01/02/2005 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Barnett’s Liberals living in the ’70s

01/02/2005 - 21:00


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Despite the Latham imbroglio and State Labor’s dismal scores in several opinion polls held late in 2004, a surprisingly large number of senior Liberals – MPs and rank-and-file – believe Gallop-led Labor is still likely to sneak home in the coming election

Despite the Latham imbroglio and State Labor’s dismal scores in several opinion polls held late in 2004, a surprisingly large number of senior Liberals – MPs and rank-and-file – believe Gallop-led Labor is still likely to sneak home in the coming election.

Chatting to such Liberal pessimists alerted State Scene to the fact that many expect the 2005 contest to be a re-run of the 1989 election, narrowly won by Labor.

For those who have forgotten Western Australia’s extravagant corporatist 1980s, Labor entered that campaign led by overly acerbic Perth family lawyer and now sometimes political columnist, Peter Dowding. Mr Dowding was hand picked for the premiership by predecessor Brian Burke and his deputy, Mal Bryce, shortly before Mr Burke left for Dublin and the Holy See.

The Liberals were led by Barry MacKinnon who, like Mr Burke, is now a successful political and commercial lobbyist.

Despite the MacKinnon challenge being described as dogged and gutsy he narrowly missed winning the needed seats despite the Coalition winning most of the statewide vote.

Soon after both leaders were dumped.

Dr Carmen Lawrence replaced Mr Dowding following a tense and carefully orchestrated February 1990 cabinet-initiated coup d’etat, while Richard Court toppled Mr MacKinnon at his second, and far better organised, party room coup attempt 27 months later.

The pessimistic Liberals believe that even a Dowding-style win by Dr Gallop at the upcoming election would assure him of retention of the premiership until 2009.

Although some expect Dr Gallop to opt for a Federal parliamentary seat – either Brand or Swan – before then, others claim he’ll persevere in State politics until returning to academia.

Incredibly, Mr Barnett’s immediate-to-short term future also seems similarly assured.

If he narrowly loses to Dr Gallop – meaning a repeat of the MacKinnon performance – he’ll definitely avoid an immediate leadership challenge.

But even if he fails to gain seats and/or overall votes he’ll probably retain the leadership until the turn of 2006-07, that is, as the 2009 contest begins looking imminent.

The reason is that, after four years of a rickety Barnett leadership, the parliamentary Liberal Party still lacks a likely-to-be-successful challenger.

However, as early 2007 approaches a number of Liberal MPs who are presently prepared to leave Mr Barnett at the helm will reconsider their longer-term political aspirations and the Coalition’s prospects, and will begin seriously comparing his likely performance into 2008 and beyond to that of others within their ranks.

Two possible contenders are Mr Court’s Nedlands successor, Sue Walker, and Kalgoorlie MLA Matt Birney.

Mr Barnett’s deputy, Dan Sullivan, is no longer seen as a likely contender.

However he could, in early 2007, team up either with Walker or Birney to reinforce a Barnett challenge.

All this, of course, assumes that the Liberal pessimists – all seasoned political campaigners or operatives, one should add – have read WA’s political mood correctly, despite polls indicating quite the contrary.

But what if they’re wrong and the outcome is as the polls began predicting in late 2004?

When State Scene pressed them on what things may be like if Mr Barnett won, none seemed to expect vast differences to the less-than-impressive Gallop years.

None envisioned a reformist era suddenly descending upon a Barnett-led WA.

Several believed the first thing one could expect from a Barnett-Max Trenorden Coalition is the reinstitution of a 17-member ministry, not just 14 like Labor, with one of the extra three ministers being Independent Liberal Dr Liz Constable.

This, of course, would mean one long-time loyal Liberal front-bencher would be deprived of ministerial rank.

Despite Dr Constable having entered parliament against an endorsed Liberal, Mr Barnett could see her as an ally, so could take the opportunity of bringing her – and thus her blue ribbon Churchlands seat – back into the Liberal fold.

And he’d face little or no overt opposition in his party room because Liberal leaders are at their most powerful immediately after elections, when they’re choosing their cabinet.

Anyone with ministerial aspirations who objected too loudly to a Constable ministerial red carpet – despite her not being a card-carrying Liberal – would risk ensuring they remained back-benchers.

Another plus from such a move would be that it would boost Mr Barnett’s support base by an extra vote.

After such a brief hiccup things would quickly return to about where they are now under Dr Gallop.

If one looks closely at Dr Gallop and Mr Barnett there’s little discernible difference between them on most State development and economic issues.

And, when one encounters a rare difference, it can be the opposite of what you’d expect between an alleged socialist comrade and his opposite number.

Take, for example, Labor’s recent attempt to break-up Western Power’s monopoly so it’s forced to face greater competition in the areas of electricity generation and marketing.

Dr Gallop, with his deputy Eric Ripper, initiated a far-sighted competitive reformist program called disaggregation.

But what of Mr Barnett?

He moved heaven and earth to ensure the upper house voted to retain the huge socialist energy conglomerate intact.

Dr Gallop in this case championed reform in the direction of competitive enterprise.

That’s something WA Liberal ‘dries’ such as John Hyde, Ross McLean and Peter Shack when they were Federal MPs, had doggedly promoted nationally throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, whereas Mr Barnett sought to ensure Western Power survived unscathed, in other words, the status quo.

So where Dr Gallop and Mr Barnett actually clashed on the crucial question of energy reform, their orientations were quite different to what one would have expected to arise from their respective party traditions.

All the early signs therefore point to the fact that, in the event of the Liberal pessimists being wrong, a Barnett-Trenorden government would see WA treading the non-reformist path that the Malcolm Fraser-Doug Anthony governments took Australia down after dramatically dislodging Gough Whitlam-led Labor from power in 1975.

Yes, for WA, it would be back to the late 1970s.


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