28/10/2013 - 12:55

A tale of two conferences

28/10/2013 - 12:55


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WA Labor is hoping to rediscover its mojo on the back of the recent federal leadership contest, and the Barnett government’s inertia.

REINVIGORATED: The inclusive process by which the federal Labor leadership was decided impressed Mark McGowan.

It's conference time for Western Australia’s two major political parties, and the signals are confusing to say the least.

The Labor Party holds its two-day conference this weekend, and after the thumping election defeats in March (state) and September (federal), the party would be excused for being downbeat and engulfed in soul-searching.

In WA, however, the problems surrounding the Liberal-National government of Colin Barnett have given Labor members some grounds for optimism, even if the next state election is still more than three years away.

In addition, a by-product of the Bill Shorten-Anthony Albanese federal leadership contest has been a new batch of members, encouraged by the suggestion that ordinary members might just get some meaningful role again.

The Liberals on the other hand would be excused for engaging in some triumphalism, despite the risk of being seen to be arrogant. They haven’t had it so good for more than 30 years, although political fortunes are very fluid these days.

The refreshing aspect of the Shorten-Albanese battle for Labor was that party members were involved in a postal ballot in the privacy of their own homes. That really freed up members to vote for which candidate they thought was better and was a major break with the established ballot process.

In party forums, so tight has been the factional control that they adopted a practice known as ‘show and tell’ to ensure their members voted the faction ticket. That was taken to the next level when at least one faction appointed whips to collect blank ballot papers from their members, which were then filled in by the faction leaders.

Little room for individual assessment there; buck the faction system and you are out on your own.

And you can be sure that if Labor reverts to this antediluvian system, few of the new members will stick around.

Labor leader Mark McGowan flagged earlier this year that he had been impressed by the impact of the federal leadership ballot. But giving ordinary members more power means backroom types have to relinquish some of theirs.

Several union leaders expressed concern that unions were cut out of the federal leadership process, as sprung on the party by Kevin Rudd when he regained the prime ministership. The logical answer is for more unionists to actually join the party.

On the other side of the political fence, what will be uppermost in Liberal delegates’ minds will be the continued lacklustre performance of the state government since its re-election. At the heart of its problems is the inability to hold the line on spending. Talking tough is cheap, being tough is another matter.

Treasurer Troy Buswell has beaten his chest about limiting public sector pay increases to changes in the consumer price index, yet that could be brushed aside for public sector doctors, accompanied by the usual sob stories that they will desert the public system unless they get what the Australian Medical Association demands.

Mr Buswell also needs to keep a closer eye on how National Party colleagues allocate the ‘second budget’ – the Royalties for Regions program. If he can convince Liberal conference delegates he’s calling the shots, they’ll breathe more easily.

Carr signs off

There is no substitute for experience, as former foreign minister Bob Carr displayed in his analysis of the Gillard and Rudd governments that accompanied his early decision to quit the Senate.

Mr Carr has been steeped in the NSW Labor Party for almost 50 years. He was the Labor Council’s education officer in the mid 1970s, when he also conducted a weekly radio program on Labor issues on the council’s radio station, 2KY. He also served a record continuous term as NSW premier.

Mr Carr said the Labor government should have proceeded more cautiously on the climate change issue, and expressed disbelief at the decision to pursue media reforms six months before the general election. The move enraged the powerful media lobby.

Such a strategy was effectively “tearing up the Neville Wran playbook”, he said, a reference to the influential former NSW premier who effectively wrote the post-Whitlam Labor manual for electoral success.

One of the key points in the Wran manual was that, in the 12 months before an election, governments batten down the hatches. In other words they seek to eliminate controversial issues that have the potential to galvanise opposition to their chances of electoral success. The last thing they want to do is pick fresh fights without knowing how they might finish up.

In fact Mr Wran worked assiduously to get the media onside. His government approved the erection of lights at the Sydney Cricket Ground, an essential ingredient for the success of World Series Cricket. Kerry Packer was heavily in his debt. Along with Mr Packer, Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd was enlisted for the introduction of Lotto in NSW.

True, government should not kowtow to media interests, but actively getting them offside for no good reason can be a very painful, and costly, experience.


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