16/01/2008 - 22:00

Birney leaves the door open

16/01/2008 - 22:00


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Former state Liberal leader Matt Birney’s recent announcement that he won’t be seeking re-election for the seat of Kalgoorlie means the Liberals, in less than three months, have lost two former leaders from their parliamentary ranks

Former state Liberal leader Matt Birney’s recent announcement that he won’t be seeking re-election for the seat of Kalgoorlie means the Liberals, in less than three months, have lost two former leaders from their parliamentary ranks.

Just before Christmas, Colin Barnett said he’d be departing at the February 2009 election.

Let’s never forget, he came within 1,100 or so votes of becoming premier in 2004.

Let’s also never forget his successor as Liberal leader, Mr Birney, was initially well-regarded, so certainly had at least a 50-50 chance of toppling Labor in 2009.

Yet both nearly-beens are moving on.

This, first and foremost, probably suggests neither believes the party they so recently led is likely to topple Labor next time around.

If they thought otherwise, presumably both would have stayed on.

There’s little doubt each would qualify for a senior ministerial post, if not the premiership, both of which they appear to believe is out of range, despite the latest Newspoll showing the Coalition now leading Labor 51 to 49 per cent.

However, several other issues are worth highlighting.

It should be noted that Mr Birney was a Kalgoorlie businessman before entering parliament in 2001.

And he’s never made it a secret he’s quite focused on making money.

So much so that he highlighted this bluntly during his resignation speech.

“Politics is rapidly becoming just an expensive hobby that doesn’t really pay the bills all that well,” he said.

Maybe so.

But ministerial salaries plus perks are markedly bigger than those of an opposition backbencher.

Clearly he believes he’ll earn more than a minister, so has decided to head for what he calls the “corporate sector post-politics”.

“Over the last 12 months or so I have been approached by a number of corporations with offers to jump ship from politics to business,” Mr Birney said.

“Whilst I have resisted most of those offers to date, it is now my intention to pursue one or two nonexecutive directorships followed by an executive directorship in the corporate sector post-politics.” His decision to leave parliament means Labor is now in with a far stronger chance of regaining Kalgoorlie.

Commenting on his parliamentary debut, Mr Birney, said: “For me the highest high was undoubtedly being the only Liberal in history to win the Seat of Kalgoorlie – and – at a time when the Liberal government was wiped out across the state.” He was, of course, referring to the 2001 state election at which Richard Court’s government was so ignominiously turfed out.

State Scene has had a lively email correspondence with Mr Birney on this question in recent days – he via his BlackBerry from the deck of a cruise liner somewhere off New Zealand, and me on my Dell from a Perth suburb.

The reason for this is that, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), an earlier non- Labor Kalgoorlie MP, Norbert Keenan, was a Liberal.

ADB said: “Having unsuccessfully contested the Kalgoorlie seat in the Legislative Assembly as an Independent in 1904, he [Keenan] accepted Liberal endorsement in October 1905 and defeated the sitting Labor member, William Dartnell Johnson.” On reading this, State Scene felt compelled to contact Mr Birney (and this will hopefully be returned to in a later column).

Mr Birney’s resignation speech then carried another point worth qualifying.

“In any case, I leave politics with Kalgoorlie firmly on the political map as a seat that both sides now think they can win it,” he said.

State Scene isn’t as confident that the Liberals can win Kalgoorlie without him, and neither, it seems, are Mr Birney’s Liberal parliamentary colleagues.

The fact is, he was a good candidate who briefly peaked about 10 years too early.

By that State Scene means he came to be seen as being ill equipped to be leader, largely because he’d only served one parliamentary term prior.

Labor tacticians realised this and set out to embarrass him.

Eventually even his Liberal backers decided to replace him with the now embattled Paul Omodei.

However, as Mr Birney suggests, Labor may well believe it’ll now regain Kalgoorlie.

Whether that happens is a moot point.

State Scene, for one, isn’t as confident Kalgoorlie will become a Labor seat in the near future.

The reason is that it has the potential to be like the seat of Pilbara after Labor’s factional machine men moved to dump now-retired MLA, Larry Graham, in 2001.

What did he do? He simply handed in his party membership card and contested Pilbara as an independent.

And what’s more, he won with Liberal help.

And that’s precisely what may happen in Kalgoorlie in 2009.

Labor machine men would be wise to consider the possibility of their former minister, John Bowler, who they publicly humiliated by expelling him, contesting Kalgoorlie as an independent, like Mr Graham did in Pilbara.

Mr Bowler certainly has the potential to attract many Labor as well as Liberal voters, plus crucial Liberal preferences.

Despite his recent encounter with the Corruption and Crime Commission he’s well liked across the Goldfields, and could easily topple a Labor candidate, particularly if a mediocre one was selected by Perthbased powerbrokers.

And finally, there’s another so-far ignored matter.

Mr Birney, 38, is at the age many on the conservative side would contend is 10 years out from actually embarking on a political career.

In other words, he may well reconsider his position in a decade or so, when he’s the ripe old age of 48 or so, that is, when he’s about 15 years before retirement age.

And what’s interesting when suggesting a possible political comeback – after making all that money – is that he has precedence in the very seat he’s represented.

State Scene refers again to Sir Norbert Keenan, who reached Kalgoorlie in 1895 and was a lawyer there for several major British goldfields investors, vice-president of the Chamber of Mines, and Kalgoorlie’s mayor between 1901-05.

He accepted Liberal endorsement in 1905 and beat the Labor incumbent and then Labor leader, William Johnson, to become attorney-general.

However, in 1911, while attorneygeneral, he stood down from parliament ahead of that year’s election, and moved to Perth, where he had a remunerative legal career.

But politics continued flowing through his veins, with the inevitable outcome.

Turning again to the ADB: “In April 1930 Keenan returned to the [Legislative] Assembly as Nationalist member for the new suburban seat of Nedlands, and chief secretary and minister for education in Sir James Mitchell’s second administration.

“When the whole Nationalist ministry was swept out of parliament in April 1933, Keenan, as the only surviving Nationalist with ministerial experience, became party leader, yielding the leadership of the Opposition to the larger Country Party.

“The coalition remained out of office for 14 years.

“Keenan resigned as leader in April 1938 but retained his seat until March 1950.

“Although he achieved the distinction of becoming Western Australia’s oldest parliamentarian and was knighted in 1948, he failed to make a timely retirement and was defeated after losing pre-selection.” There you have it.

The Kalgoorlie seat has a pertinent precedent; with non-Laborite Keenan briefly representing it, then taking off to the big smoke to launch a remunerative career, followed some years later by a return to parliament.

Let’s see if Mr Birney eventually opts to emulate his long-forgotten Kalgoorlie predecessor, Sir Norbert Keenan.


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