06/08/2008 - 22:00

Gallows humour from the Libs

06/08/2008 - 22:00


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It's heartening to find that members of the Liberal Party can still find something to laugh about.

Gallows humour from the Libs

It's heartening to find that members of the Liberal Party can still find something to laugh about.

Last week, State Scene telephoned an in-the-know Liberal to ask if the mounting pressure on Liberal MPs from the The West Australian for failed former Liberal leader, Colin Barnett, to replace Troy Buswell was having any impact.

"Oh, so you're one of those wanting a contest between Labor's grumpy and our grumpy," was the Liberal's prompt reply.

"If that happened the 2008 election would forever be known as the 'grumpy election'."

After that biting remark the insider said the re-elevation of Mr Barnett "could happen". As events of earlier this week have shown, that process is well and truly under way.

However, for those unfamiliar with what sparked the earlier remark, it must be said both Premier Alan Carpenter and Mr Barnett are rather humourless individuals.

They're no doubt often confused when being discussed, since both are increasingly referred to simply as 'grumpy'.

"No, I'm not talking about your grumpy, I mean our grumpy," is thus a common remark whenever there's confusion over which one is being alluded to.

Whatever else one says of the former Liberal leader, Troy Buswell, no-one can claim he's a grump.

Far from it.

More often than not he's simply over-enthusiastic, over-exuberant - quite the opposite to the shared Carpenter-Barnett predisposition.

And he can be quite witty.

This helps explain why Liberal powerbrokers belatedly moved against him to arrange the leadership, and hopefully premiership, for Mr Barnett.

Clearly, if Mr Buswell had a Carpenter-Barnett grumpy predisposition, he'd be a shoo-in to become Western Australia's 33rd premier, since WA Labor now resembles NSW's Premier Morris Iemma-led government just before that state's last election.

Most NSW voters felt it was time Labor went.

Like WA Labor it had run out of ideas, feared confronting problems that needed fixing, and had no overall plan for coming years.

All the NSW Liberals needed to do to ensure victory was to produce a minimalist set of farsighted policies.

Instead their leader, Peter Debnam, listened to his hollow men advisers and preferred to do photo ops, even showing himself off in bathers.

In many ways, conditions in WA's Liberal division resemble what's happened in NSW since the mid-1990s, except that here they've happened at a faster pace.

We've seen two leaders, Richard Court and Mr Barnett, resign and three more, Matt Birney, Paul Omodei and Mr Buswell humiliatingly dumped.

There's little doubt The West Australian launched its pro-Barnett crusade because of its ongoing public clashes with Messrs Carpenter and Attorney-General Jim McGinty, which shows who ultimately calls the political shots in Perth.

In NSW two leaders - Peter Collins (1995-98) and Kerry Chikarovski (1998-2002) - were deposed and the two after her, John Brogden (2002-05) and Peter Debnam (2005-07) resigned.

In both states, young and inexperienced leaders - Mr Brogden and Mr Buswell - encountered highly publicised incidents involving indiscretions in relation to women, with the former even attempting suicide.

That and the fact that Mr Collins' two predecessors, both premiers - Nick Greiner (1983-1992) and John Fahey (1992-1995) - also resigned, with the former actually forced to do so, indicates how bad things were.

The situation for the NSW Liberals since the early 1990s has thus been far worse than that for the party in WA.

Nor are things brighter in Victoria, home of that party's acclaimed founder, Sir Robert Menzies.

According to one little-noticed analysis of goings-on there the situation is as disastrous.

The analyst, Jonathan Lightoller, argued that the Victorian "Liberal Party's principal problem is its shortage of grass-roots members", a problem plaguing the Liberals Australia-wide.

"This core reason is the systematic shrinkage of the party organisation itself as a broad-based mass democratic party representing a diverse range of interests across the community," Mr Lightoller wrote in a recent online analysis.

"The late Sir Robert Menzies, and those who founded the Liberal Party together with him, envisaged the party as a wide-ranging inclusive body representing the entire community...

"The Victorian division of the Liberal Party is a classic illustration of what has gone wrong with the Liberal Party over recent years, though its story of woe is replicated on a lesser scale in other divisions.

"Once the jewel in the Liberal crown, the Victorian division is now a pale reflection of its former glory.

"In the late 1970s, during the early and middle years of the Fraser government, the Victorian division had over 30,000 financial members.

"However, by April 2008, membership had fallen to just over 13,000, only a limited proportion of whom are active."

Mr Lightoller says the greater the membership shrinkage, the more intense and bitter factional rivalries become. A vicious circle of degeneration thus takes over.

"The factional warfare of the Victorian division has been accompanied by an increasing centralisation of power in the state administrative committee, a diminution of branch and electorate authority and vicious pre-selection battles often aimed at putting factional candidates into winnable seats with the object being to seize control of the federal and state parliamentary parties," he said.

"The really ugly side of Victorian factionalism was revealed in May of this year when it became public that two Liberal headquarters staff had been sacked over running from the state secretariat a website directed at denigrating the state Opposition leader, Ted Baillieu.

"Two other sackings followed in the aftermath.

"This sort of undermining of Liberal leaders, MPs [and] candidates by bloggers with outrageously fabricated material has, in fact, been going on for years.

"What is remarkable is someone finally got caught and that it happened out of the party's headquarters."

Little needs be said of Queensland since the Liberals there have been swallowed up by their far stronger sometimes ally, the Nationals, something we're unlikely to see in WA soon since the Nationals here have clearly stated they don't intend even going into coalition in the unlikely event of a Liberal election win.

In South Australia a Nationals MP, Karlene Maywald, is actually a minister in the Rann Labor government, while the Liberals have lost one of their biggest donors, Bob Day, of Home Australia Ltd, following a bitter pre-selection contest for Alexander Downer's seat of Mayo.

Mr Day may team-up with Family First like former WA Liberal deputy leader, Dan Sullivan, has done.

What's all this suggest?

Mr Lightoller is certainly correct when he says the "party's principal problem is its shortage of grass-roots members." What must be confronted then is that the Liberals are unlikely to ever return to those Menzies days when membership Australia-wide was high and broadly based.

The only way they'll re-emerge as a frontline force is by transforming themselves into a vanguard of wise and truly democratic legislative guidance.

And that means Liberal MPs must accept that referendums should not only be binding upon parliaments but that voters - not just politicians - can call them.

Liberal MPs hate the thought of giving people the determining say in what should go to referendum.

If they swallowed their overblown pride and became truly democratic - something Swiss politicians did over a century ago - their party could again become the focal point of directing how Australians are governed irrespective of whether Liberals or Labor hold power.

That looks very much like a win-win situation for WA's voters and the Liberals, though the latter are too ignorant to see it.

Only then would the Liberal Party again be relevant, since the crackpot legislation Labor so often seeks to impose upon us could be democratically rejected at binding referendums brought about by the people themselves.

State Scene is referring here of real Swiss-style democracy, not our present farcical charade called representative government where politicians monopolise legislating powers.



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