16/11/2011 - 10:23

Birney keeps quiet on comeback

16/11/2011 - 10:23


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Recent rumblings suggest there may be a role for Matt Birney in the state Liberal Party’s future post-Colin Barnett.

Recent rumblings suggest there may be a role for Matt Birney in the state Liberal Party’s future post-Colin Barnett.

REPORTS that former state Liberal leader Matt Birney is considering a political comeback have certainly set the tongues wagging for all sorts of reasons, including that he could once again be a leadership contender. But Mr Birney has declined to comment on the speculation – and for good reason.

Alfred Cove should be the southern suburbs’ jewel in the crown for the Liberal Party. Instead it has claimed some big party scalps. And the last thing Mr Birney wants to do is end up as another ‘scalp’ and a footnote in Western Australia’s political history.

First some background. In 2001, Mr Birney became the first Liberal to win the state seat of Kalgoorlie, and won party leadership after the 2005 election, which re-elected Labor under Geoff Gallop. It was an eventful time for the inexperienced Liberal, whose inclination to ‘shoot from the lip’ tested the patience of party elders.

Eventually their patience ran out and he was dumped in favour of Paul Omodei. Leadership became a revolving door, and Mr Birney decided to bow out in 2008, opting instead to re-enter the business world. This has involved chairing several companies, including Coretrack, a listed oil and gas and geothermal drilling operation, consulting in the media and government-related sectors, and other private business interests.

But Mr Birney has politics in his blood. His father, Jack, a lawyer, was the federal Liberal MP for the eastern Sydney seat of Phillip during the Fraser years, and something of a stormy petrel. So it was no real surprise when reports of a possible comeback for Birney junior, at 42, started to surface in Alfred Cove, where he now lives.

Nominally the seat is one of the safest metropolitan Liberal electorates; but Janet Woollard, effectively an independent Liberal, has held it since 2001 when she toppled Court government minister Doug Shave. His popularity had been hit by the finance brokers’ row, and Labor preferences helped push Dr Woollard over the line.

Four years later she claimed another high-profile scalp when Graham Kierath attempted a political comeback after losing his seat of Riverton in 2001. The former minister was the target of a strong union-inspired campaign, however, and missed out.

Mr Kierath has remained politically active as president of the Liberals’ Tangney division. He is said to be keen to ensure not only that Mr Birney puts his hand up, but that he gets the numbers to win the endorsement against potential internal challengers.

And because Labor would be odds-on to again recommend its preferences in the seat at the state election go to Dr Woollard, Mr Birney would have to mount a strong campaign to get 50 per cent of the primary vote to guarantee victory. Given the sitting member’s record, that would be no fait accompli.

Assuming Premier Colin Barnett leads the Liberal-Nationals alliance to a second term, would he have a cabinet position for the former party leader? Tough call. Mr Barnett would have to weigh up the case for MPs currently sitting patiently on the backbench with that for Mr Birney to rejoin another former leader, Troy Buswell, in the cabinet.

Polishing the crystal ball further, what happens when Mr Barnett, now aged 61, decides to retire, possibly during the next term? Attorney-General Christian Porter is considered the leading contender in the succession stakes at this stage, but Liberal strategists are already speculating that, with the prospect of Mr Birney back in action and nominating for the top job, he could split the vote from the right of the party.

That could pave the way for a moderate to scoop the pool, possibly Mr Buswell.

At the moment Mr Birney is playing his cards close to the chest. Perhaps he has learned from experience.

Afghanistan dilemma

CRICKET fans will remember the nickname attached to the elegant New South Wales batsman, Mark Waugh, in the late 1980s. Although he was scoring heavily in Sheffield Shield cricket, Mark was unable to break into the Test team where his twin brother, Steve, was starting to make a name for himself as an all-rounder.

Consequently Mark became known as ‘Afghanistan’, because he was the ‘forgotten Waugh’. It was a play on words, of course, linked with the ongoing conflict in that remote country. Mark was eventually promoted to Test level in 1991 and enjoyed a successful 10-year career, along with his brother, who became the team’s hard-nosed captain.

Both the Waugh brothers have moved on, but the latest war in Afghanistan is not only still with us, it is beginning to emerge as a potentially serious issue as the death toll of Australian troops serving in a supposed peace-keeping role starts to mount. 

More than 30 Australians have now been killed since the conflict began, and the toll has increased sharply this year. Not only that, the fact that several Australian troops have been shot dead by Afghans with whom they have been working must be ringing alarm bells in Canberra.

Increasingly, the question is being asked: ‘Why are our troops there?’ The initial involvement was linked with the ‘war on terror’, but that explanation seems to be becoming tenuous. 

More recently it has been explained as training and mentoring and preparing the country to control its own destiny once the foreign troops, led by the US, pull out.

The issue is sure to be on the agenda when Prime Minister Julia Gillard hosts US President Barrack Obama during his Australian visit. The president has already flagged a US reduction of about one-third of its 100,000 troops in Afghanistan by the middle of next year. He has pledged to have them all out by the end of 2014.

The federal government has been saying that Australia will stay the course, which effectively means the diggers’ mission will be intimately linked with that of the US. But it would be unacceptable for them to be exposed to greater risk by the reduced American presence.

Ms Gillard and Defence Minister Stephen Smith must count themselves lucky that they have not been exposed to more pressure to reveal Australia’s exit strategy – if indeed there is one. 

The last thing they want to do is upset the US administration in the face of the Obama visit and the increasing military cooperation between the two countries. And they will have the support of Tony Abbott and his Liberal opposition on that.

If the Australian death toll continues to mount, however, public patience will inevitably wear thin and Afghanistan will no longer be the ‘forgotten war’. 

It will become front and centre of public debate – one both the government, and the opposition, will have to confront.



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