14/11/2014 - 05:01

Barnett snatches surprise win

14/11/2014 - 05:01


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This week’s instalment from Peter Kennedy’s Tales from Boom Town focuses on the extraordinary events that led to Colin Barnett becoming premier of WA.

Barnett snatches surprise win

Colin Barnett's election victory in September 2008 against all the odds is one of the great rags to riches stories in Western Australian politics.

In July that year he was contemplating life after politics, having led the Liberal Party to defeat at the 2005 election and then moving to the backbench. Now he intended to bow out altogether.

The Liberals had endorsed Deidre Willmott for the safe Cottesloe seat, which Barnett had held for 18 years. But the party's leadership under Troy Buswell was in turmoil after one indiscretion too many, and Barnett was being quietly urged to stay on – and return to the leadership.

Then, when Buswell phoned Barnett on Sunday August 3 to tell him he had decided to stand down, the die was cast. The retirement plans were shelved and the dreams of a leisurely life after politics had vanished.

Within a few days, Barnett was again the opposition leader, and Labor premier Alan Carpenter couldn't wait to call the general election for Saturday September 6 – the first snap poll in WA in living memory – five months ahead of schedule. It was game on.

The great uncertainty of politics had once again shown itself for all to see.

"I had intended to leave in 2008," Barnett told me in an interview in his new office in Hale House, widely referred to as the Emperor's Palace. "I always promised that when your time is up you leave. I would have liked to be premier but I had my attempt in 2005 and can't complain. I had a fair go and decided in 2008 I would leave while I still had time for a new career move."

But all that changed, thanks to Buswell's exuberant behaviour.

In contrast to his first leadership ballot in 2001, Barnett was elected unopposed for his surprise second stint on August 6 2008. Many of the same MPs who had made his first term so frustrating were still in the party room. But with the hint of an early poll in the air, self-interest took over and Barnett was welcomed back with open arms.

There had been some groundwork, however. Veteran upper house leader Norman Moore said he had been sounded out in advance of Barnett publicly agreeing to come back as leader.

"I think it was Mike Nahan, who was quite close to Colin, who came to see George Cash and me," Moore said. "He (Nahan) said 'if we put Barnett in would you guys go along with that?'. We didn't really have a choice. I said 'let him know that there won't be any trouble from us'."

The day after Barnett's election, premier Alan Carpenter drove from his 24th floor office at 197 St Georges Terrace to Government House, a few blocks away, to complete formalities required for the snap poll. He emerged to announce the election would be held on September 6, just 30 days away.

Barnett campaigned as if he had nothing to lose. Even Moore, with whom he had a testy relationship, was impressed.

"Colin was fantastic during the campaign," Moore said. "For the first time since I'd known him he was cooperative, talked to people, was relaxed, and he was like that during the campaign. He was like that in the first couple of years of government as well."

Barnett was initially dismissive of the National Party's Royalties for Regions policy, which was aimed at earmarking 25 per cent of royalties revenue into regional WA, where the wealth was produced.

The policy was the brainchild of Nationals leader Brendon Grylls and the party's former president, Wendy Duncan. It was a simple-but-brilliant strategy, which my 1966 South Bunbury Football Club premiership teammate, Doug Cunningham, who was Grylls' senior adviser, helped market.

Cunningham, a former Daily News and TV journalist, enthusiastically talked it up and did the voiceovers for the TV ads.

Labor was initially wary of the royalties idea too, no doubt hoping that the introduction of the 'one-vote, one-value' principle would leave the Nationals as a spent political force. But when the votes were counted neither Labor nor the Liberals had a working majority. And unlike previous years, the Nationals were keeping their distance from the Liberals.

"At the start of the 2008 campaign I thought we had a 40 per cent chance of winning," Barnett said. "I thought the Nats would align with us, but Brendon (also) talked with Labor. I never thought that would happen. Grylls is very impressive ... (but) I always thought they would come across."

And come across they did – but it was eight days after the election and only after some tough talking within Nationals ranks.

Barnett also wooed independent Elizabeth Constable to take on the education portfolio. With the support of other independents John Bowler (Kalgoorlie), who lent towards the Nationals, and Janet Woollard (Alfred Cove), he had the numbers to govern.


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