05/09/2006 - 22:00

Factional fights hurting Libs

05/09/2006 - 22:00


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Towards the end of last month, State Scene was invited to a salubrious business lunch that was attended by a state Liberal MP, who quite promptly made it clear he was factionally unaligned.

Towards the end of last month, State Scene was invited to a salubrious business lunch that was attended by a state Liberal MP, who quite promptly made it clear he was factionally unaligned.

This means he shuns the powerful faction of senators Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison, as well as its contending faction, which it’s difficult to name since no-one actually leads the anti-Campbell-Ellison group.

The MP also strongly indicated that he wished to see a Liberal state government emerge sooner rather than later.

The only beneficiary of the current rabid Liberal factionalism is, of course, the Labor Party.

Despite being fully aware of this, the insightful Liberal MP made it quite clear that things seemed unlikely to improve within his ranks in the foreseeable future.

According to the MP, although both factions had been more or less operational during the Richard Court era, they hadn’t fully crystallised, since most MPs were too busy enjoying the spoils of office.

But all this ended in early 2001 with Mr Court’s departure and the bungled attempt to parachute in from Canberra one-time Noel Crichton-Browne party associate, Curtin MHR Julie Bishop, to lead the state Liberals, thereby thwarting Colin Barnett’s long-known leadership aspirations.

The four succeeding Barnett calendar years – 2001-04 – were ones of frenetic factional activity, most especially by Senator Campbell, who even put on to his ministerial staff Colin Edwardes, husband of former Barnett adviser, confidante and then frontbencher, Cheryl.

That move helped marry up the Campbell-Ellison backers with the handful of needed Barnett loyalist to further boost numbers.

Mr Edwardes went on to become a key player in factional infighting as a member of a temporary sub-faction, the ‘northern alliance’, whose sole mission was to remove from parliament a designated enemy, upper house MP, Alan Cadby, seen as an ally of Mr Crichton-Browne.

In this regard the ‘northern alliance’ was successful, and even came within a vote of toppling upper house MP, George Cash, also seen as a Crichton-Browne ally.

Moves were even made behind the scenes to disendorse the party’s then deputy leader, Dan Sullivan.

But some very straight and unambiguous talking by Mr Sullivan’s backers to the Barnett group put paid to that plot.

The major outcome of all this toing-and-froing between the Campbell-Ellison faction and its opponents came in 2004, the 12 or so months preceding the February 2005 state election, during which preselection contests were held.

The long and the short of that saga was that 10 of the newly endorsed state Liberal upper and lower house MPs now owe their remunerative careers to the Campbell-Ellison group.

This markedly boosted faction, plus the Barnett loyalists, currently dominates the state parliamentary wing and it’s this combined force that ensured Mr Barnett’s successor, the inexperienced Matt Birney, was toppled after just one year as leader.

Clearly, forgiveness and magnanimity are not this faction’s major virtues.

Because Mr Birney was seen by certain power brokers as never likely to become a Campbell-Ellison factionalist, it was only a matter of time before he was targetted for dislodging.

Liberal factionalism has, therefore, fully crystallised during the past 18 months of opposition.

The 12 months before that – all of calendar year 2004 – thus laid a firm basis for what now factionally prevails.

In some ways, however, Mr Birney was his own worst enemy.

There were several reasons for this, with the most crucial being that he hailed from Kalgoorlie where factionalism, during his endorsement period, never existed; unlike across virtually all metropolitan Perth branches and all divisions.

This meant he was completely unaccustomed to factional brawling, factional ring-arounds, factional number crunching, and all that people such as senators Campbell and Ellison and Mr Edwardes take for granted.

State Scene recalls a brief meeting with Mr Birney in mid-2005 during which factionalism and related issues were discussed.

During that chat he contended that factionalism wasn’t an issue.

This prompted State Scene to discuss his outlook with another insider, one with years of Liberal Party experience, who assessed him thus: “Look, Matt simply hasn’t got a clue about factions because the branch he’s from was basically a mates beer drinking club that discussed Liberal Party affairs before they all had a few.”

Put otherwise Mr Birney simply hadn’t come through the Liberal Party’s school of hard factional knocks, so couldn’t appreciate what was happening all around him during 2005, as his demise was being quietly plotted.

That, of course, promptly changed after his dumping when the Campbell-Ellison faction and the Barnett loyalists merged to vote for their pre-arranged candidate, Paul Omodei.

State Scene would now go so far as to say that Mr Birney has become quite an expert on the party’s malicious factional make-up.

Let’s, however, return to the unaligned Liberal MP at that salubrious business lunch.

According to him, several of his colleagues have urged that the parliamentary wing rid itself entirely of factionalism, primarily because this has been imposed upon it by those in the federal sphere – primarily, senators Campbell and Ellison.

This naturally prompted State Scene to ask the MP: “Well, are they [the State MPs] going to do that?”

“No,” was his reply, “It’s now too deeply ingrained.”

What seemed to be the next obvious question was then put.

“Look, Labor has factions and they’ve been around for years and things seem to work okay there – so why not the same with the Liberals?” State Scene asked.

The MP’s reply used words to the effect that, in the Labor Party the factions act to integrate the party whereas in the Liberal Party, which is unaccustomed to factions, they are a disintegrating factor.

Put bluntly, therefore, Liberal factionalism has a suicidal streak.

It’s not only denying the Liberals the chance of gaining power but could spark a break-up if there was ever a broader repeat run of the events that destroyed Mr Cadby’s career.

Once Labor’s right, left and centre factions hold a series of negotiations on, say, who will be endorsed for a particular seat, and the deal is struck, all fall in behind that decision.

That’s precisely what happened recently in Geoff Gallop’s seat of Victoria Park, which went to the right’s Ben Wyatt.

That endorsement will be counterbalanced when another seat is handed to the left, and after that another to the centrists.

But that civility is not what happens in the markedly less gentlemanly Liberal fold.

Just look at the way Mr Cadby was stalked and finally disendorsed, with Mr Cash nearly following.

Liberal factionalism, as it presently operates, appears to be based on an ethic of winner takes all, and all of the time, whereas with Labor factionalism there’s an ethic of sharing the spoils of office and the seats three ways.

It’s worth reiterating that the determined drive to remove Mr Cadby never faltered, even after the party was repeatedly warned that if he was disendorsed he’d back Attorney-General Jim McGinty’s one-vote-one-value legislation, since Mr Cadby held the balance of power in the upper house.

The fact that the anti-Cadby campaign also nearly toppled Mr Cash further confirms the existence of a suicidal, or, to use the non-aligned Liberal MP’s far nicer term, disintegrating, streak within WA Liberal factionalism.

Not even the Liberal Party’s greatest fear – one-vote-one-value – was therefore enough to dissuade those who wanted Mr Cadby out to hold back.

Most pundits contend that Mr McGinty’s seat redistributing legislation has the potential to deny the Liberals power for the next two elections, perhaps longer.

Now that it’s law, the party is therefore staring down the barrel of remaining in opposition until 2013, and possibly even until the 2017 election.

Nothing as suicidal as that would have occurred on Labor’s side.

Labor’s trio of factions would instead have worked their way through any prospect as bleak as that and knuckled out a compromise, something that the suicidal Liberal factions now seem incapable of doing.


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