His words were well chosen, but his eyes could not hide the strain. The stare and long pause before he answered captured the obvious burden he is carrying.
“You’re the 35th Leader of the Opposition in the history of the state, from a background where people like us don’t get ahead, with a Premier who is very popular, in a state that’s gone through a global pandemic and has a very uncertain future,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility.”
Even before replacing Liza Harvey as Liberal leader, Kirkup’s political ambition was well documented.
As a schoolboy in 2004, Kirkup handed prime minister John Howard a business card during a visit to the Midland Town Hall, on the edge of Perth’s Swan Valley wine belt.
“Zak R.F.Kirkup – Young Liberal, Future Prime Minister,” the card read.
That precocious moment 16 years ago has served as a marker for Kirkup’s political verve ever since. And here he is now – Leader of the Opposition.
“The business card was a bit of a piss-take from my parents because they couldn’t believe they had a son who was interested in politics,” he explained.
“From what I recall I think he (Howard) said something like ‘When do you think that’s going to happen?’ I said, brazenly, very soon. He said I should at least give him one more term.”
Politics only became Kirkup’s calling after his first career dream was shattered.
“When I was young, I wanted to be a marine biologist,” he said. “I was pretty chubby as a kid and my grandmother told me I was too fat and would be eaten by sharks, and from that point on I had to change career.”
He was a primary school prefect in Forrestfield and believes that sparked “a sense of service”.
By the time he reached Governor Stirling Senior High School, in the historic eastern Perth suburb of Woodbridge, Kirkup was getting comfortable in the language of political discourse.
His father Robert – a tradie and small business operator – had strong opinions about militant unions. From working class roots, Kirkup developed a view that governments should do more to help the individual make their way in the world.
A bond was forged with the Liberal Party, which paved his career path from staffer in the office of former premier Colin Barnett, to his winning preselection for the seat of Dawesville at the 2017 state election.
Almost a year later, he married his girlfriend of seven years – public servant Michelle Gadellaa. It was the picture-perfect wedding in St George’s Cathedral. Abruptly, in late October, 2019, the marriage was over.
“I’m going through the process of separation and that’s difficult,” he said.
“It’s not something I think anyone would expect to see gone through forensically, or anything like that. It’s been tough and it’s not just me. I understand people will say those things. I don’t really want to address the individual things people may or may not say. I think people understand we have a private life.”
Kirkup is happy to address other aspects of his personal back story. He is part indigenous on his father’s side and admits to wanting to know more about his family’s heritage.
“All of us want to know where we come from,” he said. “It’s not something that’s spoken about when I was younger with my family, and I think that’s to do with my grandfather and what he was like, and it wasn’t well spoken about.”
During the interview for WAtoday and Nine News, Kirkup referred to his start in life on several occasions. There was pride in how far he had come.
“As a kid from the eastern suburbs it’s not something that’s an aspiration for us,” he said. “When you come from those sorts of working suburbs it’s not something that’s usually a goal for people.”
When asked about the considerable challenge of defending his party’s 13 seats in Parliament’s Legislative Assembly, Kirkup’s raw emotion was again on show.
Mr McGowan has successfully steered WA through the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the only state to emerge with an operating surplus.
Even before the election campaign begins in earnest, Labor has announced a new $2 billion fully-funded maternity hospital.
“It’s David versus Goliath,” Kirkup suggested. “We have to provide the plan for the future.
“The sense of responsibility absolutely sits with you. The sense of making sure that you are doing the best you can, with the circumstances that we have. Because it is tough. It’s really hard. It’s a difficult job at the best of times.”
Kirkup was asked if reaching the top office in his party was already enough of an achievement for one so young.
“I was speaking to mum about that,” he recalled. “You say it’s an achievement, right, and it’s a very big honour. But it’s only worth it if we help bring change. I don’t want to let the people of WA down.”
He has 93 days to win them over.
Watch the interview with Gary Adshead on Nine News Perth Thursday night at 6pm.
Gary Adshead is the state political editor at Nine News Perth.