After the Barnett government’s thumping election defeat in March, Mike Nahan was the only one to put up his hand to take over the unenviable job of Opposition Leader.
It is a task all the more difficult with just 13 Liberal MPs left in the Lower House — most of whom have little to no experience in Opposition.
While the Opposition has hardly managed to get a glove on the Government in the nine months since the election, Dr Nahan has defended his team’s performance, arguing it has been a time to rebuild and readjust.
Dr Nahan sat down with state political reporter Jessica Strutt to reflect on just how hard that adjustment to Opposition has been, and what 2018 will look like for his team.
Keeping up Liberal morale
Strutt: It’s been nine months since you took on the Liberal leadership and in that time you really have barely got a glove on the Government … is that a reflection on your leadership?
Nahan: No, we lost in a landslide, we lost a large part of our team, we are down to 13 people in the Legislative Assembly and when you do that the primary goals are this and that’s what we’ve focused on … motivating the team, getting to work as a team.
Also, focus internally on the party, on the parliamentary team, on our constituents who we lost touch with, small business and others, so it has been a period of introspection and internal focus.
Strutt: So would you acknowledge then that morale was pretty low in your team and continues to be low because of the nature of the massive landslide against you?
Nahan: Of course, we have 13 people in the Lower House, [Labor] has 41.
It was a demolition and it was also a very difficult year before that. There was a lot of tensions in the party. A large number of people went from being a minister to being a feather duster, being in government to being in opposition — and that’s a big transition.
And then the magnitude of the loss hit us, you’re knocked to the canvas, get back, focus on being part of a team, focus on being an opposition, know where you want to go and also commit, importantly, for us to winning in four years. That’s a big ask. I accept that.
Are you just killing time?
Strutt: A lot of your colleagues talk about you as an interim leader and someone who’s treading water, do you agree with that?
Nahan: No, I’m swimming quite well. Sometimes against the current, but yes, the biggest problem of [being in] opposition — particularly after you lose like that — is you focus on the crumbs not the big game. It’s natural.
So again, I focus on internal [issues], and next year we will get into policy development under my leadership because of my background, because I think that’s what people want. We are not going to sit back and hide behind the bushes and carp and moan. We will come up with policies that differentiate ourselves, that are important and that lead the Government rather than follow.
Strutt: Do you feel at the moment confident to say that you’ll still lead the Opposition all the way to the next election?
Nahan: Yeah. If I wasn’t committed to that, I wouldn’t be here.
Strutt: And you feel like your team is loyal to you?
Nahan: Yes. Do other people want to be leaders? Yes, do I mind that? No. My task is to make sure their leadership ambition is focused on policy and the Government, not internally.
Rebuilding — and being Ned Flanders
Strutt: How do you bring in diversity and more female representation and high-quality candidates when effectively the party’s being run by three powerbrokers, and we all know who they are?
Nahan: Watch. Watch. One of my major tasks is to rebuild the Liberal Party [and] particularly at the next election to have a bevvy of really good candidates. It can be done, it needs to be done and when I talk to the powerbrokers they recognise this.
Strutt: So Colin Barnett’s nickname is “The Emperor”, Mark McGowan is “Sneakers” and you’re “Ned Flanders”. How do you feel about that?
Nahan: You have to take what Dean [Alston, The West Australian’s cartoonist] gives you, and it’s quite funny. At least Ned Flanders has good values and I have a perennial tan. You get what Dean gives you.
Strutt: In that regard, do you think it might be something that helps you politically? It makes you stand out … Ned Flanders is a character from The Simpsons that everyone can identify with, so do you think it might make you more loveable with the public?
Nahan: It identifies you. It’s memorable and it’s not negative. He’s kind of the nerd next door and a religious guy, “okily dokily” and other issues. Is that a negative? Nah, I don’t think so. It could be worse, it could be worse with Dean Alston — so Dean, I’m not complaining.
Making changes and setting goals
Strutt: You said the other day the moustache has gone for good. That’s the number one question I get asked on Twitter … is it 100 per cent gone?
Nahan: Well, yeah, I went home [and] my wife had seen me twice without a mo in 35 years and she didn’t notice it. But there’s an added advantage, I swim a lot and I have a mask and I’m getting ready for the summer and it was leaking. Now it doesn’t leak, so the mo’s gone.
Strutt: So you’ve stabilised the team, you’ve got them focused, as you say, what’s the priority for 2018?
Nahan: Continue to hold [the Government] to account and, as I said, I think they are going to be exposed on the fiscal position. Second, start developing policies that not only contrast with Labor but do things that Labor can’t and won’t do. And three, work with our constituencies and the lay party not only to bring them back into the party, but also to diligently look for new candidates to sit in the various between five to eight seats that we can legitimately consider winning at the next election.
And of course, working with our federal colleagues to win Government in Canberra.