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Joe Poprzeczny - State Scene: Poll prompts a shake-up

IT’S finally happening, and it’s happening much earlier than expected.

But in politics nothing’s lost by getting things out of the way sooner rather than later.

The Barnett-led Liberals and Trenorden-led Nationals are currently formalising their sometimes co-operative association for the February 2005 election with an inter-party pact.

Not widely realised is that the pact idea originated from a forgotten event that surfaced during the State’s wasteful 1980s WA Inc era, when millions of taxpayers’ dollars were vaporised on pie-in-the-sky corporatist schemes that a group of Labor MPs and several disreputable local millionaires dreamed up.

Another, though less important, reason for the intended pact is that both leaders appreciate that they’re facing a left-of-centre Labor/Greens alliance that’s likely to be more difficult to topple in future elections.

Eventually WA will get something resembling one-vote-one-value electoral arrangements.

And when that happens it would be better for both conservative groups to have had a co-operative relationship rather than an antagonistic one, as existed throughout the 1980s WA Inc years and much of the preceding decade.

That’s why, just before the 1993 election, at which Labor was ousted, then Liberal and Nationals leaders, Richard Court and Hendy Cowan respectively, signed a secret Lib/Nat Pact Mark I.

That document set down how many ministers their respective parties could expect in light of the number of seats each won, rather than selecting ministers on merit.

Contrast this to the previous election – the 1989 contest – when the Liberals were led by Barry MacKinnon, who was challenging the Peter Dowding-led Labor.

During that campaign Mr MacKinnon’s Liberal frontbencher, Bill Hassell, publicly claimed Labor was in receipt of buckets of money from a top Perth millionaire.

Although the claim was denied vehemently at the time, most political observers now agree that what Mr Hassell had publicly alleged then was quite correct.

Moreover, the subsequent WA Inc Royal Commission confirmed the existence of intricate financial links between Perth’s ‘big end’ and the Labor Party.

But the Hassell accusation dramatically backfired on the Liberals, primarily because Mr Cowan intervened by publicly calling on Mr Hassell to put up or shut up, that is, to provide evidence of the alleged mountains of millionaires’ dollars that were headed Labor’s way.

Labor’s spin-doctors and allies were indignant.

Both groups went into high frenzy mode, claiming Mr Hassell had resorted to foul play by suggesting Labor was squirreling away a million or so dollars from Perth’s super rich.

 

 

Although Mr Hassell knew his information was correct – his source was impeccable – he wouldn’t name the informant because he’d been provided the information in confidence.

Notwithstanding that, he was slammed for having gone public.

The show of conservative disunity – and in the midst of a campaign – meant Mr Dowding just fell over the line come election time.

The Hassell-Cowan imbroglio and the media attacks it sparked prompted sufficient numbers of voters to conclude that, if the conservatives couldn’t be as one during an election, what could WA expect if they were governing?

Clearly the rift was enough to deny crucial votes to a handful of Liberal candidates in several key marginal seats.

Had Mr Hassell not spoken out, or had he disclosed his source, or, better still, shown a cheque butt or two, or, ever better, had Mr Cowan remained silent, thereby denying Labor a free kick during the campaign, that election’s outcome would almost certainly have been different.

Understandably, Mr MacKinnon was livid. To this day he believes the crucial event that denied him the premiership was Mr Hassell telling on Labor but being unable to publicly back it up when Mr Cowan reinforced Labor’s indignance at the allegation.

And it wasn’t too long before Mr MacKinnon found himself facing a successful challenge from the Liberals’ new rising star, Richard Court, a long-time associate of Mr Hassell.

The main conservative beneficiary of all this was, therefore, Mr Court.

And he, more than anyone, had good reason to learn from the 1989 Lib/Nat discordance.

Mr Court also recalled that his father, Sir Charles, while premier during the 1970s, had experienced a protracted conflict with the Nationals (then called the National Country Party), especially with their subsequent deputy leader, Matt Stephens, who later became Mr Cowan’s close pal.

Mr Stephens, a Court Government minister, and two other Nationals’ ministers had actually stormed out of cabinet.

Little wonder that, as the February 1993 election drew near, Mr Court promptly negotiated with Mr Cowan the Lib/Nat Pact Mark I on a ministerial carve-up and guidelines on policy pronouncements, so that neither publicly contradicted the other during the campaign.

Clearly, to fully appreciate the present Barnett-Trenorden moves to finalise Lib/Nat Pact Mark II it’s worthwhile recalling Mr Hassell’s 1989 election WA Inc revelation.

And better still it’s worth recalling Sir Charles Court’s bitter mid-1970s encounter with the Nationals that effectively lasted until the Lib/Nat Pact Mark I was signed.

Understandably, Messrs Barnett and Trenorden – like Richard Court and Hendy Cowan before them – don’t want the conservative side fumbling the ball as occurred in 1989.

 

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