10/01/2006 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Rough rider’s slippery slope

10/01/2006 - 21:00


Save articles for future reference.

The ranks of those Liberal MPs who are wondering if their leader, Matt Birney, will still be in his position on April 17, his wedding day, swelled markedly just before Christmas, when the Parliamentary Privileges Committee adjudicated on his secret insert

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Rough rider’s slippery slope

The ranks of those Liberal MPs who are wondering if their leader, Matt Birney, will still be in his position on April 17, his wedding day, swelled markedly just before Christmas, when the Parliamentary Privileges Committee adjudicated on his secret insertion of information into his financial interests statement.

One reason for this was his claim, made immediately after the committee’s report was tabled, that showed he prided himself at being something of a rough-rider.

“As a good old-fashioned Kalgoorlie boy, I’ve adopted the view ‘let’s just get the job done’ and in doing so I might have cut the odd corner and perhaps not dotted the odd ‘i’ and crossed the odd ‘t’,” he said.

Expression of such a sentiment prompted State Scene to re-read Mr Birney’s maiden speech of May 3 2001 to (hopefully) find hints of his predisposition for short cuts.

And, sure enough, he alluded to such a stance by quoting, at the end of that speech, American President Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919), who had led that famous volunteer cavalry unit, the Rough Riders, during the Spanish-Cuban-American War.

According to Mr Birney the following Rooseveltian words hang framed on his lounge room wall: “He who tries and knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and who spends himself in pursuit of an achievement, at best knows the triumph of that achievement and at worst, fails while daring.

“His place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Before quoting these lines, Mr Birney alerted those in the Legislative Assembly that day that these 51 words meant a great deal to him: “To date I have lived my life by their meaning,” he said.

Clearly, therefore, those who had backed him into the leadership – there was no vote as he was unchallenged – can hardly now claim he was a completely unknown quantity.

That said, it’s still worth pondering on why some are having second thoughts, with several now thinking they should have taken the Rooseveltian words more seriously when his predecessor, Colin Barnett, resigned.

Some even think they may be in a similar predicament their federal counterparts found themselves in during 1969, when the late John Gorton was prime minister. Mr Gorton also showed he had a rough-riding predisposition, though he never justified it with Rooseveltian quotes but rather by the title of that best selling song by ‘rat packer’ Frank Sinatra, I did it my way.

However, Labor powerbroker and firm opponent of Mr Birney, Jim McGinty, has indicated unequivocally that he is now without doubt that Mr Birney “no longer constitutes an electoral threat”.

So, as Mr Birney approaches his second year as leader, some within his ranks wonder about his outlook and abilities, while Mr McGinty and his loyal disciples feel he’s unable to topple them.

How did this turnaround happen?

How was the shine taken off Mr Birney in just 10 months?

According to one of State Scene’s Labor sources, he slipped so badly, and in such a short time, simply because he underestimated Gallop-led Labor.

For instance, he took his girlfriend, now fiancé, to Gallipoli, Crete and beyond at taxpayers’ expense with a Gallop-led entourage, straight after becoming leader, but not realising Labor may one day publicise this.

And very soon after returning, that’s precisely what Labor did.

During that trip Dr Gallop’s entourage watched him closely, noting all he said.

One State Scene contact revealed that one in that entourage concluded Mr Birney was not widely read, presumably concluding this meant he wasn’t cut out be premier.

The incident cited was that Mr Birney had revealed while in Crete that he hadn’t realised Australian troops had fought there during World War II, where many were captured by German forces.

Another incident referred to was what had occurred during the last election campaign, when Labor already knew Mr Birney would probably replace Mr Barnett after a coalition loss.

An expert NSW Labor rural seats campaigner was flown in to help.

That expert read through the press file carrying all the articles on Mr Birney printed in The Kalgoorlie Miner and said: “Can’t fault him at all; he’s obviously handled the local media exceptionally well.”

Mr Birney has indeed done this by spending a considerable amount of time cultivating Goldfields print and radio journalists.

But the more interesting outcome from this was the fact that Labor shrewdly concluded that he’d be unwise to take over the Liberal leadership after having only been so briefly in parliament.

Among other things it was contended that he would not have time to so stealthily and meticulously cultivate Perth’s radio, TV and print media journalistic corp.

“The biggest mistake Matt Birney made was to have become leader after just four years as an MP; he’s so inexperienced,” a Labor insider told State Scene.

Understandably Labor, and most especially Mr McGinty, set their sights on the new boy from Kal, believing it was only a matter of time before they’d have him over a barrel due to his lack of experience.

The full story of how and why Mr Birney’s night time encounter with the road traffic constabulary after a few drinks in a Subiaco hotel – and, significantly, with journalists – has so far not been told.

But we know the outcome; news of that encounter promptly reached the media – and despite Mr Birney’s belated attempts to turn it against Labor by querying how a minister had learned of it – in the final analysis it was only he who was tarnished.

A few months later, just as he was enjoying the glory of ousting cabinet junior Labor minister Bob Kucera, who shares a grandchild with Mr McGinty, over the former’s financial affairs, back sprang Mr McGinty with a counter attack that has similarly tarnished Mr Birney’s standing.

Mr McGinty has proved once again that his approach to politics is to take no prisoners, which goes a long way to explaining why it was he who had targeted Mr Birney.

Labor puts all these successes down to Mr Birney’s inexperience, something that’s certainly difficult to disagree with.

Mr Birney would probably have been wise early last year if he had told his party room backers that he would not be seeking the leadership. Not for some time, anyway.

That said, State Scene sees Mr Birney’s loss of shine, and in such a short period, as being primarily due to his predisposition as expressed in the Rooseveltian quotation that hangs on his lounge-room wall.

What Mr Birney may not realise is that Teddy Roosevelt told his Rough Riders before going into battle that: “No man was allowed to drop out to help the wounded.”

This probably helps explain why a growing number of Mr Birney’s party colleagues are having belated second thoughts about him as leader.

What Mr Birney would be wise to do, if he hopes to remain leader and one day perhaps even become premier, is to take less notice of that lounge room quotation and instead open a biography or two on Teddy Roosevelt and carefully read them.

Author and Nobel Prize winner, Teddy Roosevelt is one of America’s iconic presidents.

As well as being a dogged adventurer, a big game hunter and corruption fighter, he was a learned and farsighted man.

There was much more to Teddy Roosevelt than is disclosed in the 51-word quote that Mr Birney has found so meaningful.



Subscription Options