03/09/2008 - 22:00

Maybe next time for the Libs

03/09/2008 - 22:00


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Saturday's state election is unlikely to shine in the annals of Western Australian political history as a memorable event.

Saturday's state election is unlikely to shine in the annals of Western Australian political history as a memorable event.

From well before day one of the uninspiring 28-day campaign it was treated as an unwelcome necessity, something Premier Alan Carpenter seemed to want out of the way.

Like Russia's increasingly sinister paramount chief, ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin, who used Beijing's Olympic Games to camouflage his long-planned crushing of tiny Georgia, Mr Carpenter called an early election to hopefully ensure he, first and foremost, sideswiped the Liberals and retained his $300,000-a-year job.

The tawdry haste with which he was chauffeured to Government House, so he could use a fortnight of televised sporting to effectively gut half the campaign, suggests election 2008 was never meant to be a politically invigorating encounter.

Election 2008 - which, let's not forget, should have been election 2009 - is therefore one embarked upon not in a spirit of healthy competitiveness, but rather one to be promptly gotten out of the way so Labor retained power and Mr Carpenter personally prospered.

We'll soon know whether his decision to go early is vindicated.

Certainly if non-Labor wins, as it managed in 1993 by toppling the Carmen Lawrence government, the move will be viewed as a failure.

That, however, remains difficult to envisage.

State Scene's column of August 14, 'Barnett, Libs have it all to do', argued that the stage is set for Labor to be returned since the Jim McGinty-inspired redistribution means Labor could expect to go into the campaign with no fewer than 29 seats highly unlikely to fall to the Liberals.

To form government, one must win at least 30 seats, meaning Mr Carpenter was sitting pretty well before day one.

Using the Olympics to gut half the campaign was probably unnecessary, perhaps even fatally counter-productive.

Moreover, the Liberals were fractured in ways they haven't been for decades.

Not even during their dark Burke government years were circumstances so dispiriting.

That's saying something, since those years were marked by bitter leadership tussles and they had at least one, maybe more, members leaking critical information to Labor powerbrokers from within their party room.

This time something similar happened before Mr Barnett's re-emergence nearly four years after his narrow defeat by Geoff Gallop.

For more than a month before his return to the top job we read the results of ongoing leaks to The West Australian that finally triggered the removal of lame-duck leader, Troy Buswell.

Make no mistake, the Barnett-led Liberals, because of an active and clandestine group of MPs and candidates who feared their political careers faced demise, kept the media fully abreast of those fears in the hope that Mr Buswell was left little choice but to resign.

True, not quite as bad as leaking to Labor powerbrokers, as in the 1980s, but only one touch better.

The generally held view across Liberal ranks is that Mr Barnett's return has meant that what many called "the train wreck" anticipated with Mr Buswell as leader will be avoided.

Belatedly playing the Barnett card certainly dispatched that ordeal which, without it, would have meant only seven Liberal lower house MPs remaining.

Many Liberal MPs and candidates also expected a record number of informal votes deliberately cast by their traditional backers.

That said, few in-the-know Liberals are confident of victory on Saturday, even though there will be slight-to-small swings from Labor in some seats.

Labor, after all, has been in power since 2001 with little of note achieved.

Furthermore, Australian governments seeking third terms are generally up against it.

But it's still hard to see the Liberals bagging the needed 30 seats - despite Labor panicking over ones like Kingsley and Jandakot, and the possibility of not winning Kalgoorlie, which may go to John Bowler, a former minister, who is standing as an independent.

And there's been Mr Carpenter's unpopular grumpy predisposition.

All that ballyhoo about the ever-more-expensive Fiona Stanley Hospital, another unnecessarily costly desalination plant, and the like, are hardly hallmarks of imaginative governance.

Any highly taxed, demographically expanding, prosperous society, like WA, can expect a steady flow of infrastructure additions as the normal course of events.

The fact that Mr Carpenter keeps boasting about these shows how bereft he is of real achievements.

What about permitting uranium mining for non-polluting energy generation or appropriate punishment for drunken thugs assaulting police officers?

What about ensuring greater Aboriginal participation in the workforce?

Had the Liberals stabilised themselves some years ago by embarking upon purposive assessments of precisely what WA needed and what government could sensibly provide 2 million Western Australians, the situation would now be different.

Unimaginative Carpenter-led Labor would have been pushed onto the ropes and knocked right out of the ring.

But no consensus emerged over who should be and remain Liberal leader, so they've now had Mr Barnett boomeranged onto them just as he was hanging up his boots.

With Liberal shadow ministries swapping and changing, people standing down, being replaced, and returning to former spots, it's a wonder they've been able to announce a steady stream of belatedly cobbled-together policies.

Less well known is the fact that the ongoing hiatus within parliamentary Liberals ranks since Matt Birney's leadership imploded has been largely overcome by the hard work of the party's new state director, Sydneysider Ben Morton.

Although only recently reaching Perth, Mr Morton immediately found himself carrying most of the campaigning burden, so flew in several t'othersiders to help out at Liberal HQ.

Somehow he's been able to make it appear he's matched dollar-flush Carpenter-led Labor throughout the campaign, which is commendable.

According to one of State Scene's best informed Liberal insiders, that's largely due to the fact that Mr Morton is an ardent disciple of Linton Crosby, the party's legendary national director of the early John Howard years, who now even assists non-leftist party campaigns outside Australia.

Here it's worth quoting John O'Sullivan, once British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's foremost media adviser, who later edited the prestigious New York-based conservative journal, National Review, and wrote the highly-acclaimed book, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.

Three years ago, when assessing Great Britain's 2005 election at which Tony Blair won for a third time - but with a reduced majority - Mr O'Sullivan nevertheless concluded the Tories had finally turned around, something he attributed to the long-overdue emergence of self-discipline across their ranks.

"This self-discipline is news since the Tory party in recent years has been a byword for internal wrangling and mixed messages," he wrote.

"It is thought to be the handiwork of two men: the party leader Michael Howard, and the Australian political consultant, Linton Crosby, whom he [Michael Howard] imported from John Howard's successful campaign Down Under.

"They have imposed these clear and simple messages on their colleagues -- and sometimes enforced them brutally.

"Two candidates have been removed for, in effect, 'going off message' and spoiling the party's presentation of its case.

"In addition to focus and self-discipline, Howard and Crosby have also restored at least some of the Tory party's self-confidence.

"That may be even more crucial.

"Since the fall of Thatcher, the Tory party has had no belief in itself or confidence in its own instincts.

"It has therefore floundered from policy to policy without ever knowing what it stood for in general."

Interestingly, pundits now increasingly see the Tories as likely winners in 2010.

Mr O'Sullivan's words, although assessing Britain's Tories in 2005, have a familiar ring in today's WA.

That being so, State Scene's conclusion on the eve of premature election 2008 is that long-standing predictions made in this column that WA's Liberals won't win election 2013, may need to be reassessed.


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