18/11/2016 - 13:24

Leadership dilemma for Liberals

18/11/2016 - 13:24

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Colin Barnett may be the government’s best performer in parliament, but his standing in voters’ eyes is fuelling talk of a challenge.

Leadership dilemma for Liberals
Liza Harvey is one the names touted as a possible successor to Colin Barnett. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Colin Barnett may be the government’s best performer in parliament, but his standing in voters’ eyes is fuelling talk of a challenge.

The Liberal Party in Western Australia is facing a leadership crisis for the second time in little more than eight years, but the reasons this time are vastly different from 2008.

The crisis back then was caused by the talented but erratic Troy Buswell. Although an energetic leader, Mr Buswell had committed one indiscretion too many. He had to go, and Colin Barnett was persuaded to shelve his retirement plans.

Mr Barnett did more than that. The move by (then) Labor premier Alan Carpenter to call a snap election backfired spectacularly, and the recycled Liberal leader was catapulted into the premiership.

Fast-forward to today and it is the premier who has the leadership guillotine hanging over his head.

After leading the Liberals to successive election victories, and having his time in the sun as a party hero, there are two serious questions being asked within Mr Barnett’s own ranks.

One is whether the party should go with him for a third time, as he is a proven winner; the other is who should succeed him if he stands down?

What makes the decision tricky is that there is no challenge to the premier’s competence. He is by far the government’s best performer in the parliament, and with 26 years in politics, Labor is hard pressed to catch him off guard. But that means nothing to voters. Similarly, Mr Barnett’s public comments are generally well pitched to appeal to the middle ground, and his radio persona has moderated.

One of the laws of governing is that each election generally gets harder to win. All government decisions please some voters and offend others. The more decisions that are made, the bigger the list of those offended.

Mr Barnett’s problems and those of his government coincided with the record capital works program and the collapse in the reimbursements for the GST, and lower royalties; hence the growing budget deficit and state debt.

And WA’s economy is well and truly off the boil; it is certainly an economy in transition. No longer the ‘state of excitement’, WA is currently more a state on the move, although the destination is unclear.

In recent weeks, the Liberals have received polling on both voting intentions and the leadership. The news is understood to have reinforced the last Newspoll, which shows Labor leading 52 per cent to 48 per cent on a two-party preferred basis. Meanwhile, Labor’s Mark McGowan is 18 points ahead of Mr Barnett as preferred premier.

So as the Liberals grapple with this sobering news, some must be wondering whether a new leader, such as Deputy Premier Liza Harvey, would be more effective in cutting through with voters and pulling back Labor’s lead.

It is shaping as a replay of the 2007 federal poll, at which prime minister John Howard declined to step down in favour of his treasurer, Peter Costello. After a great run, Mr Howard went one bridge too far and paid the penalty, even losing his seat. Whether Mr Costello would have done better remains a mystery.

Mr Howard later explained that all leaders have a shelf life, drawing on the experience of products at the supermarket. Popular products are at a convenient eye height. When sales wane they move up or down the shelves. Eventually many, like leaders, disappear.

Most leadership changes are difficult. And with the election less than four months away, timing becomes an issue.

One senior female Labor MP told me that if Ms Harvey became premier while parliament was still sitting, Labor would “take her apart”. It’s a tough business.

The Legislative Assembly has now adjourned, so any new leader will not have to face Labor in debate across the chamber.

But if there is to be change, Ms Harvey is the likely successor. She has vastly different qualifications to those of Australia’s first female premier, Labor’s Carmen Lawrence. Armed with a small business background compared with Dr Lawrence’s academic experience, Ms Harvey has been given a wider brief since replacing Kim Hames as deputy Liberal leader last February.

Another contender could be Corrective Services Minister Joe Francis, while Treasurer Mike Nahan and former minister Dean Nalder are out of contention.

It will be business as usual for the time being, however, although a change could occur as late as January.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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