WA Premier Mark McGowan. (Image: AAP/Richard Wainwright)

In 12 days Western Australia’s hard border, which has been in place since early April, will transition to a “controlled border”: people can come and go from low-risk states — Tasmania, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory — without having to quarantine.

This is a welcome reprieve for West Australians who have found ourselves more isolated than ever for the past six months. The hard border, for all its hurt and heartbreak, worked, and we’re almost free of it.

The policy’s success has been somewhat of an embarrassment for the prime minister and a strange intersection of pride and contention for West Australians who are in large part defined by our isolation.

The ever-present sense of disconnect between WA and the rest of Australia was heightened to a state of uncanny dissonance by its approach to COVID-19, and the federal government and national media’s interpretation of it.

As life settled into the new normal in June, West Australians found themselves living within a very different Australia from the one choking our newsfeeds.

The east coast press worked itself into a state of hysteria these past months, reaching new peaks of insularity. This, as in the past, has precluded WA (among others) from being interwoven with the dominant media’s narrative thread around COVID.

The detached gaze of the Murdoch empire saw little to no coverage of the efficacy of Premier Mark McGowan’s hard border lockdown. The barbs and momentum of the culture warrior columnists were undone by the tyranny of distance and their weak presence in WA.

Their attempt to treat McGowan with the same spin they applied to “Dictator Dan” fell flat as West Australian parochialism flipped the narrative on its head. Instead they turned McGowan into a small-town folk hero of sorts, a bespectacled Gary Cooper sheriff, a hard image to unstick in a state with a cowboy complex.

Of course, Kerry Stokes holds more sway than Murdoch in WA, but WA’s sole statewide paper, The West Australian, has bent its politics to match McGowan’s growing popularity.

It dodged the stickiness of deifying McGowan by magnifying the state’s “enemies” to the level of cartoon villainy. Clive Palmer became a grotesque caricature of a Captain Planet baddie, and Scott Morrison and his cohort became the high-handed suits, condescending to the punter, and indifferent to their opinion.

But the story of WA’s COVID response is not one of health but rather of the economy.

Retail, entertainment, tourism, sport and indoor dining have been back here for months. Mine workers never stopped flying in and flying out. Driven by resurgent iron ore prices, WA was the only state to record positive economic growth this year, posting a $1.2 billion surplus in the state budget.

“A tale of two budgets: Frydenberg’s debt monster vs WA’s surplus siren” read a headline on WAtoday.

That schism between WA and the rest of the nation — which existed before the boom, exploded during it, and now expands during the pandemic — is the main force behind the West Australian tendency to see the eastern states as a great other.

Critics of McGowan argue that he is using the threat of the hard border like a large-scale protection racket, cordoning off WA’s wealth until his terms are met. Others maintain it’s a matter of ego.

In mid-October former finance minister Mathias Cormann said he “never believed [the hard border] was because of health advice” — 2021 is an election year in WA and McGowan is playing politics. 

Speaking at the recent Diggers and Dealers Mining Forum in Kalgoorlie, McGowan told the crowd that he would resist any attempt at a GST purse snatch: “While I expect some of them are unhappy about it, obviously trying to unwind that now would invoke a pretty serious fracture between the states and the Commonwealth, particularly Western Australia.”

McGowan maintains the line that if the federal government had had its way, WA would be much worse off. And for the most part, West Australians agree. The frustration of the hard border is nothing compared with the frustrations they feel towards a prime minister they perceive as being apathetic towards their better interests.

It will be interesting to see how, or if, WA and Canberra reconcile as the border is eased. One can hope for a Christmas miracle — but don’t be surprised if McGowan slips a lump of ore into ScoMo’s stocking.

Until then, there’s a sense of greater distance, and lines that can’t go uncrossed.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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