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Meet the new leader of the WA Opposition

Meet the new leader of the WA Opposition

By Amy Blom

Member for Dawesville Zak Kirkup will lead the WA Liberals to the next election in March 2021 after being elected party leader unopposed on Tuesday.

The 33-year-old is the youngest person to hold the position within the party, taking the title from Matt Birney, who was 35 when he became leader in 2001. He is the second-youngest Opposition leader in WA’s history, after Labor’s Thomas Bath, who took on the job in 1906 at the age of 31.

Mr Kirkup’s political aspirations have been clear since he was 17, when he handed then-prime minister John Howard a business card with the words ‘Zak R.F. Kirkup, Young Liberal, Future Prime Minister’ printed on it during a 2004 appearance at Midland Town Hall while Mr Kirkup was a student at Governor Stirling Senior High School.

During his maiden speech, Mr Kirkup said his interest in politics stemmed from early childhood when his mother, who was a member of Greenpeace, would sit at the kitchen table and talk about protesting nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, while his father would quiz him about prime ministers, premiers and treasurers.

Coming from a working-class background, Mr Kirkup became the first of his family to attend university. However, as he said in his maiden speech, it wasn’t for him, so he left to pursue a career in politics, volunteering in several positions before taking a position with the late senator Judith Adams.

He began working for the WA Liberal Party in 2006 and rose through the ranks to become the youngest ever Deputy State Director before serving as an advisor to Premier Colin Barnett.

Taking a break from politics in 2013 to work at BGC, Mr Kirkup was elected to the seat of Dawesville in the 2017 election, replacing retiring MP Kim Hames. Following his election, he used his maiden speech to highlight the need for Western Australia to diversify its economy beyond the agricultural and resources sectors, and for government to accommodate emerging industries.

Mr Kirkup used the same speech to reflect on the historical treatment of Indigenous West Australians, stating that it was “worth noting that we are standing in the very place that voted in favour of a series of oppressive and draconian pieces of legislation that sought to restrict and oppress the rights of all Aboriginal people” including members of his family. In 1904, his ancestor Thomas Kirkup was forbidden by the Geraldton magistrate to marry his fiancée because he did not have the consent of the Chief Protector of Aborigines. Mr Kirkup’s grandfather Brian, an Aboriginal man born in WA’s Midwest in 1941, was unable to own property or a business for much of his life. Mr Kirkup said the recognition of his family’s history would continue to remind him that the position of a Member of Parliament was to “forever to guard against the infringement of personal rights and freedoms”.

Within a year of being elected he had become the shadow minister for corrective services and in 2019 he was assigned shadow portfolios in health, mental health and Aboriginal affairs.

Upon Mr Kirkup’s first front bench appointment, then-opposition leader Mike Nahan described him as “energetic and hard-working”. Other colleagues have described Mr Kirkup’s time as an MP as “impressive” and talk about his future leadership potential began as early as last year when Mr Nahan announced his resignation as party leader.

In his first statements to reporters after being elected Opposition leader, Mr Kirkup said the WA Liberals would support the McGowan Government’s COVID-19 health measures and that the party would be guided by advice from the Chief Health Officer. Moving beyond the pandemic, Mr Kirkup said his other focuses would be keeping West Australians “safe in their jobs” as he promised a “smarter and safer today, and brighter and better tomorrow”.

Mr Kirkup’s election as Opposition leader came after Liza Harvey announced she would step down to give the party an opportunity to “reset” its election strategy.