18/10/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Old heads add to state scene

18/10/2005 - 22:00


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Last week’s bagging of junior minister Bob Kucera’s scalp wasn’t a day too soon for Liberal leader Matt Birney, since a consensus was emerging within party ranks that, while he’d made a fairly good start in February, little had happened since to cheer up

Last week’s bagging of junior minister Bob Kucera’s scalp wasn’t a day too soon for Liberal leader Matt Birney, since a consensus was emerging within party ranks that, while he’d made a fairly good start in February, little had happened since to cheer up his team.

The first significant and surprise knock Labor inflicted upon him was to highlight the fact that he’d taken his girlfriend on a taxpayer-funded overseas trip in April.

Among other things, that showed he was also quick out of the blocks in spending taxpayers’ money on himself, which is what Labor undoubtedly sought to publicise.

The second was Labor’s ability to manage to highlight his brief evening encounter with the traffic constabulary following a drink or two one evening, after which he chose to drive home.

In neither case, it must be stressed, was he legally right out of bounds.

But both incidents helped take the shine off his flying February start in the polls.

The fact that Mr Birney underestimated Labor’s media and publicity machine shows he’s still not up to scratch when it comes to strategically handling himself at the broader public level.

Becoming a high-profile figure who is favourably reported on in Perth is clearly a far more difficult task than achieving the same in Kalgoorlie.

Added to both these media woundings have been the far more dramatic Mark Latham and John Brogden affairs.

The fates of both men may well be relevant to Mr Birney since these Sydney-siders have now been judged by experienced commentators and large numbers of insightful electors as having been far too young for the jobs they unexpectedly gained.

Youth appears to be increasingly seen across the electorate and perhaps even within party machines as not necessarily being a plus in politics.

This outlook, it should be noted, had probably already emerged before the dramatic and self-inflicted Latham-Brogden political implosions.

During last year’s federal election campaign Mr Latham constantly stressed his own relative youth and regularly referred to Prime Minister John Howard as someone who was on the brink of retirement.

Well, Australians spoke out, and their clear message to Mr Latham and Labor strategists was that most voters preferred an older person to be in charge of the affairs of state.

Being advanced in years certainly does not guarantee wisdom, prudence, insight and circumspection.

But such valuable and valued qualities are more likely to emerge in those with more, rather than fewer, years under their belt, unless we are considering truly exceptional personages, which State Scene believes it’s fair to say Mr Latham and Mr Brogden certainly are not.

Unfortunately such individuals are rare in politics, with the only one coming readily to mind in the Anglo-British political order being William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806).

Little wonder one reference described him thus: “Prime Minister of Great Britain (1783-1801 and 1804-06), who restored British confidence and prosperity after the American Revolution and was a resolute leader of the nation in war against revolutionary France.”

That said, it should be noted that not even former and initially successful Labor Premier Brian Burke – a man who showed quite considerable political skills early in life – bucked this trend on gaining the premiership in 1983 when not even 40.

He quickly fell under the spell of a tiny coterie of businessmen of doubtful ethics, and Western Australian taxpayers soon found their treasury outlaying tens of millions of dollars annually on pie-in-the-sky Mussolini-style corporatist plans and programs.

Having lunches with sharp business types, with each sitting costing a premier’s weekly salary, wasn’t exactly conducive to keeping one’s feet on the ground in matters of state.

Over the past year or so State Scene has met and spoken at some length to Mr Burke and is of the belief that, if he were now in power or even only in parliament, with all that hindsight under his belt he’d in all likelihood be a highly successful premier or parliamentarian.

Unfortunately for him, such opportunities rarely come along twice in a lifetime.

What his case showed was that ascending the heights of political power at an early age is more likely than not to hinder one’s chances of fulfilling the great calling of politics.

Following on from this State Scene believes that it is truly unfortunate that WA’s conservative parliamentary camp has been emptied so thoughtlessly of several of its former leaders.

Since the 1990s men of worth such as Bill Hassell, Barry MacKinnon and Richard Court have departed parliament without what could be described as a really good reason.

Each, with their experience, could today quite easily be leading the Liberals and have a good chance of leading the state.

But once they’d decided, for whatever reason, that they’d run their race – which they had not when measured by their age at the time and even today – they chose to dump their many years of experience to do other things.

The same, it should be noted, has occurred across Labor ranks.

Wouldn’t Labor today be a far more credible governing party if men like: Malcolm Bryce, a former deputy premier; Ian Taylor, a man who held an array of portfolios and handled them well; and one-time health minister, Keith Wilson, were still parliamentarians?

But all three, and several others who could be mentioned, chose to leave public life, prematurely in State Scene’s view.

Is there a solution to this largely ignored problem of MPs of experience departing parliament too early?

The answer, undoubtedly, is yes.

And the proposal being offered ignores all burning careerist personal ambitions of individual MPs.

First and foremost the current generous parliamentary superannu-ation scheme could be readjusted so that people do not too readily voluntarily opt out of parliament.

Secondly, that scheme could be so tuned so that the political parties find themselves moving MPs who have been lower house members and had held ministerial rank were willing to move into upper house seats.

Adjustment to the superannuation scheme could be made so that, following one or two terms in the upper house, disproportional benefits would flow to such former lower house MPs.

Clearly this suggestion needs considerable thought and fine tunings. But there’s little doubt that if men like Messrs Hassell, MacKinnon, and Court had decided they could not or would not wish to lead their party then they’d be well qualified to be members of a powerful upper house of review, rather than becoming private sector lobbyists.

Anyone doubting such an idea need only ask this question; would not today’s upper house be a far better qualified house of review if the three named conservatives and Messrs Bryce, Taylor and Wilson were now in that chamber heading up powerful committees of legislative review?

The answer, again, is undoubtedly yes.

It’s time both major political parties gave some serious thought to this truly important issue so MPs of experiences who had either served as premiers, ministers or even senior opposition frontbenchers don’t suddenly withdraw from public life.


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