a demonstration of the fact that the border has worked … And people watch what’s occurred in Melbourne or Britain or the United States or anywhere in the world, really, and they look at Western Australia and I think they want us to keep the virus out and that’s our aim.”
McGowan is currently sitting on an approval rating of 88%. He downplays the numbers as a byproduct of the pandemic.
“All across Australia over the course of Covid there has been a lot of attention on state premiers and the prime minister and so I don’t think I’m unusual in that,” he says.
But there is something different about what is happening in Western Australia. While other political leaders experienced a surge in trust in 2020, and Victoria’s Daniel Andrews featured in a song in the Triple J Hottest 100, no other premier had a portrait of their face tattooed on someone’s leg.
The tattoo in question depicts the 53-year-old premier wearing a bandana and making a “W” sign with his fingers above the script “Westside bitches”. When confronted with the picture at a press conference this month, McGowan offered suggestions for laser tattoo removal.
“Certainly having your face tattooed on some bloke’s leg is a bit unusual,” he tells Guardian Australia. “I’m sure he’ll regret it when he sobers up.”
It is perhaps a natural progression in fannish devotion to a politician who made national headlines laughing about the prospect of a person eating a kebab when on a run, spoke up in defence of the mullet hairstyle, and was celebrated for allowing pubs to reopen. When McGowan lifted the restrictions on pub service, a tavern in his electorate of Rockingham, the Swinging Pig, responded by offering free meals to everyone named Mark and promised to shout the whole pub a free pint if the premier himself turned up. He did.
Prof John Phillimore, the executive director of the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy, says the devotion to McGowan is a reflection of the fact that no other state is doing as well as WA. Midyear forecasts showed the state had the strongest projected economic growth in Australia, thanks to a high iron ore price and the impact of the hard border rules on fly-in-fly-out workers, which saw many move their families from the eastern states to Perth. That in turn has driven up property prices.
“People who often already think they live in the greatest place in the world were just reinforced in their opinion, and the premier stands on top of that and didn’t mind reminding people at regular intervals that they were in the best place in the world,” Phillimore says. “And people say: yeah, you’re right. You’re the person at the helm, thanks very much.”
It helped that, over the hard border in particular, McGowan was seen to be at war with the eastern states and the federal government.
“There is this underlying sentiment that other people outside of Western Australia don’t always have our best interests at heart,” says Dr Martin Drum, a political commentator from Notre Dame University. “So at a time of public health crisis, having a leader stand up to the so-called eastern states, and throwing it back in their face when he’s criticised, has been extremely popular.”
McGowan was made opposition leader in 2012, and led the Labor party to a whopping defeat in 2013 only to return to win a 12-seat majority in 2017. In ordinary circumstances, just holding that majority would be unthinkable. But off the back of McGowan’s personal popularity, and a significantly weakened opposition, Labor could gain even more seats – including the extremely marginal Dawesville, held by the opposition leader, Zak Kirkup.
Despite a likely overwhelming lower-house result, Labor is highly unlikely to gain a majority in the upper house, which due to a proportional voting system is weighted toward regional areas and tends to favour the National and Liberal parties.
Labor has never held a majority in the legislative council. A more likely scenario, Drum says, is that it gains a majority with the help of the Greens.
McGowan says he is not planning for that. “We are just releasing our policies and that’s our agenda and that’s what we’ll do if we’re re-elected.”
It is a subdued strategy, particularly compared with the high coloratura of the Liberal party’s announcements. The latter has received praise for policy announcements that, McGowan says, it could never deliver, such as a proposal to achieve net-zero emissions from the public sector by 2030, and to close down the state’s remaining coal-fired power stations by 2025. McGowan, whose government has an aspirational target of reaching net-zero by 2050 and no interim targets, says the Liberals’ proposal is “ludicrous”.
“This is the party that opposed any action on this issue for the last 12 years and suddenly two weeks before the election they suddenly say they are climate change warriors and they are going to embrace renewables and stop coalmining,” he says. “It’s just … it’s so laughable and embarrassing for the Liberal party that they’d do that, that people shouldn’t treat them seriously.”
A report for the WA government last year predicted that half the state’s remaining coal-fired power stations at Collie, which together produce 40% of the state’s electricity, were expected to be either closed or surplus to requirements by 2025, leaving the state 80% powered by renewable energy.
“We understand that over time Collie will transition but putting an artificial deadline on it of four years from now would be highly disruptive to our electricity network and also devastating for jobs,” McGowan says.
Asked if he would consider introducing a stronger emissions reduction targets, McGowan says WA is “happy to work with the commonwealth government and we have already embraced the 2050 target. I just urge action nationally that we would be willing to be a part of.”
Piers Verstegen, the head of the Climate Council of WA, says McGowan is hiding behind the commonwealth government.
“The reality is that Western Australia is the only state now with emissions dramatically above the 2005 baseline and the Paris agreement and continuing to rise,” he says. “It’s Western Australia’s emissions that are compromising Australia from meeting the Paris goals, and it’s the inaction of the West Australian government in those areas that has allowed these emissions to continue rising.”
The culprit is not the state’s few remaining coal-fired power stations but the growing liquid natural gas industry, which is supported by both sides of politics.
According to the CCWA, the emissions from all current and proposed LNG projects which have come online since 2005 represent a 61% increase on WA’s baseline emissions levels, and a 9% increase above Australia’s 2005 baseline.
“It’s just not acceptable to say, OK, well, you know, WA”s emissions can keep going up, that’s fine, but we’ll meet Australia’s national targets by making cuts in other states,” Verstegen says.
In other areas, Verstegen says, the McGowan government has implemented some “very strong” environmental initiatives, many of which were opposed by the Liberal party. That’s the record McGowan wants voters to focus on.
“If there’s anything that that record will point out it is that you can be very progressive on environmental and social issues and achieve great things at the same time as having a very strong and productive economy,” McGowan says.