01/10/2008 - 22:00

Bailing out for a soft landing

01/10/2008 - 22:00


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IT'S not surprising a clever wordsmith some decades ago suggested using skydiving terminology to colourfully describe an increasingly widespread political practice.

Bailing out for a soft landing

IT'S not surprising a clever wordsmith some decades ago suggested using skydiving terminology to colourfully describe an increasingly widespread political practice.

State Scene is, of course, referring to usage of the word 'parachuting' to describe the ploy of plonking (now there's an old-fashioned Aussie word that's no longer in vogue) ideological buddies into what are seen as safe parliamentary seats, or even cushy taxpayer-funded jobs.

This usage came back into vogue in the lead-up to last month's state election because ex-premier Alan Carpenter had earmarked several seats - considered Labor strongholds - for some of his buddies.

The first time State Scene encountered such usage of 'parachuting' was towards the end of the Ray O'Connor Liberal government years, during late 1982.

A local leftist academic alleged the O'Connor government was parachuting Liberal-inclined individuals into key bureaucratic posts to ensure the coming Brian Burke-led Labor government could be watched from within.

Here, the word parachuting was used to conjure up images of secret agents falling out of the sky in the darkness of night to watch over what the enemy - Labor in this case - was up to.

And, from what's been written about those tempestuous Burke years, it certainly seems Mr Burke was, if not entirely, then certainly somewhat influenced by that academic's outlook, since the public service underwent enormous ructions soon after.

Today, all new governments plonk, sorry, parachute buddies into certain top bureaucratic jobs as a matter of course.

This means the tried and tested British-style public service approach has been replaced by the American 'spoils of office' method, whereby new governments are no longer that, but rather, administrations.

The days of the neutral permanent senior public servant are, therefore, long dead and cremated.

Equally interesting was the fact that, straight after the Burke government emerged, the academic in question promptly transformed himself into a political parachutist and snapped-up several very cushy top jobs.

Even after Labor eventually lost power and subsequently re-emerged, the academic was able to reappear by being parachuted into other nicely paid positions.

In other words, he and his patrons well and truly mastered political skydiving.

However, whenever considering this practice it's worth highlighting another skydiving term -bailing out - because it too has increasingly featured in Australia.

Political bailing out generally refers to those politicians who, immediately after a federal or state election, announce they've decided to resign from parliament for greener pastures.

The pattern has been for ministers, especially, to go into elections expecting their side to win. But when their side loses they promptly resign - bail-out - of their seat because they don't want to be mere opposition backbenchers.

Among other things, that means they've deceived their party by renominating for their seat, and have misled their constituents and backers.

There are several recent examples of such bail-outs.

The rapidly shrinking National Party in Canberra has certainly witnessed it.

Since the November 2007 election, two Nationals members - one-time leader, Mark Vaile, and Gippsland MHR Peter McGauran - resigned within months of re-election.

Fortunately for the Nationals, the party held Mr McGauran's seat at the by-election.

Not so in Mr Vaile's case, since his seat of Lyne went to an Independent who was formerly a Nationals state MP.

That meant the party Mr Vaile once led is down one MP in Canberra.

Thanks, Mark. With leaders like that, who needs enemies.

Nor is the situation much better on the Liberal side, where former foreign minister, Alexander Downer, promptly bailed-out on his constituents.

Again, although his seat of Mayo was held - only just - by the Liberals, Mr Downer's bail-out has caused what State Scene expects to be long-term damage to the party.

Firstly, his replacement, Jamie Briggs a former Canberra Liberal staffer, was parachuted in ahead of Bob Day, a Liberal candidate at the 2007 election.

Mr Day a leading South Australian builder and big party donor, was so disgusted by the parachuting in of a Canberra insider that he resigned from the Liberal Party and contested Mayo for Family First.

South Australian Liberals will thus be paying a heavy price for years to come for the parachuting in of Mr Briggs, since they'll no longer receive Mr Day's financial support.

And then there are the ongoing rumours of former Liberal treasurer, Peter Costello, who is expected to bail-out from his seat of Higgins soon.

When that happens it will be another case of a one-time high-flying politician not being straight with his party, constituents and backers.

But the practice shouldn't be seen as an exclusively federal proclivity.

It's been standard practice in Western Australia for decades.

Consider the following.

The last time a former premier completed his term was the late John Tonkin, who lost the 1974 election but stayed-on in Parliament until his term expired in 1977.

And before Mr Tonkin, Liberal premier Sir David Brand also remained in parliament after standing down from the premiership.

Since then, however, every premier - Sir Charles Court, Ray O'Connor, Brian Burke, Peter Dowding, Richard Court, Carmen Lawrence, and Geoff Gallop - has bailed out well ahead of time.

Sir Charles Court bailed-out after standing down as premier, thereby making way for his deputy, Mr O'Connor, after which Sir Charles's son, Richard, was parachuted into his Nedlands seat.

Each of these bail-outs, therefore, sparked a costly by-election.

And former Labor leader, Ian Taylor, and deputy premier, Mal Bryce, also opted to bail-out.

Bailing-out in WA politics is something that starts at the very top.

If just-ousted premier Alan Carpenter holds to his word and remains Willagee's member until the 2012-13 election, he'll be the first premier to stay in parliament after an election loss since Mr Tonkin.

Interestingly, Colin Barnett, although not premier in the 2005 election, which he narrowly lost to Dr Gallop, stayed on until the end of his term, and for that he's certainly been well rewarded.

Perhaps there's a lesson there.

According to one of State Scene's best parliamentary insiders, between 1986 and 1989, WA voters had to bankroll no fewer than 10 by-elections, with eight of these sparked by premature resignations.

And between 1989 and 1993 there were a further six by-elections, all due to resignations (though in two cases these were the due to serious illness with those members dying soon after leaving politics).

State Scene can give further examples of bailing-out and parachutings but the instances and figures above show that many of those reaching high office have no compunction in departing when life as a backbencher lies ahead of them.

Let's finish, however, with WA's most celebrated case - following the February 2001 state election at which the Court government was toppled by Dr Gallop.

Mr Court promptly announced he'd be bailing-out for greener pastures in the corporate world.

Because he and his deputy, Colin Barnett, had been long-time rivals, Mr Court and several backers secretly moved to parachute the now federal treasury spokesperson, Julie Bishop, into Mr Court's blue ribbon seat of Nedlands.

The plan was for her to bail-out of her blue ribbon Curtin seat and be parachuted into Nedlands, after which she'd be parachuted a second time to become Liberal leader, thereby leaving Mr Barnett high and dry somewhere up in the sky.

So, two bail-outs to be followed by two parachutings.

That's surely a stand-out record in WA political sky-diving history.

But as we all know, at the last second Ms Bishop balked at jumping because the double bail-outs and dual parachuting plan had caused an enormous rumpus in pro-Barnett ranks.

Instead she sat tight in her Curtin seat and eventually landed a Howard government ministry, followed by the Liberal Party's deputy leadership; so is now co-piloting the party with new opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull.

And if he's not up to the job, Ms Bishop could find herself at the controls.


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