23/09/2013 - 15:54

Instability stalks Liberals

23/09/2013 - 15:54

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Bad economic news and some personnel mismanagement are putting pressure on Colin Barnett’s leadership.

Instability stalks Liberals
LEADERSHIP MATERIAL?: Liberal leadership rumblings could play out in Troy Buswell’s favour in a year or two.

Bad economic news and some personnel mismanagement are putting pressure on Colin Barnett's leadership.

Recent speculation over Colin Barnett’s future as leader of the Liberal Party and premier means one of two things -- either he has managed to alienate a big section of his party’s members within six months of leading them to a convincing win, or a group of malcontents is simply determined to stir the pot.

What is beyond doubt, however, is the appalling timing of the rumours for the government. When the state’s economic credentials are under challenge and its credit rating has just been downgraded, stability at the top is vital.

There’s no doubt that a number of Liberal MPs are disappointed. This partly revolves around appointments to the cabinet. All politicians worth their salt see themselves as ministers. Those who make it are delighted. Those who miss out are disappointed. Those who are dumped are usually shocked.

But the bald truth is that the cabinet can only accommodate 17 members, with the position of ministerial secretaries seen as consolation prizes, or stepping stones for advancement. The position of speaker is usually reserved for the ‘18th person’ -- the last member omitted in the ministerial race.

Mr Barnett has had two ministerial reshuffles in the past 18 months; in both cases he has alienated colleagues.

Last year after then attorney-general and treasurer -- and heir apparent -- Christian Porter flagged he was moving into the federal arena, the premier decided it was time to give his frontbench a shakeup. ‘Renewal’ is a more neutral term.

In addition to Mr Porter, Liz Constable and Rob Johnson were stood down as education and police minister respectively to make way for new blood. In came former police officer Murray Cowper, Liza Harvey and lawyer Michael Mischin, who became attorney general. While Dr Constable made little public comment about the change, Mr Johnson made it clear he was very unhappy. He then set his sights on becoming speaker after the March election.

When Mr Barnett chose his post-election team, however, there were more changes -- and inevitably, more disappointments. Veteran minister Norman Moore retired, so that was one compulsory change. But the premier also demoted other upper house members Simon O’Brien and Robyn McSweeney. In the lower house, Bunbury MP John Castrilli left the cabinet   (apparently of his own) and Mr Cowper returned to the backbench.

Those promoted included Ken Baston, Joe Francis, Tony Simpson and Albert Jacob. And Michael Sutherland got the speaker’s job ahead of Mr Johnson.

New blood in the ministry is occasionally essential; the key is how change is managed.

In federal politics, former ministers can be let down lightly. Diplomatic posts are a good consolation prize. In Western Australia there is only one prize, and that is the agent general’s position in London. Former MPs to fill it over the past 30 years include Ron Davies (Labor) and Clive Griffiths and Bill Hassell (both Liberal). In fact Norman Moore was offered the post last year, but declined for family reasons.

An additional issue for shake-ups in the Liberal team is that, unlike Labor, ultimate responsibility rests with the leader. The Labor caucus -- with significant manipulation to achieve factional balance, even ahead of merit, occasionally -- selects the front bench, whether in government or opposition. Recognition can be given to the leader’s views in certain cases, such as when Geoff Gallop vetoed the appointment of Norm Marlborough to the ministry in 2005. Mr Marlborough made the frontbench the next year when Alan Carpenter took over.

With the Liberals, though, the leader has all the power. So when he/she promotes one MP, he/she disappoints another. And that can spell trouble, with no consolation prize to hand out. So there is now a core of disappointed ex-ministers on the Liberal back bench.

I was told during a visit to Parliament House before last month’s budget that “Troy Buswell has the numbers to beat Colin Barnett in a leadership ballot”. The rider was that “nothing would happen before the budget was delivered”.

What’s going on? Do MPs learn nothing? Did the proponents of this rumour not see what the dumping of Kevin Rudd did to federal Labor in 2010? The source said Mr Buswell “had the support”. Cartoonists would have a field day.

The other challenge for the government, which is of more importance to the electorate, is on the economic front. Ironically the timing of the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s decision to downgrade the state’s AAA credit rating to AA+ could prove a blessing in disguise.

The government has failed lamentably to justify why it intends axing 500 jobs in the Department of Education. The downgrading just might help get the message across that economic reality demands the big-spending days are over.

If Mr Buswell, as treasurer, can drive that message home he will deserve to become a serious leadership contender -- perhaps in 2015. 


STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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