In the book of Ecclesiastes, we are told “there is nothing new under the sun.”
It is true in most walks of life, and it is certainly true in politics. Thus, while specifics and details may change, there is no political situation that any leader faces that has not been faced before.
This includes the situation Western Australian Liberal leader Zak Kirkup finds himself in ahead of Saturday’s state poll. A recent ABC piece describes it this way:
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.
Kirkup’s response has been twofold.
He has attempted to outflank the ALP on the left, with an idiotic renewables policy that would make The Greens blush. The logic seems to be “if Premier Mark McGowan is popular, I need to adopt the same policies as him to get elected.” With this logic, of course, it raises the question of why he doesn’t just join the ALP.
Worse, he has capitulated and begged for mercy. Kirkup’s admission of defeat two weeks before the election falls outside the purview of “there is nothing new under the sun.” Australia has never seen anything like this before.
There is, however, a better way. He could do a lot worse than wind the clock back 38 years and learn from Nick Greiner.
When Greiner took over leadership of the New South Wales Liberals in 1983, at the age of 35, he faced the political colossus of Neville Wran. He had monstered one ineffective opposition leader after another, and had just achieved the greatest majority in the history of NSW in the 1981 “Wranslide.”
He was, like McGowan, seemingly unassailable.
But Nick Greiner knew something that Zak Kirkup didn’t – to be a person of character, and to stick to your principles is an attractive trait in anyone, whatever your political stripe.
And Greiner certainly did that. He went after the Wran government with a vengeance. Allegations of corruption were rife, and they were particularly ripe for the picking after a damaging 4 Corners episode that set new standards in investigative journalism.
My recollections of that time are that he was a breath of fresh air. He didn’t say what he was expected to say, he was utterly fearless in the face of the Wran colossus, and he came across as a man of principle.
He probably knew that he couldn’t win at the 1984 election, but he certainly didn’t say that. As it happened, he achieved a 7% swing in his favour, and this was a portent of the future. Wran, no doubt seeing the writing on the wall, resigned before the next election. The 1988 election was no contest, as Wran’s replacement was the cardigan-wearing, mumbling and bumbling Barrie Unsworth, and Greiner swept to power in a landslide. So comprehensive was the swing — 8.4% — that even Wran’s old seat was lost.
So Nick Greiner was able to engineer a 15% swing to the Liberals over two elections.
How did he do it, and what lessons can Zak Kirkup learn?
First, defeats – even inevitable ones – may be honourable or dishonourable. Greiner’s defeat in 1984 was honourable. He took a 7% slice out of the Labor vote and laid the groundwork for his 1988 win. A well-established principle of personal growth is that “failure is not the opposite of success – it is part of success.”
Secondly, someone that is unashamedly conservative is politically attractive. Greiner was absolutely unashamed about what he stood for and went on to develop a comprehensive platform for government in the lead up to 1988. There are many conservative voters that are looking for real conservatives as leaders. It is no accident that the most successful Conservative politician the UK ever saw – Margaret Thatcher – was also their most conservative, and utterly unashamed about it in the face of a hostile media.
By taking the approach that Zak Kirkup has taken above, he has pretty much alienated everyone. Those on the left will continue to vote Labor/Greens, and even conservatives will withhold their vote, as they don’t want to vote for someone that is afraid to be conservative.
Nick Greiner, at the 1984 election, went down with all guns blazing, and the result was some damage to the ALP brand that they couldn’t recover from.
Kirkup could do the same. He could have railed against the Premier for his idiotic attempts to eliminate a highly contagious but essentially non-lethal virus. More importantly, in recent weeks he could have crucified Mark McGowan for his panicked reaction to a single case of the virus. But what does he do? Tweets photos of himself wearing a mask and says the lockdown is “non-negotiable.” And that’s before we get to the questions surrounding the McGowan government and some of the West’s most powerful business people.
Kirkup has a choice – he can be a Greiner, and in years to come be an elder statesman of the party, or he can be the punchline in a question on trivia nights.
Dr Mark Imisides is a scientist and OH&S advisor. He Tweets at @DrMarkImisides.
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