05/04/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Conservatives deal themselves out

05/04/2005 - 22:00


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Lots of conservative-minded city and country Western Australians remain bitter about the Barnett-led Liberals’ needless loss of the February 26 State election.

Lots of conservative-minded city and country Western Australians remain bitter about the Barnett-led Liberals’ needless loss of the February 26 State election.

Most blame the decision to opt for the Kimberley-to-Perth canal, which they feel helped ensure the conservatives snatched defeat from the jaws of a likely victory.

However, as silly as running an election campaign on an uncosted and unassessed $2 billion blue-sky project turned out to be, this wasn’t the only blunder by the conservative camp.

The other misconceived ploy was the Nationals’ decision to preference Western Australia’s most ardent leftists, the Greens, ahead of a range of smaller conservative-oriented parties in the upper house, most especially in the contest for the crucial last spot in the South West region.

What the Nationals did by embarking on such a shortsighted path was to ensure Labor and the Greens together would continue controlling that chamber for another four years.

In other words, although this decision wasn’t as bad from the conservative standpoint as failing to gain government, that is, not winning a lower house majority, which Mr Barnett managed because of his canal proposal, it was to be the next worst thing, if not equally as bad.

The best place to begin outlining this second conservative blunder is to look back to March 2004 when Mr Barnett and Nationals leader Max Trenorden announced they’d be entering a formal alliance to engage Gallop-led Labor.

That was basically a re-run of the 1992 co-operation agreement between then Liberal leader Richard Court and Nationals leader Hendy Cowan.

Messrs Barnett and Trenorden and the heads of their respective parties consequently signed a pact, which meant both conservative parties and their parliamentary wings were signatories.

A joint shadow cabinet was created and it seemed that the rural-based Nationals and rural and urban-based Liberals would be working smoothly together in their bid to remove left-of-centre Labor.

For a time things ran relatively smoothly.

Then, like a bolt from the blue, it emerged that the Nationals had secretly entered into a preference side deal with, of all parties, the leftist Greens.

In other words the Nationals backslid on the Liberals, something it seems their pact failed to prohibit.

Just as we can’t find out precisely who in the Liberal camp was responsible for making a $2 billion canal the centrepiece of the party’s campaign, it’s difficult to discover who was responsible for the Nationals/Greens preference side deal.

There are fingers pointing everywhere at the moment. Some point in the direction of the then leadership of the Nationals’ parliamentary wing, while others have focused their attention on the executive arm.

Under the terms of the unexpected side deal the Greens were to direct preferences to Nationals lower house candidates in exchange for Nationals preferences in upper house contests where the Greens had a chance of winning seats.

As things transpired Greens lower house preferences had no impact in any seat.

But Nationals upper house preferences in the South West ensured that Greens candidate Paul Llewellyn launched his parliamentary career.

If the Nationals hadn’t entered the side deal and instead preferenced Family First or the Christian Democrats, or similarly oriented conservative groups, one of those candidates would now hold Mr Llewellyn’s seat.

In other words there would be another, an extra, conservative-minded upper house member, rather than the Green Mr Llewellyn, who could be counted on to back the Liberals and Nationals on most issues.

And there would be just one Green, Giz Watson.

Currently, and until May 22, the upper house’s line-up is 13 Labor, five Greens, so a total of 18 leftists, which translates into 17 votes on the floor since Labor provides the non-voting president.

The conservative side is presently 11 Liberals, one Independent Liberal, one National, and three former One Nationers, a total of 16, or one vote fewer than the left, meaning the five Greens have the balance of power.

If the Nationals hadn’t done their Greens side deal the post May 22 2005 upper house would have been 16 Labor and one Green, so 17 leftists.

The conservative side would have been 15 Liberals, one National and one Family First or Christian Democrats, so 17 conservatives.

But with Labor providing the president the vote on the floor would have been 16-17 the conservative way, the very opposite to what it’s set to be. That one upper house vote – whether a Green or a conservative – makes all the difference.

And that difference means the final say over whether Gallop Government legislation passes or not, making it a truly powerful or determining position. The National-Greens side deal has therefore meant the upper house remains in the control of the left until May 2009.

Little wonder so many city and rural Liberals are mumbling words about the Nationals like – “With friends like that you don’t need …”.

But this isn’t the first time WA conservatives have shot themselves in the foot with upper house preferences.

Don’t forget the 2001 election, which heralded the emergence of One Nation with three members in the upper house.

And don’t forget that, in that contest, if they had directed their preferences to the conservative side – Liberals or Nationals – the three One Nation members would have gained the balance of power between May 2001 and May 2005, not the Greens.

But One Nation did precisely what the Trenorden-led Nationals did at the recent election – they preferenced to the Greens ahead of either the conservative Liberals or Nationals, thereby giving the five Greens the balance of power.

In other words, WA’s conservatives have now twice, and at consecutive elections, given the balance of power in the upper house to WA’s most ardent leftist party.

One is thus compelled to dip one’s lid to the Greens for political astuteness in shrewdly maximising their minor party status through deals with WA’s dull-witted conservatives.

In 2001 the Greens gained the balance of power with their five members.

This time, even though losing three of them, they managed to retain that balance of power, meaning they remain a force to be reckoned despite there only being two of them.

Not bad for a party that a decade ago hardly registered on WA’s political radar screen. Then again, the ongoing stupidity of WA conservatism has certainly helped.


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