20/01/2011 - 00:00

Labor challenge fallout continues

20/01/2011 - 00:00


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Despite seeing off Ben Wyatt’s ‘challenge’ for the top job, WA Labor leader Eric Ripper still has plenty to do if he wants to lead the party to the next election.

Labor challenge fallout continues

BEN Wyatt’s failed attempt to wrest the leadership of the WA Labor Party from Eric Ripper continues to generate significant fallout.

Much of the attention has centred on how Mr Wyatt, who has been considered Labor’s rising star in state parliament, could have found himself in such a position, whereby his only alternative was a humiliating back down without a vote

His supporters say he was deceived – that he was given assurances of support from many of his caucus colleagues that proved worthless.

Others say he was told clearly the numbers were not there before he called on Mr Ripper to bring on a party meeting and a leadership vote.

Then there’s the view that, by pulling out 48 hours after declaring his hand, the member for Victoria Park showed he lacked ticker by failing to follow through. He should have had the strength of his convictions and fought it out to the end. Who knows, according to this theory, the dynamics – and the level of his support – could have changed considerably.

By staying in the race Mr Wyatt would have been able to canvass all his colleagues and possibly swayed enough of them to the view that there really was a mood for ‘generational change’, as he asserted. One thing MPs don’t like, according to this view, is to be taken for granted, and that’s what Mr Wyatt appeared to do.

The main shortcoming in this theory, however, is the view that Labor MPs are the controllers of their own destiny. Nothing could be further from the truth, even though they know that with the current level of public support, many would lose their seats at the next poll.

That’s why, unless this support improves significantly during this year, Mr Ripper won’t be taking Labor to the election. The party will have a new leader, and it might very well be Mr Wyatt.

The danger for Labor is that it will emerge from this fiasco with an image problem. Transport Minister Troy Buswell touched on the issue when he said Mr Ripper survived thanks to the union faction leaders. And those leaders confirmed this with their own comments, including the veiled threat that Mr Ripper would have to lift his game if he wanted to stay in the top job.

Of course the union leaders don’t have a vote at caucus leadership meetings. They are not even eligible to attend. They have not been elected by voters to be in the parliament. But they might as well be. And that’s Labor’s dilemma.

Labor has already faced the problem of unelected representatives dictating to MPs. In 1963 Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam were photographed outside a Labor executive meeting in Canberra, which voted on whether the party would support American involvement in a base at North West Cape. Mr Calwell and Mr Whitlam were the parliamentary leaders, but not, at that stage, executive members and involved in framing policy.

The executive became known as the ‘faceless men’. The rules were subsequently changed to include the elected leaders but, politically, the damage had been done.

That’s why former minister Alannah MacTiernan was so scathing of her state colleagues, alluding to a lack of courage for their failure to pursue the leadership issue. The inference was that the union factional leaders who control the numbers at candidate selection meetings were not ready for change, therefore the challenge would not be backed – for the time being.

The instigators of the challenge, including veteran Pilbara MP Tom Stephens, had apparently failed to do the legwork, which included canvassing the case for change across the party. And there are implications for possible new policies, such as ending Labor’s opposition to uranium mining in WA, which are bound to be on the agenda at the party’s mid-year state conference.

In the meantime Mr Wyatt will be relieved of his high-profile portfolio as Treasury spokesman, and left to contemplate the ‘errors’ of his recent rush of blood.

It’s a good win for the factional heavyweights, but in the electorate it is the Liberals and Nationals who are smiling.

Lee-Steere links

THE late lord mayor of Perth, Sir Ernest Lee-Steere, whose funeral was held earlier this week, was the last of an extraordinary trio of family knights, a feat that will never be repeated in WA.

The initial knight, Sir James Lee-Steere, was steeped in politics, being the first speaker of WA’s Legislative Assembly – a post he held for 13 years.

The family’s political involvement then fell away, before a surprise incursion by Sir Ernest in 1984, which raised a number of eyebrows.

Sir James set the pace late in the 19th century, having also attended the convention that preceded the establishment of Australia as a federation.

The next family knight was Sir Ernest Augustus Lee-Steere, the son of Sir James’s brother Augustus, who achieved the honour in 1947. The first Sir Ernest’s mother was Ellen, daughter of the Swan River Colony’s first surveyor-general, John Septimus Roe.

Sir Ernest, who was active in business, the pastoral industry and the WA Turf Club, married Bridget, daughter of CY O’Connor.

Ernest junior, who was one of their six children, had a similar career, before entering public life in 1972 as lord mayor, a post he held for six years and resulting in his knighthood.

I interviewed the younger Sir Ernest for ABC Radio in 1998 after the launch of his autobiography, Be Fair and Fear Not, in which he said he was determined to be ‘apolitical’. His stance “brought some criticism from my friends and peers that I was letting the side down”.

The book was silent on his surprise decision in 1984 to be a vice-patron of the John Curtin Foundation, a brainchild of then Labor premier Brian Burke, which was to be a Labor fundraiser and source of scholarships. Other vice patrons included Alan Bond, Ric Stowe, Laurie Connell, Sir Malcolm McCusker, John Roberts and Dennis Cullity.

I asked Sir Ernest how he came to be involved in the foundation, which achieved promised donations of almost $2 million.

In a very Perth-like answer, he said his nephew had talked him into it.

That happened to be John Dawkins, the federal Labor member for Fremantle, and later treasurer when Paul Keating became prime minister. Mr Dawkins is a son of Sir Ernest’s eldest sister, Muriel.

“It was a very modest donation,” Sir Ernest added.



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