Western Australia now has a new Premier and Deputy Premier, a new Cabinet Minister, reshuffled portfolios, and a different political landscape. These changes, whether minor or major, will have wider ramifications; both in the political outlook for Western Australia, but also how the new Cook Labor Government approaches major issues in the months and years ahead.
Last Monday’s surprise resignation of Mark McGowan sparked a flurry of action to determine his replacement as Premier. Contenders quickly emerged in Rita Saffioti, Amber-Jade Sanderson and Roger Cook, who each campaigned internally for the position.
Sanderson was in pole position on Tuesday morning, having secured the backing of the highly influential left faction union, the United Workers Union (of which her and Cook are members). By the afternoon the situation had changed with the left-aligned Australian Manufacturing Workers Union breaking with their UWU counterparts and announcing that they would be supporting Cook for Premier and would support Saffioti as his Deputy. This lead Sanderson to withdraw her interest in the leadership by Tuesday evening.
The move from the AMWU to break with their more powerful left faction counterparts UWU represents a potential shift to a more dynamic or fluid distribution of power inside the WA Labor Party, especially if the AMWU continues to exercise independence through upcoming party contests.
As anticipated, Balcatta MLA David Michael has been elevated to Cabinet. David Michael has been Cabinet Secretary to the McGowan Government since the 2021 State election. He was considered unlucky to have missed out on promotion at the recent December 2022 reshuffle. He has previously served as Deputy Mayor of the City of Stirling from 2011 to 2013, having been elected as their youngest ever counsellor in 2005 at the age of 25. With his elevation, Kingsley MLA Jessica Stojkovski will now become Cabinet Secretary.
Since the McGowan resignation last week, there had been speculation whether there would be more significant changes to Cabinet. Premier Cook has opted for a minimal reshuffle, which highlights the desire to maintain stability in the WA Government.
With regards to key staff, minimal changes are expected at this stage early stage, however Ministerial staffing changes may play out over coming months.
Portfolio changes have been kept to a minimum, dealing only with the consequences of the change of Premier, the elevation of David Michael and the need for fresh leadership in the Corrections portfolio.
Roger Cook will take on the traditional Premier’s portfolios of Public Sector Management, Federal-State relations, as well retaining his current portfolios of Jobs and Trade and the rebadged State and Industry Development.
The rebadging signals an additional focus on manufacturing and diversification, and with the AMWU-aligned Stephen Dawson appointed as the Minister assisting the Minister for State and Industry Development, it demonstrates the additional influence of the AMWU in achieving their industry policy outcomes following the leadership tussle.
Rita Saffioti as widely anticipated takes on Treasury, retains large parts of her beloved Transport portfolio and in a surprise move, takes on Tourism as well. Planning will go from Rita Saffioti to Lands and Housing Minister John Carey.
New Cabinet Minister David Michael has been issued the portfolios of Local Government, Ports, Road Safety, and Minister Assisting the Minister for Transport and will see him working closely with Deputy Premier Saffioti, managing large parts of her previous workload.
Bill Johnston will be relieved of the challenging Corrections portfolio, instead taking on Hydrogen Industry, to align with his existing Energy as well as Mines and Petroleum portfolios, with the new Premier stating that he wants the Minister to focus on the energy transformation that’s currently underway.
Corrections will move to Paul Papalia, who held the portfolio in Opposition and has long held a desire to return to it. Paul Papalia, who continues to hold the portfolio of Police, has both a ‘strong man’ public profile and a historical commitment to justice reinvestment, has the potential to walk the fine political line to find a solution acceptable to both advocates and the broader public.
Western Australians can expect the Cook Labor Government to continue to govern in a similar manner to the previous administration, with some slight shifts in priorities and approach, stemming from the new Premier himself.
The overall positioning of the WA Government in the centre-left will continue, as will a primary focus on economic issues, long-term diversification and protection of the GST deal. Observers can also expect a continued premium paid towards strong financial management, including forecast surpluses into the future, albeit with the potential for slightly loosened purse strings. However, the public can expect a greater focus on economic diversification, with likely greater investment in diversifying initiatives and industry attraction with especially with Cook retaining his portfolios and highlighting industry development.
Major social reforms currently in the pipeline such as gun control, anti-discrimination laws and abortion reform will continue, with the potential for further reform in the future as the Cook Labor Government eyes third term agenda. An amended approach to youth justice and corrections issues are also being flagged with the change in Minister and the new Premier’s own commentary.
In terms of style, expect a more conciliatory and consultative approach from the new Premier, who arrives in the role with a different personality and without the electoral authority of his predecessor. That style will be seen both internally within Government and externally with stakeholders.
The resignation of the former Premier potentially returns the political landscape to normal for the first time, post-pandemic. The Opposition has spoken publicly on how this improves their electoral chances in 2025 and sought to criticise Cook for his performance as Health Minister.
The road ahead for the Opposition remains very challenging. However, if the Liberal and National parties resolve long- standing issues (candidates, positioning, factional conflicts, regional contests and the imbalance of the National Party holding the Opposition leader’s role), expect the polling numbers to tighten as the next election approaches.