POLITICS: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
WA Liberals, Nationals in self-destruct mode
, May 13, 2006
With the Liberals and Nationals in disarray, it is unlikely that a non-Labor government will come to power in WA until well after 2013, writes Joseph Poprzeczny.If Western Australia's three mainstream parties - Labor, Liberal and National - were as vibrant as their state's booming export-oriented economy, they'd have much to teach their Canberra and interstate counterparts.
But that's most definitely not so.
Although Labor gained power in WA in February 2001 - when the Richard Court-led coalition was removed in a landslide after eight years in office - it has failed to provide competent administration and inspiring leadership.
And like its Liberal counterpart, party membership continues to slide.
On top of that, its cohort of activists, who until the late 1980s exceeded 1,000, has also shrunk. Both parties are finding it increasingly difficult to man election-day booths.
Furthermore, the fact that former Labor leader, Geoff Gallop, suddenly resigned the premiership and from parliament in January - giving severe depression as the reason - stunned not only Labor's MPs, but all rank-and-file members.Geoff Gallop's depression
Dr Gallop's depression wasn't, however, due solely to his relatively light premiership workload. Considerable blame must be ascribed to the way the factionally-directed party he led operated behind closed doors.
Dr Gallop was largely a prisoner of the alliance between its two dominant ruling factions - the Left, headed by former Miscellaneous Workers Union boss, long-time power broker and Attorney-General, Jim McGinty; and the New Right, led by ex-teacher and onetime Police Minister, Michelle Roberts.
Ironically, although both oversaw and guided Dr Gallop on key party and governmental issues, neither can boast any notable ministerial achievements.
McGinty spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees in a protracted bid to revamp the state's electoral system to help ensure Labor retained government at the 2009 election and, it was hoped, at the succeeding one in 2013.
This included failed challenges in both the High Court challenge and before WA's Supreme Court.
The only reason his legislation was promulgated last May was because Liberal Upper House MP, Alan Cadby, resigned from his party after being dumped at a factionally-stacked preselection contest - meaning, if certain Liberals had not been so vindictive and short-sighted, McGinty's electoral bills would still be collecting dust.
Roberts, as Police Minister - a position she no longer holds - oversaw ongoing bungles, including a major mass breakout of prisoners from holding cells in the state's Supreme Court precinct.
Labor has emerged as a big taxing and big spending administration, and this after Dr Gallop - now headed for a Sydney academic position - undertook at the 2001 election not to raise taxes.
Nor is the situation within Liberal ranks any better.
Richard Court left Parliament straight after his ignominious February 2001 defeat, and is now a consultant and company director.
Although his deputy and successor, Colin Barnett, seemed assured of the leadership, he was nearly beaten by rank outsider, Rod Sweetman.
Barnett and his deputy, Dan Sullivan, remained, during the first Gallop Government of 2001-05, largely estranged.
To make matters worse, secret moves were initiated within Liberal ranks just before the 2005 state election to disendorse Sullivan.
Those planning this were the same people who engineered the subsequently costly removal of Alan Cadby who returned their career-killing "favour" by ensuring the passage of McGinty's redistribution bills, something that is now set to ensure Labor wins the 2009 and 2013 elections.
Despite all the upper echelon Liberal disunity, the Barnett-led coalition narrowly missed toppling Labor in February 2005, thereby nearly making Gallop a one-term premier.
Although Labor has shouted long and loud that its seven-seat majority was a resounding victory, closer inspection shows Labor retained power by fewer than 2,000 votes statewide.
That, more than anything, made Cadby's decision to ensure passage of the McGinty electoral legislation so crucial for Labor and so disastrous for the Liberals and their long-time coalition partners, the Nationals.
With eight rural seats now to be relocated into Perth's metropolitan area under McGinty's legislation, Labor will be the major beneficiary.
For the Liberals, the cut in the number of bush seats was compounded by the fact that they found themselves, after Barnett's narrow 2005 loss and subsequent vacating of the leadership, without an experienced successor.
They opted for their youngest and least experienced frontbencher, goldfields MP, Matt Birney, son of the late Jack Birney, who represented the federal Sydney seat of Phillip between 1975 and 1983.
Although Birney performed well as a shadow police spokesman in Barnett's opposition team against Labor's Michelle Roberts, he proved throughout 2005 that leadership was far from his strongest suit.
Several silly gaffes, plus an inability to weld the faction-ridden Liberals together, meant that by last Christmas his leadership was doomed.
Interestingly, the man who delivered Birney's parliamentary coup de grace
was McGinty who learned from clandestine parliamentary sources that Birney had made secret amendments to his parliamentary financial declaration of interest statement.
A privileges committee was hastily convened and Birney was forced to apologise for his secret moves.
On top of that, the Liberal Party's dominant faction, led by Howard Government ministers, Senators Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison, teamed up with five Barnett loyalists to topple Birney in March.Expelled
Birney had failed to help himself by being seen with long-time former Liberal powerbroker, ex-Senator Noel Crichton-Browne, who was expelled from the party a decade ago.
Crichton-Browne, as well as being intensely disliked by the Campbell and Ellison faction's key numbers men, is also feared by them. To discover Birney was in close contact with Crichton-Browne meant they put their long-planned challenge into top gear.
As March approached, the Campbell-Ellison and Barnett alliance numbers men knew they were one vote short of replacing Birney with their man of choice, one-time Court Government minister, Paul Omodei.
To gain that crucial vote, the alliance secretly talked Birney's deputy, Troy Buswell, into joining the coup.
Buswell had told the Birney camp he was on side. But several Birney backers disbelieved him so they had Richard Court telephone Buswell to ensure he voted for Birney which he assured Court he'd do.
But he had joined the challengers and Omodei's backers knew they were set to win.
Buswell's vote was to be the crucial one in bringing on the spill against Birney which passed 17-16 votes.
The Liberals' parliamentary contingent is now split more than ever since the party was founded in the 1940s, and factional reconciliation is unlikely before the 2009 election.
To make matters worse for them, just after New Year the leader of the five-man Nationals' parliamentary contingent, Brendan Grylls, announced his party would never again go into coalition with the majority Liberals.
The Nationals have decided to only seek the balance of power at state's lower house elections and not enter a coalition, even if their and the Liberals' numbers allowed for the formation of a non-Labor government.
The Nationals' go-it-alone blueprint means the Liberals, who face a formidable task in winning a half plus one seats in the state's 59-member lower house chamber, must now look towards forming only minority governments with possible day-to-day National support.
Few Western Australians have yet realised that non-Labor governments are unlikely to be formed until well after 2013.
That's not surprising when property prices across the state are steadily rising, and unemployment is below four per cent. Business and economics, not politics, is what everyone is focusing upon, while Labor's and the Liberals' declining memberships mean both parties' finances continue feeling the pinch.
The Liberals have responded by levying from their state and federal MPs $3,000 annually to help make ends meet, something Labor did years ago.
But a longer-term solution is being sought - taxpayer funding of parties, linked to the number of votes each attracts at state elections.
WA, like South Australia and Tasmania, is still out of step with Canberra and the three major states in this regard. This means that the next major piece of party-lifesaving legislation will be the re-introduction of another of McGinty's blocked 2004 electoral bills to ensure taxpayers bankroll the state's struggling party machines.
- Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance journalist and historical researcher.