05/08/2013 - 15:51

Leaders look to hit the sweet spot

05/08/2013 - 15:51


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Having cleared the decks, Labor has decided the timing’s right for the election.

Leaders look to hit the sweet spot

Having cleared the decks, Labor has decided the timing's right for the election.

There are few things more important in politics than timing, and all sides of politics are on their best behaviour now the federal election has been set for Saturday September 7.

Announcements are always carefully scrutinised by party strategists to ensure they achieve what they are designed to. But there are some things that governments, let alone political parties, can’t control, even when the pre-election timetable takes over.

One matter the parties must take into account in federal campaigns, for example, is the monthly meeting of the Reserve Bank board. The last thing a government wants is a rise in interest rates during the campaign, especially when it is trying to brand the opposition as the party of high interest rates.

Yet that is what happened to John Howard and the Liberals during the 2007 campaign. The merits of that decision have been debated, by both sides, but whatever your view, it certainly blunted the Liberals’ assault and Labor, led by Kevin Rudd, regained power after 11 years in opposition.

Two events in the past week, on either side of the continent, have again highlighted the timing issue, with a likely deleterious impact on both major parties.

The findings of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in Sydney involving two former state Labor ministers, and several businessmen, couldn’t have come at a worse time for the ALP. Labor has been at a low ebb in NSW for some years, and this won’t help the party’s rehabilitation.

Kevin Rudd is working desperately to ensure that reforms occur within Labor so the corruption cannot be repeated, starting with more transparency in the selection of candidates. Party supporters have their fingers crossed he is successful.

Closer to home, the Western Australian government’s ‘historic local government reforms’, under which the number of metropolitan councils will be cut from 30 back to 14, is causing apprehension. There are two issues: the actual proposals themselves; and the way they have been handled, especially by Premier Colin Barnett.

Perth is the last capital city to undergo rationalisation of its council boundaries. In every case there have been howls of protest. Governments don’t win a popularity contest during the process.

A committee headed by former University of Western Australia vice-chancellor Alan Robson, which reported last year, provided the blueprint for the changes.

Mr Barnett shrewdly ensured that the issue didn’t interfere with his own re-election prospects by extending the deadline for responses to the proposals beyond the March 9 election date.

However nowhere was the debate on the principle of fewer councils hotter than in Mr Barnett’s own backyard – Perth’s western suburbs. And it faced stiff criticism, with two local mayors nominating in the seats of Cottesloe, against the premier, and Nedlands, against Bill Marmion.

The results show that the government comfortably rode out the challenge, but hostility from within a section of ratepayers has not gone away. In fact, if anything, it has spread. City of Vincent Mayor Alannah MacTiernan has seized on the fact that her small inner-city council will be split rather than absorbed as an entity into the Perth City Council. She has criticised the plan up hill and down dale.

The report that National Party leader Brendon Grylls said he had received an assurance that the 100-plus country councils would not be touched by the rationalisation plan only added fuel to the fire as far as the metropolitan critics are concerned.

There was no direct link between the council boundaries and the federal election until Labor’s Perth MHR, Stephen Smith, announced in late June he would not be seeking another term. That’s when the party immediately moved in behind Ms MacTiernan, who was duly endorsed.

And with the high-profile mayor bagging the new boundaries at every opportunity, there hasn’t been much scope for her Liberal opponent, Darryl Moore, to get into the game. In fact Ms MacTiernan now looks favoured to win, whereas two months ago, Mr Moore’s supporters would have felt quietly confident.

The other issue here is credibility. Mr Barnett said initially no council would be forced to amalgamate against its will. Labor has accused him of breaking his word, but the premier steadfastly denies this. He says he’s confident that, by D-day, the councils will have come round to see the merits of the changes. Perhaps a little tweaking might help the process.

In the meantime, Labor is delighted that its federal prospects in WA’s 15 seats – of which it holds only three – are vastly better than before Mr Rudd's successful challenge against Julia Gillard.

But in NSW, which has 50 seats in the House of Representatives, it is the Liberals who are dancing, thanks to the scathing ICAC report on the antics, and pocket lining, of state Labor ministers.

It’s all in the timing.


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