28/06/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Liberals struggle for vision

28/06/2005 - 22:00


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Last week, State Scene highlighted several little-discussed trends within the once powerful and highly successful state Liberal Party, which today is steadily sliding towards electoral irrelevance.

Last week, State Scene highlighted several little-discussed trends within the once powerful and highly successful state Liberal Party, which today is steadily sliding towards electoral irrelevance.

Among the matters highlighted were the party’s inability to win even 40 per cent of primary votes at the past two state elections, its drastically diminished membership (27,000 in the mid-1970s to well below 5,000 now), and the desire by the disciplined faction now controlling the state council and executive to persist along a microscopic membership path, which helps secure that faction’s ascendancy and the aspirations of key members who wish to remain or become politicians.

There’s also the forthcoming statewide redistribution, which will reflect the Jim McGinty one-vote-one-value legislation and will likely mean fewer safe non-Labor seats.

The likely longer-term outcome of this will be that, as future political aspirants realise this, many will look to Labor to launch parliamentary careers, meaning the Liberal Party will attract even fewer talented recruits than presently ensconced within its not overly endowed ranks.

These are just a few of the party’s gloomy attributes, which together suggest a bleak future at state level.

But is there anything in the offing that may perhaps prompt one to be a little optimistic about this six-decade-old party?

That’s a question State Scene put to several in-the-know party members, and strangely some said there may be, because of a forgotten move at last year’s state conference that has the potential to overhaul, even democratise and thus update, the party.

What has been under way for the past few months is the bringing together of a range of proposals from the party’s divisions, dwindling number of branches and even individual members, on the direction it should take now that it is heading towards being an ever-weaker and probably irrelevant force.

This is something Prime Minister John Howard is known to be quite concerned about. And that partly explains why the son of former Northern Territory chief minister, Paul Everingham, also Paul, was dispatched from Canberra, where he was a malleable ministerial boffin, to become director of the WA Liberal Party.

There’s also the case of Canberra-based journalists being released to come and help out former state parliamentary leader, Colin Barnett, as media and tactics advisers in the lead-up to last February’s election.

And a range of other less publicised east coast and Canberra party apparatchiks constantly come and go.

Little has leaked on the party-wide internal canvassing of ideas and proposals because there have, to date, been no summary or position papers compiled. But several contacts told State Scene that such papers with reformist proposals will soon surface.

The reason is that the 2005 state conference due in September is to discuss fundamental constitutional change.

All that can thus be reported now is that two quite different – indeed, contradictory – attitudes, or schools of thought, appear to have emerged on the question of party reform and possible self-strengthening.

For the sake of simplicity, one informant, perhaps because of his scientific bent, said it was best to dub them as the telescopic and the microscopic sides.

The former, the telescopic, has an outward or expansive view or set of aspirations for the party, while the microscopic side abides by views whereby the party will remain much as it presently is – a miniscule vehicle controlled by a disciplined and determined activist clique of fewer than 50 people.

The ‘telescopics’ are a diverse group, people who are generally seen as being on the outer, those not in control of state council and executive.

They are generally backers of a number of candidates who felt they had been unfairly deprived of party endorsement during last year’s round of pre-selections, which resulted in state council endorsing people with backing from senators Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison (the Camell faction), plus certain crucial Colin Barnett loyalists. The Camells were drawn to the Barnettites because it meant extra crucial votes at certain party forums.

And the Barnettites chummed up to the Camells because Mr Barnett and they were convinced that, if he won the 2005 election, he was in line to be toppled at the first party room meeting.

This, incidentally, was not as outrageous a suspicion as it may sound.

Remember, Mr Barnett only won the leadership in February 2001 by two votes from a rank outsider, Rod Sweetman.

To thwart such an eventuality it was seen as absolutely necessary to ensure that the first party room meeting after the election had more Barnett backers than opponents, a plan that was successfully executed via the preselections.

As things transpired, the Camells and Barnettites on the party’s election campaigning group, the so-called Team Blue, grasped at the silly ‘Colin’s canal’ option, which meant a narrow Geoff Gallop victory (by just more than 1,000 votes statewide).

What the telescopics want is to open up pre-selection contests to all party members from across all party divisions to vote, initially for lower house (Legislative Assembly and House of Representatives) seats, and later even for upper houses (Legislative Council and Senate) seats.

The telescopics, therefore, want far greater, indeed outright, democracy for rank-and-file members and want to see the current factional behind-closed doors and secretive manoeuvrings completely expunged.

The microscopics are quite opposed to this, it’s claimed. They’re said to want things to remain as they presently are.

They are, thus, the Conservatives, with a capital ‘C’, since they’re now in the ascendancy and control the party’s upper echelons where pre-selections, and therefore parliamentary careers, are decided or destroyed, as happened to Alan Cadby in north metropolitan region.

They want the present intricate pre-selection and delegate system to remain intact.

One reason this side will fight hard against change and greater internal party democratisation is that many within its ranks have their eyes on upcoming parliamentary seats, for which they believe they’ll win preselection.

Several activists who were identified to State Scene have already made arrangements to be endorsed for senators Ross Lightfoot’s and Alan Eggleston’s spots.

Such people understandably wouldn’t wish to see preselections now opened up to all rank and file members after having spent so many years cultivating certain key powerbrokers and already feeling assured one of these senatorial spots is virtually theirs.

What the telescopics point out is that open preselections would inject life and meaning to party membership, and would therefore probably result in boosting member numbers.

Many who currently view the party, because of persistent press reports of factional manoeuvrings, as being controlled by clandestine activity are simply not interested in setting out to become MPs under such circumstances.

But if the telescopics win, party membership could come to mean more than just being valued for handing out how-to-vote-cards on election days.

State Scene has been assured the coming September conference promises to be a hard tussle, with the microscopics putting up a dogged fight to retain what presently exists and refusing to risk losing it by opening up and democratising the party’s rapidly dwindling ranks.

Or as one telescopic sympathiser said of the microscopics: “They’ll fight like hell to retain the current system because they’ve got so much to lose.”

But what if the telescopics win?


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