04/07/2012 - 11:00

Heartland loses the love for Liberal leader

04/07/2012 - 11:00

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The rumblings over Colin Barnett’s leadership style are getting louder.

The rumblings over Colin Barnett’s leadership style are getting louder.

KEY figures across Perth’s traditional Liberal heartland – the western suburbs – are distancing themselves
from Colin Barnett’s minority
government.

Growing numbers of influential long-time western suburban residents are publicly speaking out against Mr Barnett’s desires to gain greater bureaucratic control over planning and local governance of Nedlands, Dalkeith, Peppermint Grove, Mosman Park, Cottesloe, and Swanbourne.

Crucially, the region has three safe non-Labor seats: Cottesloe, held by the premier; Nedlands, held by Bill Marmion; and Churchlands, held by Liz Constable.  

That, in anyone’s language, is Western Australia’s Liberal heartland; it has been ‘true blue’ for decades.

It’s where Sir Charles Court and son, Richard, lived and represented.

It’s where Sir Paul Hasluck lived, and from 1949 until 1969 represented in Canberra.

It’s where one-time Liberal leader, Bill Hassell, was politically impregnable.

But this long-standing electoral backing for the Liberal Party is noticeably fracturing, and the one primarily responsible for this is Mr Barnett, about whom many Liberals have had grave doubts for more than a decade.

Many now believe that, if there’s no change, three independent candidates will emerge to try to dislodge Messrs Barnett and Marmion, and deny the Liberals Churchlands now that Dr Constable is retiring.

Mr Barnett has steadily alienated segments of this heartland since he snuck into power in September 2008.

Is it coincidence that many chuckled when former Labor leader, Eric Ripper, bestowed upon him the nickname The Emperor? Well before that, one even heard Liberals calling him Col Pot. And now it’s become Emperor Col Pot.

Is this merely traditional Aussie disrespect for the high and mighty, or is it much more?

I recently spoke with a long-time Liberal who, for several decades, was one of the party’s real movers and shakers, so has excellent insights into Mr Barnett’s often puzzling modus operandi.

One interesting revelation was that Mr Barnett’s parliamentary colleagues, after the Court government was ousted by Geoff Gallop-led Labor in 2001, immediately devised two ‘Anyone But Colin’ plans to ensure he never became leader.

Plan A, which attracted considerable media attention, involved coaxing federal Curtin MP Julie Bishop from Canberra to take over Mr Court’s Nedlands seat and become state Liberal leader.

This plan vaporised when Ms Bishop buckled to heavy pressure from Barnett backers, who’d urged her not to proceed.

Consequently ‘plan B’ was put into action.

This involved north-west MP Rod Sweetman challenging Mr Barnett in a leadership ballot.

Although few MPs backing Mr Sweetman were confident he’d have the numbers, he lost by only two votes.

But plan B was still felt worthwhile because it may have resulted in Mr Barnett toning down his authoritarian tendencies and becoming a collegiate, rather than secretive, leader.

Instead of taking the Bishop-Sweetman challenges as warnings, however, Mr Barnett bunkered down with a tiny coterie of advisers until the 2005 election.

The informant added that the reason Mr Barnett lost that election – aka Colin’s Kimberley Canal Campaign – can be traced to his failure to learn from both of the challenges he had faced.

Rather than becoming a collegiate leader, he further shied away from consulting backbenchers, and even shadow ministers, on his plans.

And this, as his Kimberley Canal idea so clearly demonstrated, denied the Liberals victory in 2005.

What now? What of the heartland that’s seeing so many long-time Liberal loyalists increasingly speak out against various Barnett policies?

According to the latest issue of the influential western suburbs weekly, The Post, a new community lobby group, the Western Suburbs Alliance (WSA), has emerged to counter a range of Barnett moves.

WSA includes six already active local groups – SOS Subiaco, SOS Cottesloe, Keep Cott Low, Nedlands Electors Association, People Against Density Dalkeith, and the City Gatekeepers.

Although not a party political entity, WSA’s convenors haven’t discounted backing independent candidates at next March’s state election.

“What will it take for Premier Barnett, Planning Minister John Day, Environment Minister Bill Marmion, and the Liberal government to respond to the growing wave of fear, anger and alienation across the western suburbs?” WSA’s letter, which carries 37 signatures including four mayors and three former mayors, says. 

“Do they really feel they can go on treating us with utter contempt whenever we express our views on these matters?

“Fourteen thousand of us signed petitions against the Cottesloe beachfront development and 11,000 regarding the Perth Waterfront Development and re-routing of Riverside Drive. 

“The electors made 800 submissions against the five-storey Waratah Avenue Development in Dalkeith. 

“Subiaco has been overwhelmed with protests against high-rise developments. And we have written to our public representatives.

‘‘All to no avail.”

It goes on to object to “unwanted and undesirable state government moves to create higher density, high-rise development” and the stripping of local councils of powers “for many developments over $3 million and for all over $7 million”. 

“To further strengthen his control, the premier states that he wishes to have fewer councils,” it continues.

“The premier continues with his reckless plans regardless of well-researched, well-considered and well-argued professional, local government, community and individual submissions on planning and local government management issues.”

The open letter follows one in The Post in May, headlined ‘Why we object to the Waterfront Plan’, which carried 12 signatories, including those of: former Perth lord mayor, Peter Nattrass; one-time Liberal leader, Bill Hassell; and long-time Liberal Party backer, engineer and builder, Harold Clough.

Among other things, they’ve condemned the Barnett idea of cutting Riverside Drive to excavate Esplanade Park.

They stressed this would ‘gridlock’ CBD traffic flows and lead to traffic congestion to and from the western suburbs, South Perth and Como. 

Many backing such increasingly strongly held views believe the time is coming for endorsement of independent candidates for Nedlands, Cottesloe and Churchlands.

Such a move would aim to oust Mr Barnett from parliament and gain balance-of-power status.

Things have certainly moved a long way since I first noted rumblings against Mr Barnett across the heartland suburbs.

Even one of the state’s most cautious political commentators, Harry Phillips, believes change may be in the wind. Dr Phillips has said if high-profile independents attracted Labor and Greens preferences they’d have a good chance of winning.

“If I was the government, I’d be just nervous at this stage,” he added.

• The writer is a South Perth member of the City Gatekeepers.


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