The times they are a-changin’
Former Western Australian Liberals leader, Paul Omodei, raised eyebrows when he selected Jimmy Barnes’ ‘Working Class Man’ to accompany his entry to a major policy launch last year.
His successor Troy Buswell might ruefully be thinking of another song – the classic Monty Python tune, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.
Mr Buswell has been welcomed to the top job by an unprecedented bout of upheaval, led by the planned retirement or defection of some of his most senior parliamentary colleagues.
One-time deputy leader Dan Sullivan announced last Friday that he had quit the party and would stand as an independent at the next election, due in early 2009.
This followed the lead of the enigmatic shadow attorney general, Sue Walker, who is also planning to stand as an independent, in the seat of Nedlands.
Former leaders Colin Barnett and Matt Birney are both planning to retire at the next election and Mr Omodei is also likely to exit from parliament, given the difficulty he is facing in winning pre-selection.
Other departures include experienced members Katie Hodson-Thomas and Barbara Scott.
To add to the change, Danielle Blain is ending her term as WA party president at the party conference next month, after serving the maximum four-year term.
In light of this turmoil, you might ask: what is the bright side?
The opportunity for Mr Buswell is to recast the party with a new team and a constructive policy agenda that suits Western Australia in the 21st century.
The opportunity for positive change was highlighted by Mr Sullivan’s parting shot.
He criticised the current leader for supporting deregulation of retail trading hours, which Mr Sullivan claimed was anti-small business.
His comments reveal that, under the cloak of party founder Sir Robert Menzies, many Liberals harbour a paternalistic and interventionist bent.
They are similar to the agrarian socialists that populate many branches of the Nationals.
The debate over retail trading hours illustrated very clearly that most Liberal politiians in WA had only a remote attachment to the philosophy of free markets and individual liberty that many people associate with the party.
Under the guise of supporting small business, they ended up helping a small but very articulate and effective interest group – the so-called independent retailers.
We had the bizarre situation in WA where the state’s main business lobby group, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was at loggerheads with the Liberals.
As well as retail trading, they also clashed over the break-up of Western Power.
Free-market policies sure to get a run
Some high profile people are looking to win a parliamentary seat at the next state election.
CCI policy director Deidre Willmott, who has been a champion of free markets, is the only person to nominate for Liberal pre-selection in Colin Barnett’s seat of Cottesloe, so she is considered a certainty.
Institute of Public Affairs director and long-time free market champion, Mike Nahan, is also understood to be seeking pre-selection, for the marginal seat of Riverton, currently held by Labor’s Tony McRae by a margin of 1.8 per cent.
The entry of people like Ms Willmott and Mr Nahan would have a powerful impact inside the Liberals caucus.
The party will also be looking for a high-profile candidate to take on Sue Walker in the seat of Nedlands, which she is a good prospect of winning after gaining a strong local following – and the support of the local newspaper.
Another incoming free-marketeer is the next party president, Barry Court, brother of former premier, Richard, and son of Sir Charles Court.
As president of the Pastoralists & Grazier’s Association, he has long campaigned for the wheat industry’s single-desk marketing arrangements to be scrapped.
Public has to be part of the process
This period of big change presents Mr Buswell and the Liberals with enormous opportunities but no guarantees.
A strong free-market policy stance can scare many voters, just as many people were disenchanted with the party’s protectionist stance in recent years.
The challenge for the Liberals, and indeed for the Carpenter government, which also favours reform in areas such as retail trading an liquor licensing, is to educate the public and bring it along for the ride.
People who have lived and worked in other states and countries and seen the benefits of free markets and small-l liberal policies can also be advocates for progressive change.
The influx of new residents to Perth, which is increasingly becoming an international city, and the shift in political debate, creates an opportunity that is genuinely exciting.