The Politics    Friday, January 21, 2022

The gospel according to Mark

By Rachel Withers

Image of WA Premier Mark McGowan. Image © Richard Wainwright / AAP Images

WA Premier Mark McGowan. Image © Richard Wainwright / AAP Images

Is this the moment WA Premier Mark McGowan goes too far?

The nation remains divided, both figuratively and literally, following WA Premier Mark McGowan’s decision to delay the state’s planned reopening until “at least” 80 per cent of the population is triple-dose vaccinated – an occurrence not expected until at least May. Many are understandably devastated, especially those who remain separated from loved ones, while business groups and News Corp columnists are furious, slamming the state for hurting the economy (and conveniently ignoring the very real examples of the far larger damage done to the economy when an outbreak overwhelms a state’s health system). The president of the WA branch of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Mark Duncan-Smith, who wanted the reopening pushed back, is relieved, while AMA national president Dr Omar Khorshid is both “gutted” and relieved. But how will the politics play out? And what will it mean for the federal election? Federal leaders on both sides of the aisle are treading carefully here, eager not to alienate the large number of constituents they likely won’t be able to visit before the poll. NSW government leaders, however, feel no such qualms about slamming WA – despite the fact that NSW has today recorded its deadliest day of the pandemic thus far.

McGowan’s border decisions throughout the pandemic have tended to be extremely popular within his state, and many are praising him once more, arguing that the decision is rational considering what is occurring across the eastern states. But is this the moment in which McGowan goes too far, bunkering down in an attempt to avoid the unavoidable? McGowan has reneged on his original reopening target – a 90 per cent vaccination rate for those aged 12 and over – just as the state is on the verge of reaching it, in what some may see as a “betrayal”. As McGowan has stated, Omicron has clearly changed things, and he’s not alone in labelling the variant “a whole new ball game”, with federal government leaders blaming it for their own lack of preparation. But, as a new crop of heartbreaking personal stories of separation pop up in the media, could this be the moment Morrison’s earlier rhetoric around premiers needing to “uphold their end of the deal” finally takes hold?

It’s not yet clear whether it will, and the Coalition is treading lightly. Scott “we can’t stay in the cave” Morrison has so far refrained from criticising McGowan, and federal ministers who have commented on the delay, including Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Energy Minister Angus Taylor, have been careful to heap praise on Western Australians for the “fantastic” job they have done in keeping the virus out so far. But the cautious question, “if not now, when?” clearly formed part of the morning’s talking points, with both Frydenberg and Taylor using it. It’s one that many frustrated Western Australians are seemingly now asking themselves.

Federal Labor leaders have gently backed their WA counterparts, as they attempt to turn the issue back on the Coalition. Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, who has revealed that McGowan contacted him ahead of the announcement, told reporters this morning that he supported the decision, calling it a direct response to a “failure of the federal government to secure … rapid antigen tests”. Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers suggested to ABC’s News Breakfast that McGowan had “looked east and seen what are the costs and consequences to the economy and to communities when the virus is running rampant, without the prime minister having done his job on rapid tests and boosters and all the rest of it”.

In fact, so far, the only political leaders (apart from the almost non-existent WA Opposition) willing to dig the boot in over the decision to keep borders closed appear to be those in the NSW Liberal Party, even as their own state experiences ever increasing death tolls. Deputy NSW Liberal leader Stuart Ayres used an interview on 2GB to speculate that McGowan had changed his mind because WA’s health system wasn’t ready, boasting about how NSW had spent the past two years preparing. Perhaps Ayres would like to tell that to the families of the 359 people who have died from COVID-19 in NSW in the first 20 days of the year.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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