11/04/2006 - 22:00

Despair as the machine breaks

11/04/2006 - 22:00


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A telling paragraph, carried in a western suburban newspaper story, was drawn to State Scene’s attention last week.

Despair as the machine breaks

A telling paragraph, carried in a western suburban newspaper story, was drawn to State Scene’s attention last week.

Headlined, ‘Barnett and Walker back in Business’, it read: “Friends of Ms Walker said she and Mr Barnett were so full of despair about the party machine they would have been open to being asked to consider a new party, without factions.”

The journalist was reporting on how both these holders of western suburban blue-ribbon seats felt just before the toppling of Matt Birney by the man they backed, Paul Omodei.

Whether that journalist accurately reported what Ms Walker’s friends allegedly suspected State Scene cannot say.

What can, however, be said is that several months ago a party insider alerted State Scene to growing concerns within Liberal parliamentary ranks that Ms Walker could leave the Liberals to become the third non-Labor lower house female independent.

The others, Liz Constable and Janet Woollard, represent the blue-ribbon Liberal seats of Churchlands and Alfred Cove, respectively.

The suburban newspaper has certainly gone some way to confirming those suspicions.

The report is also a measure of the bitterness surrounding the split between the Birney and Omodei camps, so one would be brave contending the Liberals are likely to regain power in the foreseeable future.

However, now that the question of walkouts has been raised, what of others perhaps walking out in the foreseeable future?

In answering this question it must firstly be said that predicting even minor disputes within parties is a risky exercise indeed.

However, since State Scene wasn’t the first to raise such an eventuality, why not be brave and go on to consider this question?

The first thing that needs saying is that the Labor Party, despite the occasional factional rumble, is more united than ever.

Not so Western Australia’s conservatives.

The primary division within the conservative camp is, of course, between Liberals and Nationals, since both, as well as electorally combating Labor, compete for funds and voter support beyond the Perth metropolitan area.

This tussle was further intensified in January when Nationals leader Brendan Grylls announced that the Nationals would never enter a conservative coalition even if the combined number of Liberal and Nationals seats won exceeded those of Labor.

In a real sense, therefore, the Nationals have already walked out.

What this means is that if Mr Omodei, by quite a stretch of the imagination, won, say, 28 seats and the Nationals three – so 31 together, in the lower house’s 59 – to Labor’s 28, a conservative coalition wouldn’t necessarily emerge since the Nationals have resolved to stay outside the tent.

Their resolution would be even more interesting if the Liberals won, say, 27 with Dr Woollard returned, and the Nationals taking two seats.

That would give the three-way fractured conservative side 30 seats to Labor’s 29, making Labor the largest party, but with the Nationals refusing to talk turkey with the 27 Liberals and Mrs Woollard.

With Mr Grylls rejecting a coalition, and assuming Dr Woollard is returned and teams up with the Omodei-led Liberals, a minority Liberal government of 27 MPs could presumably eventually emerge even if Labor held 29 seats – but only if the outsider Nationals gave the conservatives some sort of guarantee they’d back a minority government on certain key votes beyond a formal coalition commitment.

Now, it must be stressed that such numerical combinations are possibilities after February 2009.

Please note, Independent Liberal Dr Constable isn’t included because of strong rumours she’ll retire in 2009.

But if that changed, the conservative side’s make-up would be even more complex.

Such suggested numerical breakdowns are presented to highlight just how fractured WA’s conservative side already is.

And we haven’t even reached the issues of walkouts or splits, as hinted at in that western suburban newspaper report.

The financial impact upon the Liberals of a withdrawal by some MPs to either become independents or create another conservative grouping would be crippling.

And it would have been particularly so had Ms Walker and Mr Barnett done what those friends of the former alluded to, since their blue-ribbon seats incorporate Perth’s wealthiest suburbs in which many well-heeled donors live.

Consider also another financially related factor.

As 1980s Labor premier Brian Burke showed with his WA Inc approach to governance that favoured well-heeled local business types, such people steadily redirected their loyalties and moved, with cheque books in hand, towards Labor.

Who remembers the Burke government’s bulging fundraising Curtin Foundation?

With the WA Liberals increasingly looking like a permanently disunited opposition, who could blame growing numbers of businessmen for steadily deserting the Liberals for Labor?

It happened in the 1980s, so it can quite easily happen again.

Direct and ongoing contacts with key Labor ministers can save lots of businessmen lots of heartburn arising from backing the Liberals, who seem most unlikely to form government in the foreseeable future.

But there may well be worse to come for the conservative side.

With the new Omodei camp that’s composed of the Barnett loyalists and the powerful Senator Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison faction, we can expect to see many of those linked to the pro-Birney camp to be challenged in the coming round of state seat preselections.

The reason is that a major electoral redistribution that reflects last year’s Jim McGinty one-vote-one-value legislation is due, meaning all seats are set to see a major re-drawing of boundaries.

And whenever this happens, sitting members inevitably seek preselection for the safest seat nearest to their about-to-be abolished one.

Such preselections will be accompanied by considerable backroom factional wheeling and dealing both in upper and lower house preselections.

Naturally the Barnett and Campbell-Ellison loyalists sitting on the various preselection panels can be expected to back those seen as loyal to that alliance, which made Mr Omodei leader.

Now, one needn’t be Copernicus to see that if all, or nearly all, sitting MPs identified as not having fallen into line with the desires of the party’s currently ruling alliance were to constantly miss being preselected for safer seats, then something cataclysmic could well occur.

By that State Scene means those finding themselves in the ‘plenty of nothing’ category, especially if there a substantial number of them, could together become “open to being asked to consider a new party”, to quote the words used in that western suburban report when referring to Ms Walker and Mr Barnett while they felt down and but not quite out.

The successful ousting of Mr Birney has revealed that all sorts of possibilities, which until a few months ago only few could have ima-gined, may now be put on the table.

And a major split in Liberal parliamentary ranks is certainly one such possibility with the event that would most likely spark it being widespread moves to disendorse some former Birney backers during 2007-08.

In other words a re-run – but on a far broader scale – of the type of clandestine operation undertaken in mid-2004 to disendorse Liberal upper house MP, Allan Cadby.

Those tempted to ignite a re-run of the Cadby purge should recall that he returned their career-killing ‘favour’ in trumps by voting for the McGinty one-vote-one-value legislation, which is today at the very heart of one of the conservatives many problems – too few safe seats chased by too many desperate conservatives.


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