WESTERN AUSTRALIA: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
WA's Liberal Opposition shoots itself in the foot
, July 8, 2006
WA's Liberal Party is bereft of ideas, losing members and heavily in debt, writes Joseph Poprzeczny. But, worst of all, its leadership lacks even the most elementary tactical skills in opposing the governing Labor Party.Growing numbers of long-term Western Australian Liberal Party benefactors are wondering if the party has entered a protracted doldrum period and should be radically overhauled - or perhaps even wound-up and replaced by a new non-Labor entity.
Although WA Liberalism has had its fair share of parliamentary non-performers since the 1940s, it also boasts several outstanding figures, such as Sirs Paul Hasluck, David Brand and Charles Court.
Sir Paul, a published historian, played a determining ministerial role in the governance of Australia's territories, was foreign affairs minister, and Governor-General; while Sir David and Sir Charles laid the legislative basis for development of the mineral-rich Pilbara region and its offshore natural gas sector.Architect
It also provided Senator Reg "The Toecutter" Withers, one of the architects of the 1975 toppling of the Whitlam Government, and who subsequently became Perth Lord Mayor.
No one in the party's ranks today comes, or is likely to come, anywhere near any of these.
In addition, party membership has severely slumped to around 2,300, which those with even average memories know is less than a 10th of where it peaked in the early 1980s, when it stood at 28,000.
Although factionalism has always been an integral feature of the party, its characteristic today is that it is completely dominated by a highly-disciplined group headed by Howard Government ministers, Senators Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison.
This partly explains the continued membership slump since the Campbell-Ellison faction's special brand of Canberra orthodoxy involves unquestioning adherence to Howard-style centralism, the very opposite of what most WA Liberals have in the past consistently promoted.
WA Liberalism has traditionally had more in common with Queensland's Nationals than the centralist thinking that now so dominates the party's New South Wales, Victorian and even South Australian divisions.
What makes the 2,300 membership figure even less sanguine is that a substantial slice are family members, or close and loyal friends, of state and federal MPs.
In other words, in most cases, such people join solely to help ensure challengers do not emerge within the declining number of branches to possibly displace their father, mother, brother, sister or cousin who is the local MP.
Another identifiable, though far smaller, membership strata is MPs' staffers who, as well as safeguarding their jobs by joining branches, are used by those MPs to look out for likely factional challengers, particularly as preselections loom.
All in all, the WA party no longer reflects what its founder Robert Menzies sought and created in the mid-1940s: a broadly-based, diverse, mass organisation that appealed primarily to those who aspired to become self-employed - the so-called Forgotten People - who valued limited government and a federated Australia.
As well as being increasingly bereft of such people and ideas that do not align with centralising Howardism, it's difficult to recall the last time an original public policy proposal emanated from the WA party's ranks or, for that matter, its parliamentary ranks.
All this has inevitably meant that the party's finances - revenue and donations - have been feeling the pinch.
A little-highlighted response came late last year when the party's executive unilaterally imposed a $3,000 levy on all its state and federal MPs.
Interestingly, there were two reasons for that move. First, to soften the impact of the party's more than $1.5 million debt. And, second, to act as an incentive or catalyst for state MPs to look favourably upon the Labor Government's long-known plan to institute taxpayer-funding of parties on the basis of the number of votes cast for each at elections.
The decision to go cap-in-hand to taxpayers, to help keep WA's Liberal Party alive, is thus the final outcome of its more than 20 years' membership slide that's been accompanied by growing resistance from wealthy Western Australians to generously donate.
The reason for the second motive was the fact that state MPs baulked at backing Labor's 2004 taxpayer-funding bill that would have helped defray the cost of the February 2005 election.
Several of those MPs objected on grounds of principle. Others felt it would favour the Labor Government, since unions would continue bankrolling Labor while increasingly sceptical Liberal benefactors would trim their donations commensurately.
Since then the party's financial situation has deteriorated further. This, plus the $3,000 MP levy, finally prompted the Liberal party-room to renege on its 2004 stance and go along with Labor.
Unfortunately for the Liberals, after deciding this, their former deputy and one-time electoral affairs spokesman, Dan Sullivan, learned they stood to lose more than they expected to gain.
On uncovering this, Mr Sullivan immediately alerted Liberal Opposition leader, Paul Omodei, and deputy leader and electoral affairs spokesman, Troy Buswell, since he'd negotiated with Labor's more experienced electoral affairs minister and attorney-general, Jim McGinty, the go-ahead for taxpayer-funding of parties.The Sullivan memoNews Weekly
has obtained a copy of the Sullivan memo.
"In the material Troy circulated, there was no mention of the National Party's position in this issue and, when I asked him in the party room on June 13, he said he did not know their position," Mr Sullivan wrote.
"This worried me greatly, so yesterday I approached [Nationals deputy] Terry Waldron to find out for myself.
"He advised that the Nationals had also done a deal with Jim McGinty on public funding.
"In particular, they had obtained agreement that the rule for official party status would be changed to include a party with five members in both Houses, rather than five in the Assembly at present.
"This has major significance for the Liberal Party."
The Sullivan memo said that when Labor won the 2001 election the Nationals gained "second party in Opposition" status, which meant its five lower house members could be allocated 30 per cent of the Liberal Party's parliamentary funding to cover costs of media advisers and other staffers.
That allocation amounted to $332,000 in 2001-02 and currently stands at $435,000.
"This means the Nationals had gained resources worth $435,000, directly at the expense of the Liberal Party," the memo continued.
"As a result of the so-called [McGinty] one-vote, one-value legislation, the Nationals have no chance of holding five Assembly seats at the next election and, therefore, will lose party status.
"This means that, under the current rules, if the Liberal Party remains in opposition after the next election, the Nationals will lose all its taxpayer-funded resources provided in its capacity as the 'second party in Opposition'.
"In turn, the Liberal Party will gain more than $435,000 annually since the allocation will be increased over time.
"The deal between McGinty and Nationals makes it much easier, and much more likely, for the Nationals to keep their official status and hold on to these resources - directly at the expense of the Liberal Party."
Mr Sullivan next quantified the loss the McGinty-Nationals deal meant to the Liberals, calculated on the basis of $1.39 per vote cast for party candidates.
He said: "At the time of the debate and votes in the party room, Liberal members were oblivious to the fact that, by agreeing to the [McGinty] package, the Liberal Party stood to lose more than $435,000 annually.
"Think about it - the party gains a one-off payment of around $1.2 million in public funding, but if we are in opposition we lose $435,000 a year over four years - a total loss of more than $1.7 million."
Then came the Sullivan punch-line, which not only stunned parliamentary colleagues but also senior lay party members since it showed those leading its parliamentary wing lack basic tactical skills.
Sullivan went on: "This means that, over a four-year term in opposition, under McGinty's package, the Liberal Party will lose - not gain - around $500,000."Benefactors
Being bereft of members, ideas, and funds is one thing - but lacking elementary tactical skills, when dealing with Labor face-to-face, is something else that party fundraisers will find difficult to explain when confronting increasingly sceptical benefactors who have wondered for years whether they're getting their money's worth, and if there's likely to be another Liberal Government in their lifetime.
The Sullivan memo concluded: "I still oppose the public funding package - primarily on grounds of principle - but, speaking as a Liberal, I believe the parliamentary party should have been able to make its decision based on all the facts and on all components of the package.
"Frankly, we have allowed ourselves to be conned."
Mr Omodei responded by warning shadow ministers not to comment publicly on the issue and said Liberal MPs faced the prospect of losing party endorsement if they commented publicly on party-room decisions.
Because Mr Sullivan objected to being so gagged, he resigned his energy shadow portfolio.
- Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance journalist and historical researcher.