23/09/2016 - 13:00

Liberals facing election traps

23/09/2016 - 13:00


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Uncertainty about the direction of the government and its leadership is likely to persist despite the premier’s win last week.

Liberals facing election traps
LEADERSHIP: The failed challenge to Colin Barnett came despite improved polling for the government and premier. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Uncertainty about the direction of the government and its leadership is likely to persist despite the premier’s win last week.

Western Australia’s Liberal-Nationals governing alliance is on notice. As the dust settles following last week’s failed challenge to Colin Barnett’s leadership, both parties must present a united front through to the March election.

According to the latest opinion poll, the government has a fighting chance of being re-elected for an unprecedented third four-year term.

But any further outbreaks of disunity – either within Mr Barnett’s Liberal Party or between the Liberals and Nationals – will almost certainly deliver government to Labor, and the premiership to Mark McGowan.

The leadership challenge, sparked by the surprise resignations from cabinet of (then) local government minister Tony Simpson and transport minister Dean Nalder, was extraordinary. Coinciding with the release of a new poll in The West Australian, which showed approval for both the government and Mr Barnett had improved, the timing made little sense.

Why take action with the potential to split your party when a credible poll points to an improvement in voter approval?

The same poll showed that Mr Nalder’s rating as Liberal leader was just 5.5 per cent, compared with Mr Barnett – allegedly ‘on the nose’ – at 44.8 per cent, and Deputy Premier Liza Harvey on 30.6 per cent.

That’s hardly a strong base from which to mount a credible challenge, and the 31-15 party room vote rejecting a leadership spill motion reflected that.

Mr Nalder, who entered politics in 2013 with high expectations after a successful business career, has had a tough initiation. He was critical of Mr Barnett, as was Mr Simpson, for lack of consultation. And they are probably right – the premier is not called ‘the emperor’ for nothing.

But he’s not the first premier to be accused of autocratic ways, and won’t be the last. Labor ministers in Brian Burke’s cabinet in the 1980s, for example, said it always paid to listen to Burke’s regular Monday morning radio segment to find out if any issues were going to be fast tracked on to the cabinet agenda later that day.

At least Mr Barnett, who described the party meeting that defeated the spill motion as ‘therapeutic’, undertook to modify his style.

“I think that members with key issues that affect them and their electorates want to be involved in the final decision making, and probably at an earlier stage,” Mr Barnett said. “And I will do my best to try and accommodate that.”

The challenge for the Liberals now is to close ranks, which is sometimes easier said than done after the harsh words uttered in the heat of battle. But the party also has to guard its flanks against its alliance partner, The Nationals. A false move could be fatal to its regional vote.

Several issues have the potential to be flash points and rebound on the Liberals, due to the populist stance being promoted by Nationals leader Brendon Grylls.

The first is the call to increase the charge on ore by $5 a tonne, which has enraged the nation’s two biggest iron ore companies – Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton (Political Perspective, September 12). Polling shows the proposal has resonated with regional voters, but Mr Barnett has poured cold water on the idea.

The Nationals also want two more MPs added to the Legislative Assembly – making it a 61-member chamber – pointing to bigger regional seats because of one vote, one value and an increased population. These grounds are flimsy, especially given vastly improved communications.

The move also involves extra costs at a time when the budget is heading for a record $3 billion plus deficit.

But again, it is difficult for the Liberals to oppose the move with the next election so close. While Mr Barnett has indicated it is an issue for the next term of government, don’t expect the Nationals to back off. It is a point of difference that could work to their advantage.

Then there is the move by the Liberals to extend Sunday trading hours, allowing shops in the metropolitan area to open two hours earlier, at 9am. The Nationals are reticent to lend support.

So while the Liberals are claiming newfound unity, the potential for flare-ups – both internally and with their governing partner – is very real.

Any further public spats would make Labor, and Mr McGowan, very happy indeed.


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