12/09/2014 - 05:46

Liberals nervous about Vasse

12/09/2014 - 05:46


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Labor may not be able to snatch Vasse from the conservatives, but it could muddy the waters in the by-election brought about by the departure of Troy Buswell.

Liberals nervous about Vasse

Troy Buswell was one of those rare politicians with the capacity to make you sit up and take notice – a fact illustrated by the reaction to his recent decision to quit politics after an eventful career of just short of 10 years.Mr Buswell always seemed to attract attention, often for the wrong reasons. After a meteoric rise to Liberal leadership in opposition, it was his extracurricular activities that led to his initial fall from grace.

When Colin Barnett brought him back into the fold the talented member for the Liberal stronghold of Vasse, based in Busselton, performed strongly. Political Perspective even saw him as a future premier, with one proviso – that he kept out of trouble.

That prospect was blown away last February by the damaging late-night drive from a wedding reception in Kings Park to his home in Subiaco. It was the end of his political road.

Remember that, after his brief stint as opposition leader, Mr Buswell stood down for Mr Barnett on the eve of the early 2008 state election, and was given two reprieves by the premier in government.

It wasn't hard to see why. On his day Mr Buswell was the best performer in the Legislative Assembly, based on his capacity to combine thespian talents with mastery of his portfolios. On one occasion early in his ministerial career he had the chamber in chaos, tossing toilet rolls at surprised colleagues to make a point.

My first dealings with Mr Buswell were linked with a telephone call to a South West winery, where he was having a celebratory lunch with friends after winning Liberal endorsement from the sitting member, Bernie Masters. It was obviously a boisterous occasion (matched by his subsequent career, as it turned out).

This was in marked contrast to the diminished figure who sat silently on the back bench during the first two weeks of the spring session of this year's parliament, apparently acknowledging that those heady days on the front line had gone forever.

That he hadn't quit during the winter recess suggested he would serve the full four-year term and bow out at the 2017 election. He would be the occasional target for a Labor barb if he had stayed, but would also help the government – which has been struggling – avoid being subjected to a mid-term judgment from voters.

But the die has now been cast. A by-election must be held; and this is causing some nervousness in Liberal ranks because by-elections almost always result in a swing against the government of the day. It's the size of the swing that counts.

So with Western Australia being stripped of its AAA credit rating by both the Standard & Poor's and Moody's ratings agencies, the government's economic credentials are under challenge. Then there are the continued questions over steep increases in taxes and charges.

Throw in the recent criticism from federal Treasurer Joe Hockey that WA's financial problems are due in part to the tardiness of the Barnett team and its lack of fiscal reform, and you'd think Labor would be only too pleased to test the Liberals in their conservative heartland.

Surprisingly, however, opposition leader Mark McGowan baulked at the opportunity to welcome the ballot in Vasse and give people a mid-term opportunity to send a message to Mr Barnett that they are not happy.

It's a standard line for opposition leaders in such circumstances, and has generally worked well.

An added factor in support of a protest vote in Vasse – which has never had a Labor MP since its inception in 1950 – is that it wouldn't change the government in the unlikely event of a shock Liberal loss.

Another reason why Labor should be in the field is the Nationals' decision to run a candidate against its governing partner. The Nationals have run before in Vasse, without making a big impression. But leader Terry Redman holds the adjoining seat of Warren-Blackwood, and it's important to maintain the party's profile in the region.

This time the two conservative leaders, Mr Barnett and Mr Redman, will be campaigning against each other. Even if it's a gentlemanly contest, there are sure to be some loose words in the heat of battle, which both men might later regret.

Labor has ruled out running in Vasse. Its powerbrokers believe it wasteful of scarce resources to throw money into a campaign in traditionally hostile territory the party can't possibly win.

There are several reasons to run, however.

• Get on the front foot and highlight the government's perceived shortcomings.

• Exploit any differences between the Liberals and Nationals.

• Road test some new policies for country WA.

• Increase Mr McGowan's profile in the South West.

Of course there will be only one winner. But after the party spin doctors have had a go, you'd be forgiven for thinking there are no losers either.

And the Buswell factor remains strong, even after his resignation.


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