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‘I’m tired’: Rock star premier Mark McGowan bows out, leaving national politics changed

The Premier of Western Australia Mark McGowan resigned on Monday, unexpectedly ending the career of the frontman of the rock star premiers to emerge during COVID-19 and the one who did the most to tilt the tables of the federation in his state’s favour.

“The truth is, I’m tired – extremely tired,” he said. “In fact, I’m exhausted.”

The 55-year-old was elected to the state’s Parliament more than 25 years ago and assumed the top job in 2017.

Mr McGowan was a leading example of the “rock star” premiers of the COVID era, when state leaders took on unprecedented national status after decades of political power and public attention had shifted to Canberra.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the outgoing premier had always aimed to succeed by “delivering for people, improving lives and creating progress that endures”.

“He has done all this in spades,” he said.

Deputy Premier Roger Cook and Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson, aligned to the left’s United Workers Union, are the lead candidates in the race to succeed Mr McGowan, but only the latter has declared.

Transport Minister Rita Saffioti, who is not aligned, said she was “considering” a run at the top job.

Mark McGowan took a tough stance when it came to dealing with COVID-19. Photo: AAP

Mr McGowan leaves as one of his generation’s most consequential state leaders and one who strongly shaped national politics.

He also expertly played those two arenas against the other to change the political climate in Western Australia.

Mr McGowan took on the federal government as he declared a hard border, shutting off WA to the eastern states and infuriating the federal government.

Extraordinary popularity

He fought a 2021 state election that was a referendum on his tough stance on pandemic public health restrictions.

“I can’t win,” said the WA Liberal leader Zac Kirkup weeks from polling day.

He was not wrong about that.

WA Labor won nearly 70 per cent of the vote on a two-party preferred basis, and the combined WA Opposition can now travel to Parliament in a single Toyota Tarago.

A critical moment came in May the year before the election when Queensland mining magnate Clive Palmer announced he would initiate a High Court challenge to WA’s hard border policy.

The Morrison government was due to intervene in the case, and former attorney-general Christian Porter spoke out against hard borders.

Mr McGowan’s personal approval ratings shot to levels usually enjoyed by Middle Eastern autocrats.

And the episode roiled a deep well of ressentiment in the West, a state where feelings of having been shortchanged or condescended to by Canberra have long been politically potent.

“It’s a tale of two countries,” he recently told the Financial Review.

The effects of this change of mood extended far beyond WA politics.

‘What went wrong?’ an ABC presenter famously asked the now Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek not long after the polls closed at last May’s federal election.

Then the WA returns showed Labor had picked up four seats in what the Liberal Party had until recently seen as a foundation in its national electoral base.

Outspoken on many issues

Mr McGowan was outspoken on many issues and made plain his disdain for the Canberra press corps during the federal election campaign when reporters often clashed with the federal Labor leader, Mr Albanese.

“Screaming and interrupting, and rude, and insulting, intimidating and bullying,” he said.

McGowan on the hustings with Bill Shorten for the WA state election in 2017. Photo: AAP

He also took on two of the Coalition’s most strident voices against China: Peter Dutton (“not that smart”) and Andrew Hastie (swallowed “Cold War pills”).

The former Navy lawyer said that Mr Dutton was endangering Australia’s national security when the former defence minister sounded a pre-election alarm about a Chinese “spy ship” off the coast.

It won him no shortage of critics on the right of politics, who accused Mr McGowan of pursuing his state’s interests in China and not the national interest.

It also won Labor votes even in wealthy federal seats such as Tangney, where executives in businesses that had been reaping the rewards of trade were part of a move against the Coalition driven by its hot rhetoric towards Beijing.

In 2018, Mr McGowan secured a guaranteed minimum deal of 70 cents in a dollar share of the GST when projections suggested it would have fallen below 20 cents by now, an agreement that infuriated other state treasurers.

In 2021, his government oversaw another major change when they redrew the state’s upper house voting system which had, for many years, been weighted towards regional areas.

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