11/11/2010 - 00:00

Buswell back before Christmas?

11/11/2010 - 00:00

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Troy Buswell’s likely return to state cabinet will require someone to stand aside. But who?

COLIN Barnett won’t be the only one with fingers crossed when he reinstates Troy Buswell to the cabinet before Christmas, as the premier surely will.

It will represent a stunning comeback by the volatile Vasse MP, who was sacked as treasurer last May after one controversy too many.

Mr Barnett will be hoping his accident-prone colleague will have learned his lesson, knuckle down, and do the job.

The last thing the government will want is another diversion, whether it be linked with careless office bookkeeping or speculation over his private life.

The opposition leader, Eric Ripper, will have his fingers crossed too, but for a vastly different reason.

He will be hoping that Mr Buswell will remain true to form; that despite (it can be assumed) committing to a more disciplined approach as a cabinet minister, the South West MP will eventually crack, again becoming a target because of indiscretions.

The premier dropped some strong hints that the former treasurer was on the way back, after six months cooling his heels on the backbench.

“Troy is working very hard,” Mr Barnett said in response to a question on the issue last month.

“And Troy’s been doing a lot of work, not only in his electorate, but he’s also been helping on a range of policy areas, including the housing market.”

Mr Barnett added, in case anyone failed to get the message: “I’ve always been impressed with Troy Buswell. I think he’s an outstanding member of parliament.”

So what is it about Mr Buswell that attracts such accolades, after a track record that would have had most MPs labelled ‘not worth the risk’, banished to the backbench, and eventually to civvy street?

The first is that he is bright. His university record shows that he was a top economics student, and that trait has been evident in his work as an MP and minister.

Even political opponents attending joint ministerial meetings with the federal and other state governments acknowledge that. They say he is quick at picking up new issues, sees the pros and the cons, and is prepared to take a position if an early answer is required.

That he is ambitious is an understatement – sometimes to his cost.

He was president of the Busselton Shire before entering parliament, and won Liberal endorsement after challenging the sitting member – a move that raises eyebrows in any party – all before he’d turned 40.

Next February will mark Mr Buswell’s sixth anniversary as an MP. Yet within a year of being elected he was deputy leader of the Liberal Party, to another relative political tyro, Matt Birney. He fell out with Mr Birney in an acrimonious party room vote, after which Paul Omodei assumed the leadership. Mr Buswell then ousted Mr Omodei early in 2008. He was then dumped as leader on the eve of the early 2008 election, won by the conservatives.

If you think that’s enough action for anyone in their first term you’d be right. But there’s more. There are also the ‘off field’ indiscretions – the bra snapping and the chair sniffing incidents – which ensured he received national attention.

In government he was the centre of questions over his expenses claims, topped off by his affair with the former Fremantle Greens MP – now Independent – Adele Carles, with them now understood to be an ‘item’.

Since his fall from grace, Mr Buswell has been a diligent MP, as the premier says. He’s been present in the assembly during question time and most key debates, and taken on the occasional speaking role. He hasn’t been as flamboyant as on some past occasions, such as when he threw grocery items around the chamber to illustrate a point.

He’s also said to be forceful in the party room. Clear thinking, and wit, go down well.

So Mr Buswell’s on the comeback trail, possibly to his old position as treasurer, which would confirm the premier’s prediction of a “small reshuffle”.

But with the cabinet of 17 already at full strength, the premier will have to tap someone on the shoulder to create the necessary vacancy.

If he adopted the old last on, first off approach, first-term Nedlands MP Bill Marmion would be stepping down. Mr Marmion has good credentials, but is surprisingly uncomfortable at news conferences, partly because of an apparent reluctance to provide direct answers to simple questions. He’s likely to stay on.

Several members of the original ministry have struggled in their roles. One is Water Minister Graham Jacobs, who has an unerring capacity to make the simple seem complex. Water is shaping as a political hot potato, and the premier will certainly be wondering whether a transfer is warranted.

But Dr Jacobs, who is a general practitioner by profession, is also the mental health minister. That might be enough for him to be kept on the front line, albeit with modified duties.

Then there is Local Government Minister John Castrilli. As a former Bunbury mayor, he seemed ideally suited to the job. But he’s been continually dogged by the government’s campaign to reduce the number of local councils. It’s a worthy goal, and probably long overdue. But when you take on cosy vested interests – and the local government fiefdoms with their taj mahals, which are better appointed than Parliament House, are the classic example – you must have a clear strategy to make it happen. And none seems apparent. Mr Castrilli has gained confidence in the parliament, but his position must be under scrutiny.

Some Liberals say the obvious candidate to give way is the environment minister and upper house member, Donna Faragher. Now 35, she was the youngest woman ever appointed to the cabinet. Ms Faragher is expecting her first baby shortly, and naturally would require extensive leave from her ministerial duties. But the risk of her leaving the cabinet is a possible backlash from feminists.

‘Why should a woman be required to relinquish a position of responsibility, just because she is becoming a mother?’ they would ask. A potentially explosive question indeed.

However, if Ms Faragher decided to take extended leave, that issue would subside.

So Mr Barnett could come up with a ‘minimalist’ reshuffle, which restores Mr Buswell to the cabinet, and sees him taking back the treasurer’s post from the premier. That would leave the way open for a further review in 12 months’ time – still a year out from the next election.

There has been speculation that the Education Minister Liz Constable – a key Independent – might flag late next year she won’t seek another term. She could then step down from the cabinet and allow Ms Faragher to return.

It looks a neat solution. Probably too neat.

• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV’s state political reporter.

 

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