15/08/2012 - 11:03

‘Go-hard early’ plan may backfire

15/08/2012 - 11:03


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The Liberals’ decision to play the man has upped the ante in what’s likely to be a spirited state election campaign.

The Liberals’ decision to play the man has upped the ante in what’s likely to be a spirited state election campaign.

THE WA Liberal Party’s strategy to win a second term in power is a combination of the old and the new, and it contains some risks.

The ‘old’ is the law-and-order component. It has been a central feature of state election campaigns for years. The slogan ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, or a variation with the same sentiment, seems to always be an essential part of the campaigning arsenal of at least one of the major parties.

In this case it is Premier Colin Barnett’s new policy including a five-point plan to combat out-of-control weekend parties, revealed at last weekend’s Liberal state conference, that has attracted most attention.

It involves new powers for police to enter private property, ordering crowds to disperse, and the introduction of two prisoner transfer vehicles – described by the premier as “a lock up on wheels” – to enable police to remove groups of offending teenagers en masse. 

The ‘new’ aspect of the Liberal strategy is the attention given to denigrating Labor policies and the opposition’s spokespeople in general, and the opposition leader, Mark McGowan, in particular. 

Mr Barnett described Mr McGowan as a “fence sitter” after listing a number of issues on which the opposition leader has indicated he is yet to finalise his approach. The premier did not stop there, however. He also singled out Labor front benchers John Quigley, Mick Murray and Fran Logan for special attention.

Stressing that it was not his intention to ‘get personal’, Mr Barnett noted that the Corruption and Crime Commission had twice investigated Mr Quigley. 

While Mr Quigley enjoys a robust relationship with the CCC, he has not been the subject of adverse findings.

The premier also noted that Mr Murray had engaged in “abalone poaching”, and that Labor had kept Mr Logan under wraps during the 2008 election campaign.

Mr Barnett has generally avoided personality politics during his 22 years as the member for Cottesloe. When asked, he said: “I have never engaged in personal attacks”, then adding that “public figures are subject to scrutiny”.

In this case, however, it seems the cat is out of the bag, especially when his attack on Mr McGowan came just 24 hours after the Liberals’ state director, Ben Morton, also singled out the Labor leader for a bollocking, saying: “McGowan’s career is littered with examples of why he shouldn’t be premier. 

“He was embroiled in a messy pay negotiation fight with teachers which couldn’t be resolved. It took the Liberal Party to be elected to successfully negotiate with teachers,” Mr Morton said.

“But it isn’t Mark McGowan’s failings in the past that worry me, it’s his current failure to stand for something or stand for anything at all.” 

In fact the Liberals, in one sense, may have done Mr McGowan a favour. Gaining media attention is always a challenge for opposition leaders. And the Liberals have certainly helped to lift his profile.

Only one logical conclusion can be drawn from the double-barrelled attack on the Labor leader at the Liberal conference. That is the party has polling results showing he is a potential threat to the government’s re-election chances. Attack his credibility and you might cast enough doubt in voters’ minds that could wound him as an electoral threat.

Mr Barnett also accused Labor of opposing every legislative measure to strengthen the government’s law and order position. Indeed Labor has been obstructive on a number of issues, but remember that in the upper house it was the National Party – the other party in the governing alliance – which effectively killed off the high profile stop-and-search measures.

The start of general Sunday shopping in the metropolitan area later this month is a reminder it was the initiative of Mr McGowan that made change possible. Again, the Nationals were dead against it.

One area where the premier was on firm ground was his reference to the growing list of ex-union officials among Labor’s MPs. And he noted that a further four are nominated in safe Labor seats. 

In other words, at a time when union membership is shrinking, the representation of former officials in parliament is increasing; further evidence of a shrinking gene pool for Labor MPs, leading to questions as to just how in touch the party is with the wider community.

However there is also another issue on Mr Barnett’s mind right now – the fate of the government’s legislative program. It has become more of an issue since the recent cabinet reshuffle, which effectively left the governing alliance one down. That is, the decision to drop the retiring independent, Liz Constable, from the cabinet means the premier can no longer rely on her vote in the Legislative Assembly. 

That was clearly illustrated last week when Dr Constable placed 13 pages of amendments to the Integrity (Lobbyists) Bill on the Notice Paper. She wants the measures beefed up with stiff penalties up to a flat charge of $10,000, plus $1,000 daily, for breaches, based on laws in both Canada and the US.

The lobbyists legislation is the direct responsibility of Mr Barnett.

As the Liberals have only 24 seats, and the Nationals five, in the 59-seat lower house, the votes of the four independents become even more crucial than before. Dr Constable, Janet Woollard and John Bowler generally vote with the government, and Adele Carles tends to side with the opposition. But nothing is guaranteed.

Incidentally Dr Constable, who is now the longest-serving female MP ever in Western Australian politics, is also tipped to oppose government changes to the Corruption and Crime legislation aimed at giving increased focus on organised crime, as is Mr Bowler. That makes the numbers very tight indeed.

Prostitution legislation is also assured of a rough passage with Liberal backbenchers, including Peter Abetz and Graham Jacobs, flagging that they are likely to oppose the measures, along with Labor. This means that the independents again will decide the fate of what has always been a sensitive issue.

My understanding is that Liberal polling shows the Nationals don’t loom large in public consciousness and that next year’s election is being seen as a shoot out between the Liberals and Labor. That might explain Mr Barnett’s decision to now zero-in on the Labor leader and three of his team.

Mr Barnett has always presented as a statesman with a bold vision for WA. Getting his hands dirty with tough politicking runs the risk of confusing voters. It also invites a tough response from Labor against some MPs on the government side who could be vulnerable, especially the treasurer, Troy Buswell.

‘Going the man’ with the election still seven months away is a risky strategy. It could also prove to be unwise. 


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