25/01/2012 - 11:02

New blood, local heroes needed

25/01/2012 - 11:02


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New state Labor leader Mark McGowan has his work cut out to win next year’s election.

New state Labor leader Mark McGowan has his work cut out to win next year’s election.

IT’S said to be the toughest job in federal or state politics; and given Eric Ripper’s recent experience, it’s a wonder the job isn’t covered by occupational health and safety laws, as well as generous redundancy payouts.

All opposition leaders start out with high hopes, and new Labor leader Mark McGowan is no exception. Obviously his dream is to lead his party into government at next year’s election. 

But, as Mr Ripper knows only too well, many opposition leaders are cut down by their colleagues before they even get the chance to conduct an election campaign.

Or, if they fail at an election, their prospects of getting another tilt at the top job are slim indeed. Some bow out immediately; others are persuaded by their colleagues to carry on, with the prospect of another go, only to be removed as the election date gets closer.

Probably the luckiest opposition leaders in recent years have been two Liberals, Colin Barnett and John Howard. Both won government in their respective jurisdictions, but only at the second attempt and in the most unusual of circumstances. Having got the chance, however, they made the most of it.

In fact Mr Barnett dragged the Liberals into government in 2008 after a most unhappy first attempt as opposition leader in 2005. He had survived the four years as Liberal leader in opposition, although his party was far from united. That was the election in which he promised to build a canal from the Kimberley to Perth, and fumbled the costings of his promises in the last week of the campaign.

When Mr Barnett relinquished the leadership immediately after that election loss, the job became a revolving door. Matt Birney, Paul Omodei and Troy Buswell all occupied the post with limited impact. 

Then the party turned to Mr Barnett at the 11th hour, just as he was planning his life after politics. The rest, of course, is history.

It’s a similar story for Mr Howard. When the federal Liberals lost power in 1983 and Malcolm Fraser announced his retirement, Andrew Peacock (Kooyong, Victoria) and Mr Howard (Bennelong, NSW) then became locked in a struggle to succeed him.

Mr Peacock got the job initially, and led the Liberals into the early 1984 poll, surprising his internal critics with the quality of his campaign. 

But his prospect of a second chance was dashed when Mr Howard launched a successful leadership challenge, only to see his prime ministerial hopes ruined by the abortive ‘Joh for PM’ campaign in 1987.

That was the crazy attempt by the then long-term Queensland premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, to win the nation’s top job under the National Party banner. Needless to say it not only ended in tears. It also destroyed Mr Howard’s chances. He continued as Liberal leader, only to be dumped in favour of Mr Peacock after sneaky backroom deals before the 1990 poll.

That’s when Bob Hawke led Labor to its fourth successive victory. The Liberals turned to John Hewson, and it looked as if Mr Howard’s chances were gone forever.  After his ‘Fightback’ strategy was rejected in 1993, Dr Hewson was prevailed on to stay in the leadership, only to be cut down after a year by, you guessed it, Mr Howard. 

But the Liberals don’t have a monopoly on bitter wrangles over leadership. There was a fair bit of angst in Western Australia– mainly generational – when Brian Burke challenged Ron Davies for the Labor leadership (in opposition) in 1981. Mr Burke was aged just 34, which made him 21 years younger than Mr Davies.

State Labor’s leadership revolving door occurred after Carmen Lawrence led the party into opposition in 1993. She stayed on for almost a year before switching to the federal parliament. Ian Taylor followed, then Jim McGinty, before Geoff Gallop was prevailed on to take over after disappointing polling. 

He became one of the few MPs to lead his party to defeat (in 1996) and be given a second chance, ousting Richard Court’s coalition government in 2001.

Probably the two most spectacular changes of political leadership occurred under federal Labor – one in opposition and the other in government.

The first was on the eve of the 1983 election, when Bob Hawke replaced Bill Hayden. Mr Hayden had spent more than five years rebuilding a shattered party into a credible alternative, including making gains in the 1980 poll. He had also fought off an initial challenge by Mr Hawke in a caucus vote in mid 1982.

Mr Hayden was heading towards a probable victory in 1983 but the party felt Mr Hawke as leader would make that victory certain. And it did. Hence Mr Hayden’s jibe that “even a drover’s dog” could have led Labor back into government.

Then followed Mr Hawke’s love affair with the electorate, during which he became known as the ‘messiah’. But the old saying ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ came into play as his young and ambitious treasurer, Paul Keating, made his run. Mr Keating also made two challenges. After the first he uttered his much-quoted comment when asked if he would challenge again, that he only had one shot in the locker, which proved not to be the case.

Mr McGowan knows all this. Obviously his goal is to win the election in 14 months. But based on the recent Newspoll, which had the government leading Labor 59 per cent to 41 per cent on a two-party preferred basis, that is a long shot.

The odds at this stage favour Mr Barnett, which means that Mr McGowan will probably have to try and emulate Geoff Gallop and even Gough Whitlam; that is, lead his party into power at the second attempt. That would mean another four-year slog in opposition, so that his team is ready to mount a winning campaign in 2017.

But the challenges for the new leader are clear. He needs policies in touch with community expectations and a team of strong candidates. That means talented new blood with local heroes, not just the usual sprinkling of political staffers, union officials and extended family members. 

Selecting candidates who live in their electorates, rather than the usual cluster living in the inner suburbs, would also be a clear sign that Labor is keen to rebuild its links with ordinary voters.

That’s one reason why Mr McGowan has been happy to stress that he and his family live in his electorate of Rockingham. He has embarked on a long, hard road. Whether he succeeds in emulating Geoff Gallop will depend on the voters – and his party colleagues.


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