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Ministerial mayhem dogs Premier

Spare a thought for Richard Court.

He heads a cabinet of mostly men some of whom seem quite unable to distinguish between their private affairs and what’s likely to be expected of them by the public.

In an age when growing numbers of city folk, at least, are increasingly green issue sensitive – fate of trees, rivers, smog, beaches, recycling, and all that - we find a minister actually felling trees near land he owns, and another lobbying for a constituent not to be prosecuted for doing the same.

This dual case of electoral short-sightedness came hard on the heels of another minister who sat on his hands for months as the press reported the complaints of grannies and grandpas who had been swindled by fast money men.

To compound that myopia another minister who had long ago been financially linked to a money man, remained silent in cabinet about those links hoping no one found out.

And while on money, yet another one, rather than disqualifying himself from discussions on the sell-off of a major State asset - the rail freight network - transferred his shares in one of the buying companies to his wife instead of selling them, and sat tight thinking it may be unnoticed.

Again and again there’s increasingly serious flawed behaviour in relation to what the public may expect of a Minister.

It’s cases like these that slowly destroy governments.

We saw it happen in Britain when Labor leader Tony Blair - WA Opposition leader Geoff Gallop’s old Oxford pal - dubbed the Conservatives as a government of sleaze.

Though Dr Gallop hasn’t adopted the word more ministerial mishaps may well mean it emerges here.

The fact is Mr Court is begun to look like former 10 Downing Street occupant, John Major; inappropriate ministerial behaviour all around him about which he can do nothing.

Even if he were prepared to dump one of his shortsighted men who’d put him into the firing line his problems would only be com-pounded.

The latter months of Year 2000, as he gears up for a February or March election, are the worst possible ones to start spring-cleaning cabinet.

Not widely realised is that Mr Court is cornered by several other less obvious arrangements.

To begin with he has no power over three of his 16 ministers because of a signed secret Liberal/National Party deal giving his deputy Hendy Cowan the final say on their fates.

It seems, Mr Cowan, his deputy, Monty House, and Transport Minister, Murray Criddle, are therefore immune from anything Mr Court may care to do.

If, by chance, he wished to unilaterally move against any of them he’d have to be prepared to smash the coalition, meaning his hold on the premiership, which is just not on.

But if it did occur at least one Liberal minister could be expected to emerge as willing to negotiate the creation of a revamped Liberal/National coalition – and the cabinet wouldn’t include Mr Court.

Of Mr Court’s remaining 13 Liberal ministers, they are a delicately crafted group of Court loyalists; likely backers of a Liberal challenger for his job; and a handful who may have been foisted on him by his party room for a variety of little known reasons.

To drop any would mean the dumped person would go to the backbench feeling bitter and from there would probably begin plotting Mr. Court’s demise.

Most ministers have a couple of loyal parliamentary mates so dumping a minister inevitably means getting several MPs off side.

In a party room of just 43 members that could well mean enough to swing the balance towards a successful leadership challenge.

And there’s never been a shortage of Liberal aspirants for the party’s top job. Indeed, Mr Court was himself a longtime aspirant, and finally got it by toppling Barry MacKinnon.

All the signs are that the coming election campaign will be a short 29-day affair as statutorily laid down – but we can expect all the fire of Kilkenny cats as they fight for their survival.

Apart from the public good – and after all, that should be the alpha and omega of it all – the election will decide the future of each of the three party leaders.

Increasingly better placed is Dr Gallop, with the polls consistently showing Labor leading the coalition; if he fails, however, that will be two election losses behind him so he can be expected to look to other pastures, perhaps even academe again, here or overseas.

For his part Mr Court, if he loses, can expect to vacate the leadership and probably Parliament.

A defeat would also probably see Mr Cowan resign his Merredin seat which could spark the transfer from the Upper House of Dexter Davies who might reasonably expect to become Merredin MLA and possibly even assume the Nationals’ leadership.

The stakes are that high.

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