04/04/2006 - 22:00

Libs face spell in wilderness

04/04/2006 - 22:00


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Now that Perth’s tabloids’ reports of the Birney-Omodei clash have wrapped up the kitchen scraps, it’s worth pondering what it’s all likely to mean to Western Australian voters.

Libs face spell in wilderness

Now that Perth’s tabloids’ reports of the Birney-Omodei clash have wrapped up the kitchen scraps, it’s worth pondering what it’s all likely to mean to Western Australian voters.

A key aspect of the challenge, whose outcome was always likely to be close, was the fact that the 33-strong Liberal parliamentary contingent had fractured four-ways.

Firstly came the pro-Birney camp, some of whom within it were linked to the now defunct Noel Crichton-Browne (NCB) Faction.

These formed what’s best dubbed as the Ghost-of-NCB Faction; MPs like Dan Sullivan, George Cash and Norman Moore, since it’s stretching it to claim NCB is any longer a significant force.

That said, they were nevertheless crucial in nearly saving Mr Birney’s hide.

Secondly there was the Campbell-Ellison Faction; about eight MPs who owe their remunerative parliamentary jobs to Canberra-oriented factional chiefs, Senators Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison.

Both now control WA’s Liberal Party and ensure it’s fully aligned with powerful east coast political and centralising forces.

Interestingly, both owe their parliamentary careers to NCB, meaning there’s a historical wheels-within-wheels element to the anti-Birney push that saw this faction marry up other Birney antagonists.

This group includes MPs like John McGrath, Trevor Sprigg and Peter Collier.

Then came the Barnett loyalists, people unaffected by Colin Barnett’s four uninspiring leadership years, capped-off with his bungled $2 billion canal 2005 election campaign any Liberal drover’s dog could have won if they’d half competently managed it.

Here there are five MPs plus Mr Barnett, who, it must be added, is now well-positioned for a leadership comeback either for the 2009 or 2013 elections, something State Scene has long argued was a distinct possibility.

Three in this faction are John Day, Barry House, and, of course, Paul Omodei.

And finally there was a handful of independents, generally rural MPs whose voting intentions were more difficult to pick; people like Gary Snook, Graham Jacobs and Anthony Fels.

Their votes were motivated less by factional loyalties than realpolitik, that is, support for the one they felt would most likely oust Labor in 2009, which meant few, if any, leaned towards Mr Omodei in the initial or spill vote at least.

Now, the first test came with that spill motion with the Birney camp losing 17 to 16 votes. Some expected it to be the other way – 17 against a spill – meaning no further voting, and Mr Birney remaining leader.

But what happened was that new South West MP, Mr Birney’s deputy, Troy Buswell, was quietly talked over by Birney critic, Barry House, to desert the Birney camp despite claims to the contrary.

With all bets now off, the leadership vote was taken with some saying the vote was 18 to 15 and others claiming 19 to 14.

This has sparked considerable bitterness which is unlikely to vanish before the 2009 election.

All this, however, is now ancient history. What of the future?

The simple answer is that it’s bleak indeed.

The Liberal parliamentary wing is irreconcilably split; markedly more so than during the four post-Richard Court years of 2001 to 2005.

On top of that the Campbell-Ellison faction, whose key on-the-spot numbers man is former Court government ministerial and Senator Ellison staffer, Matthias Cormann, has grasped the reins and begun to emerge as the party’s new NCB.

For this he’s been assured of getting Senator Ross Lightfoot’s or maybe even Senator Allan Eggleston’s senate spot at the coming federal election.

But Mr Cormann’s activities are overseen by Howard government ministers, senators Campbell and Ellison, thereby ensuring the PM indirect oversight over the WA Liberal Party, something he set out to get before moving against then Senator Crichton-Browne in the mid-1990s when NCB couldn’t ensure the PM’s close pal and numbers man, Allan Rocher, retained Curtin’s endorsement.

To call the WA Liberal Party that is therefore quite erroneous because it is no longer a home-grown entity but rather an outlying wing directed by Canberra and Sydney-based Liberal powerbrokers.

Today, more than ever, the local party is a satellite.

That’s largely as one would expect it because even though this shell of a party that NCB once ran quite successfully is not bankrupt – its assets apparently still exceed liabilities – it is, nevertheless, a financially struggling entity with a rapidly dwindling membership.

Ask anyone in the know and you quickly learn assets stand at around $2 million with liabilities at about $1 million involving a complicated share owing arrangement with a single 500 Club businessman benefactor.

This means Mr Omodei, like his predecessor, will be looking to Labor’s Jim McGinty to bring on state-based taxpayer funding of political parties before the 2009 election.

Whether Labor opts to tighten the financial screws on the Liberals by not introducing such legislation remains to be seen. Remember here that Labor’s piggy bank isn’t exactly bulging. What then of the Howard-controlled WA Liberal Party?

Firstly, Mr Omodei’s leadership is as precarious as was Mr Birney’s. A Birney-style gaffe or two and he’s a goner.

And he can expect no mercy because it’s still three years to the 2009 election so he can be quite easily removed.

There are already two challengers in the wings; Messrs Buswell and Barnett.

That said sources within the newly-created loosely-bound Omodei camp say neither Mr Buswell nor Mr Barnett envisages challenging in the coming year.

And crucially, neither the Birney camp nor Messrs Buswell’s and Barnett’s expect the Liberals to oust Alan Carpenter-led Labor in February 2009.

What this means is that when Mr Omodei is defeated in 2009 we’re likely to see a three-way leadership barney – Barnett, Buswell, and, if he’s still around, Birney – so the battle of the three Liberal Bs.

Such a contest could of course come earlier if Mr Omodei fluffs the job well before 2009.

If, however, he fluffs the 2009 election Mr Barnett would be well placed to claim he’d been loyal and that his disastrous 2001-05 leadership experience plus the 2006-09 period as a faithful frontbencher means he’s a potential leader for 2013.

Mr Buswell could argue likewise; that he’d learned much during 2005-09 as deputy so would also be a good choice for 2013.

He will, however, be severely handicapped for his double-dealing with the Birney camp with many MPs reminding him he’d told his leader a big porkie.

And finally there’s Mr Birney if he doesn’t snap-up the reputed big paying resources industry job he’s hinted at.

Like Messrs Barnett and Buswell he too will need to be humble and candid in any leadership contest.

He’d need to admit he blew it badly during 2005 and stress that he’s learned a lot from that torrid ordeal.

However, whoever wins, will, in all likelihood, take the party to yet another defeat in 2013 because, as State Scene has long contended, it’s likely to be at least two more elections – 2009 and 2013 – before big taxing Labor is ousted.

And the reason is last year’s McGinty electoral redistribution, which parliament passed because the Campbell-Ellison faction was so determined to oust at preselection upper house MP, Allan Cadby, who returned their career-killing ‘favour’ by voting for Labor’s one-vote-one-value bill.

All this shows what can happen when a handful of dabbling federal MPs are allowed to gain so much sway, via an ambitious on-the-spot senate hopeful, over their disunited and rudderless state counterparts.


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