Mike Nahan, 64, has come a long way since his early days as one of 13 children growing up on a dysfunctional hobby farm in Michigan, United States of America. From seeing his trucking company in the US go bankrupt when he was just 21, to working for the World Bank across Asia, Mr Nahan made the decision to give his professional career a fair go. He is now the Treasurer of Western Australia as well as the state’s Minister for Energy, and for Citizenship and Multicultural Interests.
“It was an exercising chaos, and if we would have had to live off the proceedings of the farm we would have all starved,” he says, recollecting memories from his childhood.
Mr Nahan’s father had left the farming up to his eight young sons, who were unenthusiastic about the industry. The result was delayed harvesting, over due ploughing, loose horses, and fights for the food at dinnertime.
The latter taught Mr Nahan a lesson he has kept for life.
“You do not own anything until you possess it,” he says. He then ventured off to study economics.
Two degrees later, a bachelor from Michigan and a master’s from Hawaii, Mr Nahan arrived in Canberra in 1978 with a scholarship to the Australia National University. There he completed a PhD in economics before letting love bring him to Perth in 1982.
When his wife Nyuk Nahan, also holding a PhD from ANU, received a job offer at the University of Western Australia the duo decided to see what life in Western Australia was like. Mr Nahan’s uncertainty about his length of time in WA, however, soon dissipated with the realisation of Perth’s sunshine.
“Remember, I grew up in Michigan,” he says, sounding not much different to any other unexpectedly long-term visitor who grew up in the cold. With a climate accommodating his liking for the outdoor lifestyle, Mr Nahan did not find many difficulties integrating into the then big country town. “I am the same ethnic base as the dominant migrant,” he says, pointing out that, in Perth, everyone is a migrant. “Some are just longer standing migrants,” he adds. “And so if they look at me, they can not tell that I am not from here.”
The scene has since changed with multiculturalism blossoming across WA. Mr Nahan says a radical diversification of the state’s ethnic base has diminished much of the tension held by older generations.
“We are actually becoming part of Asia now, with our own culture, mixture and approach,” he says. “Which is, given the economic powerhouse of Asia, whether it is India or China, the place to be.” . The heavy influx of skilled migrants to WA has been highly productive. According to Mr Nahan, about 93 per cent of migrants are skilled.
“We could not have done the growth of the mining sector without that,” he says. “We would have, economically, run into a brick wall without the migrants coming in and providing the skilled labour necessary.”
For those wishing to pursue a political career, Mr Nahan singles out the significance of local engagement. He says it is important to adopt Australia as one’s own country and to participate in the political system. “If you want to make a contribution to your new country, then participate,” he says. “Do not rely on other people.”
Mr Nahan is not one to encourage people into ethnic enclaves.
“I readily recognise it is important for new migrants to stick together and join associations, for language, culture, advice and whatnot, but become Australian. “Australia is a culture that absorbs people, sometimes reluctantly, but it absorbs people, it adopts people, and it is changing. So participate,” he says.
And Mr Nahan himself certainly has walked his talk of participation. Besides his engagement with the WA Government, Mr Nahan has a 15-year history working for the independent, non-profit public policy think tank the Institute of Public Affairs. Having first run its Perth office from 1990, he then moved to Melbourne in 1995 to become the Institute’s Executive Director.
During this time he was also a columnist for the Herald Sun and held a regular spot at a Melbourne radio station.
“I went out and covered everything under the sun,” he says.
With a fearless approach to heated discussion, Mr Nahan left his mark and was in 2001 awarded a Centenary Medal by the Australian Government for his contribution to public policy.
“I was a commentator on public policies on wide-ranging issues and ran the IPA, which then made a big difference to the debate,” he says.
In 2005, however, the Nahan’s decided to leave Melbourne and the IPA and head to sunny Perth. Back in WA, Mr Nahan was asked by the Liberal Party to stand for the upper house, but instead decided to stand for the then Labor-held seat of Riverton. This he won by 64 votes in 2008 and still holds. Mr Nahan’s pathway to success in the WA Government, however, was carved from his technocratic background rather than from strategic pursuit.
“I’m not a typical politician,” he says. Rather than accessing the world of politics through party activism, advisory roles, or entering from a safe seat, he came in at a mature age with a broad spectrum of knowledge and experience.
“And indeed, one of the nice things people say about me is ‘you do not sound like a politician’,” he says.
Mr Nahan does not beat around the bush.
“I say it like it is, and that can get me in trouble,” he says, hinting at the valued presence of his media advisor.
Mr Nahan draws inspiration from political leaders of no timid nature. His favourite politician was former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher. Locally, he admires the leadership style of former Australian senator Peter Walsh and values the close friendship of his own predecessor at the IPA and former Australian politician John Hyde.
“Principle, straight forward, change-oriented,” he says, listing his points of admiration.