17/10/2012 - 10:43

Liberal heartland in open revolt

17/10/2012 - 10:43

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Strange things are happening in the Perth western suburbs as the state election edges closer.

Strange things are happening in the Perth western suburbs as the state election edges closer.

A REVOLT in your own heartland is the last thing any political leader wants when preparing his party for an election, yet that is what is happening to Premier Colin Barnett and the Liberal Party.

The decision of two western suburbs mayors to run as independent candidates in the premier’s own seat of Cottesloe, and Environment Minister Bill Marmion’s seat of Nedlands, is a significant distraction for a government looking for clear air ahead of the March 9 poll.

Both seats, on paper, are safe Liberal. Mr Barnett won with a margin of almost 20 per cent last time. Mr Marmion, in his first tilt at Nedlands, had 17 per cent up his sleeve. 

But that is not the point. The western suburbs are traditionally true blue Liberal territory. And Liberal leaders in the past such as Sir Charles Court (Nedlands), Bill Hassell (Cottesloe) and Richard Court (Nedlands), have been able to campaign knowing that their backyard is pretty safe.

Not this time, however, as Mr Barnett stumps the state in an attempt to win seats from Labor, as well as keep his alliance partner, the Nationals, at bay in regional electorates.

The government’s problems in Nedlands and Cottesloe were first flagged in Political Perspective on May 24; and rather than easing in the interim, they seem to have escalated. 

They were very much on show when about 250 angry residents turned out last week for a lively public meeting at the Cottesloe Civic Centre organised by the Western Suburbs Alliance lobby group. The main issues of concern were the level of consultation in planning decisions, and the possible amalgamation of local councils.

Mr Barnett sat at the front of the meeting. He did not speak, and had to leave early to attend another function. But he first had to endure several speakers who slammed his government, topped off by Cottesloe Mayor Kevin Morgan, who accused him of being a bully.

Mr Morgan gained strong applause when he attacked moves to amalgamate local councils, claiming the government would act on the issue after the election. He said councils would then cease to be independent and become dominated by party politics, adding that this would benefit both the Liberal and Labor parties.

And he warned that government-appointed Development Assessment Panels on major projects could be manipulated, claiming there was a lack of safeguards.

Mr Morgan was effectively delivering a campaign speech, as he also announced he would run in Cottesloe against Mr Barnett, who has been the local member since 1990.

Another western suburbs mayor, Nedlands’ Max Hipkins, a former Liberal, has entered the fray by announced he will run against Mr Marmion, criticising the threat of amalgamation, centralised planning controls, and the Elizabeth Quay project on the Perth foreshore

It’s obvious that Mr Barnett has not endeared himself to the many local residents who feel strongly on the council issue. He has made no secret of his view that changes are needed, and that there should be taller buildings, especially on the Cottesloe beachfront, and fewer councils around the state; and that includes his own backyard.

However it’s not the first time he has upset local residents who tend, in the main, to be natural Liberal supporters. While education minister when Richard Court was premier (1993-2001), Mr Barnett pushed ahead to rationalise the number of government high schools in the area, because of falling enrolments.

Swanbourne Senior High School was one of the first to go. Hollywood – Kim Beazley junior’s old school – and City Beach also bit the dust. They were replaced by Shenton College, which Mr Barnett promoted as a school that would have facilities comparable to private schools in the area.

That fact might be arguable but one retired educationist told me that several parents who had been vehemently opposed to the Swanbourne closure later conceded privately that it had been the right decision. The bigger Shenton College offered a wider range of subjects, and students received a superior all-round education.

Whether history repeats itself with the current conflict is, of course, a moot point. Time will tell.

What would add to the Liberal Party’s worries is that concern over the government’s treatment of councils is not confined to suburbs such as Subiaco, Nedlands, Claremont, Cottesloe, Peppermint Grove and Mosman Park.

Other independents who are lining up on similar issues to contest seats the Liberals would normally expect to win were also at the meeting. For example Wayne Monks, who described himself as ‘a disaffected Liberal voter’, will contest Churchlands, where independent Liz Constable is retiring after 21 years in politics. The Liberals are counting heavily on former army officer, Sean L’Estrange, winning her seat.

And Woodbridge resident Greg Ross will run in Kalamunda, against Planning Minister John Day.

The political significance of the emerging opposition to the government in some of its safest seats is hard to gauge at this stage. A key point is that most of the newly announced independents have said they have been Liberal supporters.   

That means their presence will fracture the Liberal vote. Under the preferential system, however, even if there were to be an upset, a Liberal-leaning candidate would be the winner.

But it is apparent that the western suburbs group, in particular, is well organised and has a significant groundswell in support. They will certainly prove a significant distraction, at the very least, for the premier and the Liberals as the election gets closer. 

The feeling exhibited towards Mr Barnett in his own electorate is a far cry from the hero status he attracted when he led the party into power at the last election, after first being persuaded to defer his retirement plans.

He has made no secret of the fact he believes there are far too many local councils, including in his own area, and that a rationalisation would lead to more efficiency and benefits for residents. 

The Cottesloe beachfront has also been on his radar. The premier says that, as the state’s premier beach, it should be a showpiece; but investors won’t put money into it because of the restriction on tall buildings. And there is strong local opposition to such a move, as many residents like things just as they are.

Mr Barnett was highly critical of the previous Labor government, accusing it of sitting on its hands on a number of issues. The inference was that he intended to be different, and did not want to go down as a ‘do-nothing’ premier. The obvious lesson here is that the job of a reformer is not that easy, especially if many of the people upset have been your own supporters.

Could we be seeing the beginnings of another case of crash through or crash?

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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