20/06/2006 - 22:00

Libs sow the seeds of decline

20/06/2006 - 22:00


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Ask any active Western Australian Liberal who their party’s ultimate movers and shakers are and you’ll be told it’s the triumvirate of senators Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison and their man in Perth, Matthias Cormann, who was a former staffer of Court gove

Ask any active Western Australian Liberal who their party’s ultimate movers and shakers are and you’ll be told it’s the triumvirate of senators Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison and their man in Perth, Matthias Cormann, who was a former staffer of Court government minister, Rhonda Parker, and Senator Ellison.

The triumvirate’s power base is the party’s 130-strong state council, since that’s where senate candidates are endorsed.

To control state council one must ensure people you trust to be supportive are office bearers of as many party branches as possible, since it’s from here, via divisions, that most of the council’s 130 delegates originate.

Both senators worked assiduously from the day they joined the party to ensure their then patron, ex-senator Noel Crichton-Browne, remained in control of that council.

And when the party expelled him, senators Campbell and Ellison promptly filled the vacuum at the top of the now-defunct Crichton-Browne faction.

It was because Mr Crichton-Browne controlled state council that the two senators allied themselves with him, thereby ensuring senate preselection.

Mr Crichton-Browne’s council loyalists voted for them because that’s what the faction’s how-to-vote card said to do on the day of their inaugural preselection.

Ask any active WA Liberal who’ll definitely be on the party’s senate ballot at next year’s federal election and they’ll confidently name Mr Cormann.

By allying himself with senators Campbell and Ellison, he’s emulating what they did by becoming Mr Crichton-Browne’s operatives to launch their senatorial careers.

That said, it should be noted that the joint Campbell-Ellison moves to ascendancy over state council after Mr Crichton-Browne’s expulsion were also motivated by self-preservation.

Mr Crichton-Browne’s sway over state council didn’t vaporise the moment he was expelled, but senators Campbell and Ellison had fallen out with him by opting to become allied with prime minister John Howard, never a fan of Mr Crichton-Browne.

For some time Mr Crichton-Browne’s backers remained significant council players. So much so that, for a while, the two senators feared they may be dumped.

However, there was another often-ignored reason for moving to become power brokers.

All prime ministers – and Mr Howard is no exception – like to know that if they embark on a course of action they’ll be backed, or at least not overtly criticised by the state-based Liberal parties.

To help ensure this happens, prime ministers carefully use their power of patronage, which simply means they promote to ministerial and cabinet rank those who show they have influence within their respective states and can be obedient.

Senators Campbell and Ellison are now ministers and are Mr Howard’s men in WA, which means they acquire patronage powers, via state council, and other preselection panels that decide or influence who will enter parliament.

Knowing this helps explain why neither, to State Scene’s recollection, ever publicly queries anything Mr Howard does.

One acid test for Canberra Liberal MPs is the always-thorny federalist issue – a long-standing Liberal article of faith.

Previously, Labor was Australia’s major centralising party.

This has meant federal Liberal MPs, even when in government but most certainly when in opposition, have generally cautioned and even publicly opposed further growth of Canberra’s power over the states.

State Scene knew both ministers well before they became Crichton-Browne’s acolytes to launch their senate careers, and particularly in Senator Campbell’s case can confidently state that he was then strongly pro-federalist.

That appears to no longer be so.

Neither was heard when the Howard government implemented its centralising workplace legislation, which threatens to severely dilute state powers.

Nor did they speak out against the Howard-initiated Australian Technical Colleges proposal, which duplicates the state-based Tafe colleges and further strengthens Canberra’s control over this educational sector.

Imagine if a Beazley-led government had done this.

Both senators, and most state Liberal MPs, would be up in arms.

Only former Liberal leader Matt Birney – a pal of Mr Crichton-Browne, so not an ally of the senators – spoke out on the workplace legislation.

No fewer than 10 of WA’s 2005 crop of Liberal MPs are factionally aligned to the triumvirate, since they gained preselection backing from Campbell-Ellison factional loyalists.

Equally significant is the fact that sitting upper house MP, Alan Cadby, was disendorsed in the 2004 preselection after being told he was seen as a Crichton-Browne man.

And a former upper house president, George Cash – also identified with the now-defunct Crichton-Browne’s faction senators Campbell and Ellison were once so active in – went within one vote of being dumped.

While Mr Cormann, who a recent press report dubbed “the Campbell-Ellison hatchet man”, is set for senator stardom, Mr Cadby went the other way.

And there are a sizeable number of others across the state who are bitter about missing preselection, because numbers were systematically organised against them by triumvirate backers.

The triumvirate has great power. It can make politicians and it can unmake them, when those within its ranks decide someone’s days, hopes or career should be terminated.

Its demand for obedience emulates John Howard’s insistence on unquestioning loyalty from ministers. Sources say this was a major reason former state director, Paul Everingham, finally opted to leave for the business world. They also say his successor, Mark Neeham, is far more comfortable with the triumvirate.

Senator Campbell is seen as far and away the most ardent disciplinarian, followed by Mr Cormann.

Another party agency that must be controlled is its constitutional and drafting committee, known simply as C&D.

This four-member body adjudicates on many seemingly erudite and technical questions involving a range of intra-party and factional conflicts, which are crucial in ongoing factional power plays. It’s like judge and jury wrapped into one and its decisions often cannot be obtained in written form.

Ask any active WA Liberal who now controls C&D and you’re promptly told it’s dominated by backers of the Campbell-Ellison-Cormann, triumvirate.

This control is exercised by clandestine meetings, on-going ring-arounds, movement of members to and between crucial branches, and constantly ensuring trusted people, including especially MP’s family members and their staffers, attend certain forums at critical times to ensure power and influence is maintained.

Such activities are the bread, butter and jam of factional control in any party.

This manoeuvring means those looked upon favourably reap the benefits of office – MP’s salary, indexed superannuation, staff, overseas and interstate trips, taxpayer-funded vehicle, and telephones, to name a few.

But are there any costs on top of these obvious outlays?

When a single faction controls a party, orthodoxy inevitably sets in, which is something political parties certainly don’t need.

WA’s Liberal Party now has well below 2,500 members and is seeking to stay afloat by resorting to compulsory taxpayer funding at state elections.

It is showing itself to be increasingly bereft of diversity of thought. It is bereft of novel ideas, imaginative proposals (and State Scene excludes silly ones like uncosted Kimberley canals), members and, thus, money.

Little wonder growing numbers of people still loosely associated with the Liberals, but not triumvirate fans, are saying that it’s probably time to move on since state council and C&D are monopolised.

More and more businesspeople, who don’t want the state perennially governed by Labor, have begun considering other ways to perhaps influence public policy.

The Liberal Party, they feel, must be sidestepped. Some have considered creating a research institute to focus upon public policy issues that would then be promoted.

Others have wondered about creating another non-Labor party.

Others still have said “to heck with it, why not just keep making money”.

State Scene has spoken, at some length, to several such people and heard these sentiments and proposals discussed.

This may sound extreme, but in State Scene’s opinion it’s difficult not to conclude that when John Howard – who despite his centralism continues to appeal to some – retires, the day of reckoning will come, and quickly.

By then the party may find itself not only bereft of patrons and private funding, but members will predominantly be MPs’ relatives, friends and staffers, something that’s already becoming a conspicuous feature.

In other words, the opposite to what existed before Mr Crichton-Browne become a senator, when he was at his peak as a power broker of a mass party whose membership easily exceeded 20,000, and to which the Campbell-Ellison duo were so obviously attracted.


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