18/01/2012 - 10:50

Labor needs leadership, direction

18/01/2012 - 10:50

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A fresh coat of paint won’t cut it with the voters ... Labor needs to reconnect with the public on policy issues.

Labor needs leadership, direction

A fresh coat of paint won’t cut it with the voters ... Labor needs to reconnect with the public on policy issues.

IF the WA Labor Party thinks that simply replacing Eric Ripper as leader will get it back into the contest to win next year’s state election, it needs to think again.

Party heavyweights who think Mr Ripper has been the sole reason for Labor’s poor performance in opinion polls since losing government in 2008 are deluding themselves. The problems go much deeper than that.

Labor has failed to come up with policies that capture the public imagination. In general terms it seems Labor has got more attention for the policies it is against rather than ones it supports.

It has also appeared to be dancing to the tune being played by key affiliated unions. They still dominate the decision-making process despite their shrinking memberships and influence in the workplace, rather than the aspirations of families, the general workforce and small business.

In fact, the party’s current malaise has its origins in the election of its leadership team in opposition more than three years ago. That’s when the caucus bypassed the credentials of Alannah MacTiernan, and froze her out, preferring the ‘safe hands’ of Mr Ripper, with the deputy leadership surprisingly going to first termer Roger Cook, of the Labor left.

The fact that Ms MacTiernan was considered one of the most successful Labor ministers in government, pushing through the $1 billion-plus southern railway to Mandurah, failed to cut the mustard with her colleagues; or more accurately, the key union leaders. They are Joe Bullock, who is secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, and Dave Kelly, from the United Voice union. 

The majority of Labor MPs owe their endorsement to the two unions that control significant blocks of votes in endorsement ballots – and that is the downside of the party’s factional system. The MPs are more responsive to the views of the electors in their endorsement ballots rather than general voters.

Ms MacTiernan was put on ice because she is a reformer and not prepared to toe the line of the powerbrokers. It’s understood that while she did consult at least one factional leader after the last election regarding her strategy if she won the leadership, she also flagged that she would seek reforms in Labor’s decision-making processes; and that included reduced union power. That did her cause no good whatsoever.

She is now the mayor of Vincent after her unsuccessful tilt to enter federal politics through the marginal seat of Canning. 

Mr Ripper is a strong parliamentary debater, and as noted in Political Perspective last year, has been increasingly prepared to take on his federal colleagues over decisions he believes to be contrary to Western Australia’s best interests. 

But with his support dwindling the question is, who is best equipped to lead Labor and restore the party’s standing in the run up to the election in March next year? Victoria Park MP Ben Wyatt, who put his hand up 12 months ago – only to see his support evaporate – has been keeping a low profile and is out of contention.

Most speculation has centred on former education minister Mark McGowan, and Peter Tinley, who replaced the last Labor premier, Alan Carpenter, in the southern Perth seat of Willagee in 2009. Both men have military backgrounds. Mr McGowan is a former naval lawyer, and Mr Tinley served in the army for 25 years, including 17 as an officer in the elite SAS.

On paper, Mr McGowan has the superior credentials. He has been an MP since 1996, representing Rockingham, and was a parliamentary secretary in government, before being promoted to the cabinet in 2005. He has earned a reputation for his attention to detail, and has been responsible for opposition tactics in parliament.

It’s understood most MPs are of the view that, if Mr Ripper does go, and with Mr Wyatt ruling himself out, then Mr McGowan is the logical replacement.

But support for Mr Tinley is coming from the union sector, partly because Mr McGowan upset some unions while in government, and also because of the view that a new face would give Labor’s stocks the maximum boost.

However, Mr Tinley indicated on Radio 6PR last weekend he was not ready for leadership just yet, saying he did not think he had the necessary experience. He added: “I would not put the (leadership) jersey on if I was asked.”

A change at the top would have to be followed by a shakeup in the front bench. Here Mr Wyatt would have to be restored to the treasury portfolio, which Mr Ripper stripped from him last year. 

Two key policy areas crying out for attention are shopping hours and uranium mining. Labor’s opposition to general Sunday trading reflects the influence of Mr Bullock’s union ahead of public opinion and the national trend. A clear statement supporting the change would leave the Nationals as the only significant opponent, and put the spotlight back on their relations with the Liberals in government. 

Labor must also reassess its contradictory policy on uranium mining. The current policy opposing mining is out of step with the federal Labor government and WA’s standing as a mining state. The current policy to close, without compensation, any mines that might be operating when Labor next wins power, defies logic.

The next challenge is to endorse credible local candidates. The fact that United Voice’s Mr Kelly is expected to nominate is to be welcomed. He should be in the cockpit, rather than in the navigator’s seat. 

The surprise decision of the current non-aligned Labor member for Bassendean, the feisty Martin Whitely, to retire at the next election, provides Mr Kelly with not only a safe seat in which to enter parliament. It also avoids what could have turned out to be a bitter fight for pre-selection between the two men. 

Party sources have also suggested another feisty MP, John Quigley, should transfer from his safe northern suburbs seat to a more challenging nearby electorate. Needless to say he isn’t impressed either.

So Labor has a lot of work to do in the first half of the year to stop the drift. A new leader must quickly work to arrange an attractive team of candidates from across the board – not just union and factional favourites – and jettison some of the old policies that indicate the party is out of touch with community aspirations.

Only then will the Liberals and Nationals become concerned. Otherwise, Colin Barnett will be so confident he will soon be measuring the curtains and ordering new furniture for his refurbished office on the old Hale School site adjacent to Parliament House. 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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