25/11/2010 - 00:00

Forget polls, Libs need new schtick

25/11/2010 - 00:00


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It’s not Colin Barnett’s style to let an opinion poll alter his course, especially when it involves his path to victory at the next state election.

Forget polls, Libs need new schtick

THERE’S no shortage of advice for Colin Barnett as he ponders whether to reinstate Troy Buswell in his promised pre-Christmas cabinet reshuffle.

On November 11 this column suggested that not only was the Liberal Party’s problem-member on his way back, he was also likely to regain his old post as treasurer, currently being warehoused by the premier.

This was on the basis that the cabinet’s front line is pretty thin, and badly needs the extra grunt that Mr Buswell, for all his faults, could provide.

But a new opinion poll in last weekend’s The Sunday Times has a warning for the premier. It found that 82 per cent out of a 500-strong sample oppose such a promotion for Mr Buswell. Only 16 per cent were in favour, and the rest were uncommitted.

Mind you, the same poll gave little comfort to Labor. Only 22 per cent said Eric Ripper should stay on as opposition leader. But more about that later.

One reaction to Mr Buswell’s rating would be for the premier to quickly forget all the nice things he’s said about the Liberal bad boy in recent weeks – such as him being an “outstanding member” – and start looking further afield for a new minister.

It could save the government a lot of trouble. Why go against what seems a clearly stated community view, as reflected in a balanced sample of 500 people? Go for a safe pair of hands instead.

But to simply follow a poll like that is not Mr Barnett’s style. What’s the point of having a government, or a parliament, or a cabinet? They are all part of the decision-making process in which ideas are debated and decisions made.

If you governed by opinion poll there wouldn’t be much need for elections and a parliament, other than to provide a rubber stamp.

Sometimes governments do legislate for measures with only borderline public support. John Howard went to the 1998 federal election promising to introduce a goods and services tax. It was a significant punt on his part, and if taken in isolation would probably have cost him power. It certainly was lead weight in the bags for another Liberal leader, John Hewson, in the 1993 poll.

Of course, Mr Howard won the day in 1998, and Australia got a goods and services tax, although not exactly the model preferred by the then prime minister. But, once introduced, the tax disappeared as an issue.

It’s something Mr Barnett will weigh-up as he seeks to bolster his team, which has been subject to verbal barrages in the closing weeks of parliament for this year. In fact so persistent has the criticism been it’s a wonder he’s been able to think coherently.

The opposition has had a number of contributors, but one of the most persistent has been its treasury spokesman Ben Wyatt. Among the epithets he’s hurled at the premier, “arrogant” seems to have achieved some prominence, while his colleagues have gone so far as to call Mr Barnett “corrupt”.

It hasn’t all been one-way traffic. Mr Barnett has responded, referring to Mr Wyatt – who is seen by some within Labor as the next leader – as the “wonder boy”. And after taking offence at a question asked by Eric Ripper about the death of an elderly woman, the premier said he had lost all respect for his opposite number.

But what’s the point of all this when well-educated adults, with the affairs of state supposed to be uppermost in their minds, behave so churlishly?

From the opposition’s perspective it is to get under the skin of Mr Barnett, who is the glue that holds a fragile alliance of a government together. He’s far and away the government’s best performer in parliament, so Labor’s plan is to wear him down.

And it is having some success, partly because so few of his colleagues have the capacity to adequately defend him. The Liberals need a deflector, with a role similar to that performed by Labor’s Bob Pearce in the 1980s and 1990s

Mr Pearce was a champion debater and a motor mouth. When his side was under pressure he could easily throw out a few barbs, the house would inevitably end in uproar, and the situation would be defused.

That’s one reason why Mr Barnett would be keen for Mr Buswell to return. He is also a motor mouth, with a wit to boot. He’s the best-equipped member of the government to take on the Labor side, and let Mr Barnett get on with the business of steering the ship.

But if Mr Buswell is hoping for some clear air, after a year he’d prefer to forget, he’s not getting it yet. An upper house committee says he provided misleading information on why a number of agencies under his portfolios were late lodging their annual reports.

Mr Buswell said some of the reports were late because the agencies were undertaking some “tweaking”. But in several instances, advice from the agencies didn’t match the explanations.

The committee wants him to appear before it with an explanation. The premier has dismissed the move as a stunt, describing the committee’s report a “disgrace”.

The weekend opinion poll also contained food for thought for Labor. Only 22 per cent of those polled said Eric Ripper deserved to stay on as opposition leader. But the polling for an alternative was confused to say the least. Alannah MacTiernan, who quit state parliament earlier this year in an unsuccessful tilt at federal politics, was considered best choice by 16 per cent. Then came the high profile John Quigley on 11 per cent, and Mark McGowan on 7 per cent. Ben Wyatt scored just 3 per cent.

On the surface, that’s clearly Hobson’s choice.

Which raises the question: how do voters make up their minds? In fact how many in the sample knew the names of more than one or two Labor MPs?

And in the case of Mr Buswell, how many of those polled are aware of his record as a minister before he was dumped earlier this year for one off field indiscretion too many?

My tip is that despite the new poll and the upper house committee’s request for a ‘please explain’, the member for Vasse will still be given a Christmas present and return to the cabinet as treasurer. Mr Barnett won’t be swayed by opinion polls, especially two years out from an election.

But Labor will hold off from any move to change leaders to give the lesser lights more time to shine.

And if Mr Ripper decides to chance his arm more in taking on the government when it provides an opening, he could still be leader come the next election.

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



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