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The McGowan metamorphosis: from softly spoken opposition MP to WA’s fighting premier

Last year a video resurfaced on YouTube of a fresh-faced Mark McGowan at the turn of the millennium.

The documentary, uploaded by filmmaker Mark Regan, shows a nerdy, bespectacled Member for Rockingham doused in hair product, lamenting the money spent to build the controversial Perth Bell Tower.

He seems awkward as he softly answers questions, sitting forward in a chair inside a cream-painted cinder block office; the backdrop a messy desk covered in piles of papers.

It would not be the last time McGowan criticised Liberal government spending, but that mild-mannered, timid MP is a world apart from the fiery retail politician leading Western Australia today.

He still wears glasses occasionally but now the WA premier approaches press conferences with a hip-cocked air of haughtiness and loves nothing more than wading into verbal sparring matches with anyone who dares disparage Western Australia.

So, when did this metamorphosis occur, why do West Australians lap it up, and is it a style of leadership that can last?

McGowan’s brand of political theatre was developed over five years as opposition leader, but it was honed during the pandemic.

Public spats with billionaire Clive Palmer over the hard border led to an extraordinary defamation trial between the pair. Then the former Morrison government copped McGowan’s relentless criticism for supporting Palmer’s High Court challenge to the state’s hard border.

These public clashes catapulted McGowan’s popularity into the stratosphere, evidenced by his party’s demolition of the Liberal Party at the 2021 election, leaving them with just two lower house seats.

Buoyed by yet another state budget surplus above $5 billion and Labor’s strong showing in last month’s federal election – a result party insiders admit was at least partly to do with the premier’s popularity – McGowan’s boldness has reached new heights.

In the space of a week, he labelled Peter Dutton an “extremist” and insulted his intelligence; accused the Canberra press gallery of being rude bullies; and lashed poor management of the NSW, Victorian and South Australian state budgets as the GST distribution debate fired up again.

Perhaps most extraordinary was his criticism of fellow Labor premier Daniel Andrews for bidding for the Commonwealth Games when state debt is heading towards $100 billion.

“I mean, if they want to spend that amount of money on the Commonwealth Games in Bendigo, and then complain about not having enough money, well, maybe they should make different decisions,” McGowan said on May 25.

Andrews’ response was that he was not going to engage in “childish games” with other premiers but said he understood that McGowan was just looking after the interests of his own state.

But what it said to the nation was that even high-profile members of McGowan’s own party were not immune from attacks.

Australian National University professor and former long-time political correspondent Mark Kenny says McGowan’s persona is partly a result of circumstance, but also of a deep understanding of West Australians and the ability to communicate that clearly.

“I think plain speaking is one of McGowan’s great strengths … he speaks very clearly and persuasively and in normal language, there’s a lot of purpose behind his communications,” he said.

“What makes him successful is that he understands very clearly that it is West Australians that he answers to and no one else … there is a different political culture, a different sense of self that exists in WA from the other states.”

Kenny said McGowan understood this superbly like Jo Bjelke-Petersen understood Queensland.

“It’s a package that works; West Australian voters are left in no doubt as to whose side Mark McGowan is on,” he said.

When asked last week why he chose to voice his discontent so publicly on issues such as GST, McGowan, who appointed himself WA’s treasurer in 2021 to fight efforts from other states to remove the 70 cents in the dollar floor, said he was simply responding to questions asked of him.

“I’ve responded to what they had to say so when I respond to what they have to say, I will defend the state’s position,” he said.

“Now, my job as premier is to defend the state’s position and the state’s position is entirely reasonable.”

West Australian political commentator Peter Kennedy has been watching McGowan’s ascension since his election in 1996. He said a key moment in his political career was when he chose “fight over flight” and defeated a 2016 leadership challenge from former Rudd-Gillard foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith.

McGowan accused Smith of bringing the “Canberra disease” to WA before rallying the then shadow cabinet behind him.

McGowan had always been determined and single-minded but the Smith challenge was the biggest test of his career, Kennedy said.

“He indicated quite clearly that he was going to fight and Stephen Smith was a very senior Labor Party figure,” he said.

“That was sort of, in one sense the making of him, certainly the making of him publicly.”

Kennedy said McGowan’s recent confidence has ballooned because of the billions in royalties pumping into the budget bottom line, which allows him to crow about budget management and stir up more parochialism.

“Mark is showing that he’s prepared to be a commentator and that can be tricky territory,” he said.

“It’s within the scope of the premier to defend the state on GST vigorously, but he’s sort of going beyond his normal brief in commenting on Liberal Party matters.”

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