IN an election that was dominated by news of the thudding dominance of the WA Labor Party, there was scant attention paid to the new member for Dawesville.
The Liberal Party’s Zak Kirkup quietly won the safe Liberal seat from retiring former deputy premier Kim Hames, despite a 4.5 per cent swing to Labor.
In the wider story of the 2017 election it was not a remarkable victory, but if Kirkup’s plans go accordingly, it will mark the start of a long career in public life.
At just 30, Kirkup is a new public face on the political scene, but he is already something of a veteran of the Liberal Party. He signed up at 17 and aside from a brief two-year stint in the private sector, has enmeshed himself in it.
He is young, smart and has a steely-eyed ambition. He’s going to be premier one day — just ask him.
Two-and-a-half months into his term he describes life in the hot seat as “really challenging”, and says the Liberal party’s defeat is “a good indication that we stopped listening to people”. But he has a politician’s punchiness in describing the upside of a devastating defeat.
“I hope to have 20 years in this job serving in the parliament, and there is no better way to come in as in Opposition in a small party room,” he says.
Kirkup is an only child from a “struggling’ (his words) background. His mother, Penni Hulston, emigrated to Australia from her native New Zealand at 19. Just two years earlier she had given birth to a child. She was 17 and unmarried. She gave her daughter up for adoption.
His father, Rob Kirkup, was born to an Aboriginal father and a white mother in 1962, making him, as Kirkup points out, a non-person in the eyes of the Australian government.
“Dad was born in 62 so in the 64 census he wasn’t recognised, he wasn’t counted! That’s insane,” he says.
Kirkup’s grandfather, who was a member of the Yamaji people from WA’s Mid West, passed away in 1988 when Kirkup was just one year old. He describes his father as Aboriginal and says “by extension” he is too, but hesitates when asked how strongly he identifies with his indigenous background.
“Dad always said to me that he considers himself Australian first, and recognises his heritage and history,” Kirkup says, before offering up a family anecdote.
“My parents were around in the Keating era when interest rates went really high they struggled to pay their mortgage in Bayswater,” he says.
“I remember having a conversation with dad where he could’ve easily, because of his heritage … easily gotten an Aboriginal loan, but for him, that wasn’t something he identified with. (He didn’t want to) pull that individual element out.”
Ostensibly an only child — he met his half-sister when he was 10 — Kirkup says his parents have been a massive influence on him, shaping his political mindset and his drive to succeed.
His mother, a retail assistant in a pharmacy, was involved in Greenpeace and his father, a plumber, took a keen interest in politics. They lived in the Midland area after an early, unpleasant run in with militant unionists.
“When (my dad) was young he was an apprentice,” Kirkup explains.
“He went on to a building site as part of his apprenticeship and there was a union guy who said, ‘You have to buy a ticket’ and Dad said, ‘I don’t really have the money … I got the job, I’m not going to buy a ticket’, and they said, ‘No, no, you have to buy a ticket or we’re going to come back tomorrow’, and they came back the next day. ‘Are you going to buy a ticket?’ ‘No’. OK, same rigmarole, ‘We’re going to come back tomorrow and if you don’t buy a ticket we’re going to beat the s— out of you’, and when they came back the third day Dad refused and they beat the s— out of him.
“I understand the role of unions absolutely, because they’ve done a lot of great things. But militant unionism is something that really got me. I never wanted to be associated with something or someone like that.”
He was 17 when he met the then-prime minister John Howard at the Midland Town Hall, and handed Howard a business card reading, “Zak R.F Kirkup, Future PM.”
He was recruited to join the Liberal Party not long after, and with an eye to make that business card a reality, started a degree in economics and finance at Curtin University.
Academia, however, was not for him. Before too long he had dropped out of university to volunteer as a junior research officer in then-State Opposition leader Matt Birney’s office.
Still living at home, he was reluctant to tell his parents he was no longer studying, and would leave the house in the morning dressed in casual gear fit for a uni campus, changing into a suit on his way into the city.
He later took a job in Senator Judith Adams office before joining the WA Liberal Party head office as a campaign officer under Mark Neeham for the 2007 Federal election and become deputy State director under Ben Morton. In 2010, at age 22, he was recruited to work for Colin Barnett in the premier’s office.
After the 2013 State election, wanting to experience life on the other side of politics for a while, he took a job with construction group BGC as a consultant. As part of his professional development, he also spent four months working as a concrete labourer on a construction site.
It was an eye-opening experience.
“I probably didn’t anticipate just how hard people worked and just how little government they want in their life,” he says.
“These guys wanted to get on site every day, do their job and then go home and be with their mates or missus or whatever it might be. They wanted as little to do with government as possible. I thought, there is an opportunity here to remember that. Government don’t have the solutions a lot of the time.”
But politics soon beckoned him back. He was nominated by the Liberal Party to replace Dr Hames in Dawesville, and he now lives in the electorate with his fiancee, Michelle Gadellaa.
So does he still want to be Prime Minister? “I used to but A, the travel and B, I find Canberra itself is so disconnected from WA,” he says.
So does he want to be Premier one day? There is no hesitation this time.
“Yes,” he says. And the look in his eye suggests he might just make it happen.