The fragile nature of the Liberal-National alliance has been exposed by the contentious stop and search legislation.
IT was Colin Barnett’s biggest setback since he became premier just more than two years ago; and it was all because of just 15 words.
The words comprised the first recommendation of an upper house committee’s report into the contentious stop and search legislation.
The report said simply: “A majority of the committee ... recommends that the Criminal Investigation Amendment Bill 2009 be opposed.” And no matter how much the government was prepared to water it down, that was the justification used by the five upper house National Party MPs to oppose it.
The key questions are, what does it mean for the governing Liberal-National alliance, and will Police Minister Rob Johnson have to shoulder the blame?
Given that the Liberals hold 16 seats in the 36-member upper house, and that the Greens and Labor were already going to vote ‘no’, the views of the Nationals became absolutely crucial.
The legislation was based on the increasing level of violence, mainly in popular nightspots, and the growing number of weapons, especially knives, being confiscated from people involved in brawls.
It passed through the lower house easily enough late last year, but doubts surfaced in the Legislative Council, and it was shunted off to a committee, which delivered its critical report last month.
The Liberals and Nationals have had major differences before. For example, it’s the intransigence of the Nationals that has made the liberalisation of shopping hours in the metropolitan area such a tortuous process for the government.
While annoying for the premier, the Nationals’ resistance to extended shopping hours had always been factored in. They had made their position clear when the governing alliance was formed. The premier has flagged he wants to pursue the issue of general Sunday trading should his government win a second term.
The stop and search measures were developed last year, and endorsed by the cabinet of 14 senior Liberals, and three from the Nationals. When it was passed in the assembly, again the Nationals – led by Brendon Grylls – voted with their alliance partners.
The wheels fell off in the upper house, but not before the government pulled out all stops to satisfy the waverers.
While the police minister was offering all sorts of concessions behind closed doors, the premier was saying he understood that National Party leaders were trying to convince their upper house colleagues to drop their opposition.
Not only did Brendon Grylls deny he was trying to talk his colleagues round, he even suggested he was having second thoughts himself. And he added: “I put it to you that if executive government makes a decision and they’re passed through the parliament, there’s not much point having an upper house and there’s not much point having committees.”
He added that support for the measure had not been a condition of forming government or an election commitment of either party. In other words he believes his conscience is clear.
But the issue shows that the Police portfolio is becoming a hot political potato for Rob Johnson, who continues to also be embroiled in the fallout from the repeated tasering of Kevin Spratt in the Perth Watchhouse, which was caught on closed circuit TV.
It’s possible that this issue helped seal the fate of the stop and search laws. Mr Barnett had said repeatedly that the police could be trusted not to abuse the proposed powers. Yet the tasering vision was clear evidence of abuse, no matter how difficult Mr Spratt might have been.
Mr Johnson and Attorney-General Christian Porter met with the Nationals in a last-ditch attempt to talk them round to supporting the stop and search measures. Even on the eve of their announcement that killed them off, Mr Johnson was still searching for a compromise.
The police minister won’t force the legislation to a vote, or withdraw it. He predicts increased violence over the summer will cause a change of heart, and that it will eventually be passed.
Mr Barnett will now be reassessing Mr Johnson’s performance in the Police portfolio. He knows the government can’t afford self-inflicted setbacks like this in such a key policy area. In fact the premier is even prepared to take the matter to the next state election due in early 2013, in the hope that a strong vote would provide a clear mandate for the tough approach.
And Mr Barnett will be keeping a closer eye on his junior partner to avoid any repetition of a backflip in parliament on a joint Liberal-Nationals cabinet decision. Neither he, nor the government, can afford it.
Spanner in the works
THE row over Fremantle Independent Adele Carles’ request for an extra staff member is not as simple as it seems. It also has implications for Troy Buswell’s potential return to the cabinet, especially as treasurer.
Ms Carles believes she is entitled to more staff, and after consulting the premier thought she had a deal – she would support the government in parliament on key money votes and confidence motions, in return.
She told The Sunday Times that was the deal. But when challenged, Mr Barnett said that wasn’t his recollection.
The premier says he told her two other Independents, Janet Woollard and John Bowler, also gained extra staff, but they supported the government and assisted in other activities.
The upshot was that Ms Carles conceded she could have misunderstood the premier. But not before Mr Barnett disclosed he had been tipped off by Troy Buswell – who is now Ms Carles’ boyfriend – that a story on the issue was about to break.
There’s nothing wrong with Ms Carles and Mr Buswell discussing the issue, and him advising the premier. In fact Mr Barnett would have been justifiably annoyed if he hadn’t been warned.
But what if Mr Buswell returns to the cabinet in next month’s reshuffle, possibly as treasurer? Will the gregarious MP be tight lipped on the home front? If so, there’s no problem.
Or will he let drop a few pieces of information about issues, or the behaviour of some of his colleagues around the cabinet table? It’s one thing to mention these to a spouse who might have only a passing interest, but it’s another matter when the partner is also a serving politician, and not in the same party.
And that’s Mr Barnett’s problem. It’s also apparent that some of Mr Buswell’s colleagues are less than impressed with his record, and believe he should remain in the sin bin.
In the meantime, the Vasse MP continues to be a model backbencher in the assembly, generally punctual, and rarely drawing attention to himself.
What appeared to be a simple decision by the premier on his approaching cabinet shake-up has just become a whole lot harder.
• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV’s state political reporter.