It was an extraordinary and highly risky admission by a party leader just two weeks out from a state election.
WA Liberal leader Zak Kirkup admitted what Liberals have been privately saying for months, that Labor is on track to win the election comfortably.
“That doesn’t mean we stop fighting, that doesn’t mean we stop working to get as many Liberals over the line as possible,” he said.
While it comes as no surprise that Labor is on track to win, it is an unprecedented move for a party leader to make the admission while campaigning is still underway.
A newspoll published in The Australian newspaper last weekend gave Labor a lead of 68 to 32 on a two-party preferred basis.
That would deliver Labor a 12.5 per cent swing which would leave the Liberals with just two seats in the Lower House if it was replicated across all electorates — with only Cottesloe MP David Honey and deputy leader Libby Mettam remaining in Parliament.
Campaigning heads into new territory
While Zak Kirkup and Premier Mark McGowan dismissed the polling, both were on the ground campaigning this week in the once-safe Liberal seat of Bateman, which is being vacated by the retiring Dean Nalder.
The presence of both leaders in what used to be comfortable blue territory spoke volumes about where the election was heading, and that no Liberal seat was considered safe.
Last week Zak Kirkup appeared to be edging closer to raising the white flag, shifting his campaign rhetoric to emphasise the need to avoid giving Labor “total control”.
“That’s dangerous for the future of our state,” the Opposition Leader warned last week, claiming Labor would prioritise “scary and fringe” policies if it secured the rare prize of a majority in both Houses of Parliament.
And Mr Kirkup’s latest comments appear to be doubling down on that.
For the Liberal party the election has now become a last-ditch effort to save the furniture and try to prevent the government getting a majority in the Upper House.
“A Liberal party reduced to single digits, that is a significant concern,” Mr Kirkup warned today.
“If there was no effective opposition in WA, how would we stop them when they go too far?”
Facing off against a hugely popular Premier
Since Zak Kirkup became Liberal leader in November last year he has faced the unenviable task of facing off against a Premier with unprecedented approval ratings.
While Mark McGowan’s border closures may have divided public opinion on the east coast of Australia, he has set records with his staggeringly-high approval ratings in the west over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and these did not appear to be damaged by WA’s recent five-day lockdown.
Social media has been full of strange professions of love for the incumbent Premier, including photoshops referencing his dance moves.
He’s also been lauded for his reaction last year to questions around COVID-restriction rules, that sought to paint the state’s actions as “common sense”, in contrast to an interstate case where a man was arrested forgoing for a run, then ordering a kebab, during a lockdown.
Labor has taken advantage of this popularity, running a presidential-style campaign with Mark McGowan front and centre.
For his part, Mr McGowan said the West Australian way was to “never give up”, and it was not something he ever considered when he appeared to be heading for a landslide defeat as Opposition leader at the 2013 election.
“It was a very difficult period but you always keep fighting and you don’t give in,” he said.
“The election hasn’t been held yet and we have to respect the people of Western Australia and let them vote.”
Kirkup ‘might get marks for honesty’: Analyst
Political commentator Peter Kennedy said the Liberals’ strategy seemed to be aimed at convincing traditional voters not to stray.
“Mr Kirkup is really stating the bleeding obvious,” Mr Kennedy said.
“Everybody knows what the result of the election is going to be. Mr Kirkup might get some marks for honesty.
“I think it is aimed at wavering Liberal voters that are thinking about moving across to Labor. It is a plea by Mr Kirkup for them to stay in the fold and keep the Liberal ranks reasonably strong.”
The risk for the party is whether it could backfire and damage morale among Liberal candidates in marginal seats.
But some argue the Liberals have nothing to lose so it just might be a risk worth taking.