13/01/2011 - 00:00

ALP tyro learns a bruising lesson

13/01/2011 - 00:00


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Ben Wyatt’s short-lived challenge for leadership of the Labor Party has highlighted the influence of the key powerbrokers, namely unions on both the right and left.

ALP tyro learns a bruising lesson

SUPPORTERS of Western Australian Labor leadership aspirant, Ben Wyatt, had the logic, but the incumbent, Eric Ripper, had the numbers.

That’s the only sensible conclusion to be reached from the abortive attempt by disgruntled members of the Labor Party to back Mr Wyatt for opposition leadership.

Mr Wyatt’s challenge was virtually snuffed out before it could get off the ground after a number of his potential supporters had rapid changes of heart, deciding to stick with Mr Ripper.

The result has demonstrated to Mr Wyatt, and any other MP who might want to buck Labor’s established power structure, that you need to do your homework thoroughly before putting your hand up for higher honours.

The case for reassessing Labor’s leadership or strategy – or both – was clearly laid out in Newspoll in The Australian newspaper last month. It confirmed what earlier polls had been finding.

First, Labor was continuing to lag in popular support. Its primary vote had slumped to 29 per cent, compared with 42 per cent for the Liberals and 7 per cent for the Nationals. That is, a combined 49 per cent for the governing parties.

When asked who would make the better premier, only 16 per cent opted for Mr Ripper. Despite the government’s massive hikes in electricity and water charges for householders, and Colin Barnett’s claim that air-conditioning wasn’t a necessity in Perth’s hot summer, the Teflon premier scored a healthy 60 per cent approval.

The poll reinforced the view of some Labor MPs that something had to give. They zeroed in on the leader.

Veteran backbencher Tom Stephens tried unsuccessfully behind the scenes to bring the matter to a head before Christmas. He moved again after publication of the Newspoll.

When his action surfaced in the public arena it developed a life of its own, with Mr Wyatt confirming speculation that he would challenge.

According to party sources, Labor’s treasury spokesman, who succeeded former premier Geoff Gallop in the seat of Victoria Park in 2006, had been courted for months by some senior factional figures, and federal MPs, to mount a challenge.

Opponents believed that, at 36, he was too young and lacked experience. But Brian Burke, for example, was premier by the same age.

Mr Wyatt was encouraged by the initial response to his candidacy. But problems emerged when union factional leaders indicated they favoured the status quo.

The key players are the right’s Joe Bullock from the Shop Assistants’ Union, and the LMHU’s Dave Kelly, and Steve McCartney of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, both from the left.

Mr Wyatt’s support then evaporated. Even within his own right faction it was claimed only half of the 12 MPs committed to the challenger.

The reason the Labor MPs fell into line after the faction leaders revealed their views is simple. The unions control big blocs of votes on the ALP state executive, which endorses federal and state candidates. Upset the powerbrokers and promising political careers can be snuffed out.

And with Labor’s branch structure in a precarious state through declining membership, unions provide the footsoldiers, and the money, for election campaigns.

No MP in his or her right mind wants to jeopardise that.

Mr Bullock was putting the best possible light on the leadership events, describing them as “a week of silly business in the silly season”.

He concedes they represent a setback, especially at a time when the government is “not travelling at all well”.

Some members believe Mr Ripper is now safe to fulfil his stated aim of leading Labor into the next election, just more than two years away.

But there is also speculation that the factional leaders are simply buying time to get through Labor’s mid-year state conference, without a new leader wanting to place his own stamp on the party – a stamp which might upset the status quo.

So all eyes will be on Mr Ripper in the coming months as he attempts to take the fight up to the Barnett government, and improve Labor’s standing.

Mr Wyatt has indicated he won’t mount another challenge this term, and the only other serious aspirant, former minister Mark McGowan, wouldn’t be drawn into the recent contest.

But according to one retired senior Labor MP, “neither could knock the skin of a rice pudding”. He wants former minister Alannah MacTiernan back in parliament – as leader. That’s a very long shot.

Labor MPs will gather at Cervantes early next month to plan their strategy for the year. Mr Ripper has reacted sensibly, holding out the olive branch to Mr Wyatt, saying he wants to keep him on the front bench.

The big question is, if the polls fail to improve, will there be enough olive branches to prevent the numbers shifting?

Up close and personal

FORMER prime minister John Howard was known to venture ‘north of the line’ and dine at the upmarket Must Winebar in Highgate when he had an evening free of engagements while in Perth.

Current PM Julia Gillard was equally upmarket when she dined out last week during her three-day visit to WA.

She was seen at the Opus Restaurant at The Richardson Hotel in West Perth. And her dining partner? The premier, Colin Barnett.

They didn’t waste the opportunity. Mr Barnett might have advised the PM before Christmas to go off and rethink her mining tax plan, because it was a “dog”, but from all accounts their first real chat since the federal election was cordial, and lasted three hours.

It’s understood they agreed to differ on the tax plan, with neither being prepared to give any ground.

Similarly, the premier is said to have been adamant that WA will not hand over control of one third of its money from the GST, as required by Canberra under its health plans.

Inquiries revealed some optimism on the issue of public hospitals. The federal government is keen for WA to sign up to its reform plans, and ways are being examined for proposals to satisfy the state’s objections to control of the hospitals and related issues.

Agreement would mean millions of extra federal dollars flowing into the hospital system.

Mr Barnett developed a good relationship with Kevin Rudd, sometimes referring to him as “my friend Kevin”. How much love is really in the air with the new PM will be revealed on February 14, when Ms Gillard meets the state and territory leaders at the first Council of Australian Governments gathering since the federal poll.

The date could be an omen; it’s Valentine’s Day.



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