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Joe Poprzeczny - State Scene: Behind political power

ALTHOUGH WA’s 116 State and Federal MPs don’t publicly refer to July as ‘conference month’ they could, because that’s when Labor and the Liberals now hold their annual State conferences.

About 400 delegates from either party congregate in one of Perth’s flashier hotels, where they and their MPs take over a regal ballroom and associated swanky facilities for two days and two evenings.

Rarely asked is what kind of people attend such get-togethers and why.

This year State Scene attended both conferences to help ponder these questions.

By July 31 about 800 West Aussies had participated directly in WA’s two major annual political events.

That, of course, meant the remaining 1.9 million who inhabit Australia’s western third had no involvement whatsoever.

For the vast majority of West Aussies, both weekend events were something that was briefly reported in the State’s two tabloid newspapers and during TV evening news bulletins, which were, necessarily, quite superficial.

That said, it’s worth noting that political conferences attract what one political scientist described as the “hard backside brigade” because tough posteriors are precisely what the 800 Labor and Liberal delegates have in common.

He specifically contended that in any population less than 1 per cent of the people had the inclination and ability to sit around on hard chairs or stools for hours on end debating, discussing and plotting political intrigues, and it’s from these ranks that those who govern us emerge.

Normal people – meaning most in any population – prefer being home with family and loved ones or else with mates and pals at some congenial venue.

Politicians and ardent party activists, under this definition, are abnormal.

Because they have “hard backsides” they can endure long sitting sessions.

They’re the ones with the patience to sit out long, boring branch and other party meetings, evenings on end, month in month out.

True, the rewards for some can be high. Parliamentary salaries and associated perks and prestige are certainly not to be scoffed at.

Despite these attractions, however, most people simply don’t have the posterior or mental outlook to sit through party branch and divisional meetings and State conference, year in year out.

However, this common party activist feature shouldn’t be interpreted to mean they’re necessarily a dour lot, though some undoubtedly are.

Quite the contrary.

Both July conferences this year had more smiling delegates and politicians than I’ve seen for a long time.

Labor’s new Health Minister, Jim McGinty, never stopped smiling, while Premier Geoff Gallop sat for the entire Sunday morning session at a head table, smiling away at the 400 delegates before him.

Even Liberal leader Colin Barnett looked relatively jovial, some of the time, which is saying something.

The atmosphere in each ballroom was one of marked friendship and camaraderie. There was an enormous amount of backslapping and hand shaking at both events.

One could well have been attending a wine and cheese evening or a bingo event.

State Scene can therefore safely report that WA’s “hard backside brigade” can be a jovial lot.

Another often ignored aspect of such events is that they offer their respective party national leaders an opportunity to meet and address their most faithful, to shake hands and have brief chats.

Consequently, Labor leader Simon Crean visited Perth, as did Prime Minister John Howard.

Both men warned delegates against the other.

Mr Howard, for instance, stressed during a breakfast that Australian voters, as a rule, gave newly elected or first-term governments second terms, but tended to reject them when they sought third terms.

Two notable exceptions, he said, were WA Labor’s John Tonkin Government (1979-82) and South Australia’s Liberal David Tonkin Government (1971-74), naturally remarking on the Tonkin surname.

He chose this theme because it neatly fits the present Liberal electoral predicaments.

When Mr Howard clashes with Crean-led Labor, either late 2004 or early 2005, he’ll be seeking a third term while the Barnett-led Liberals will in 2005 challenge Dr Gallop for the first time, meaning the odds are stacked against the Liberals both times.

Another feature is that factions in both parties have a chance to clash.

State Labor’s leftists attempted to snatch the party’s presidency from rightist power broker and Police Minister Michelle Roberts, but narrowly failed.

At the Liberal jamboree, long-time Noel Crichton-Browne proteges Senators Christopher Ellison and Ian Campbell saw their preferred candidates for the party’s presidency, Kim Keogh, lose out to Danielle Blain, who had solid backing from Curtin MHR Julie Bishop and newly elected senator, David Johnston.

Another feature is that when all the electronic equipment, party banners and literature are removed from conferences venues, both party leaderships walk away feeling that they’ve been neither directed to adopt new policies nor do away with old ones.

Basically party leadership groups direct and control party policy, and tightly, which leaves one wondering why State conferences – apart from giving their respective “hard backside brigades” a feeling of participation – are ever held.

State Scene asked a Labor delegate why he’d attended. “It’s good fun,” he said.

A Liberal delegate said: “It’s a chance to meet old friends.”

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