04/07/2006 - 22:00

Shots fired in Senate stoush

04/07/2006 - 22:00

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Even though it’s still several months before Liberals in Western Australia preselect their 2007 federal election senate team, moves have well and truly begun to determine which names will be in the top three spots on the party’s ticket.

Even though it’s still several months before Liberals in Western Australia preselect their 2007 federal election senate team, moves have well and truly begun to determine which names will be in the top three spots on the party’s ticket.

The terms of senators David Johnston, Alan Eggleston and Ross Lightfoot end on June 30 2008.

Each of their backgrounds needs to be considered before reflecting upon some of the Byzantine moves each may need to initiate and become involved in over those months.

Of the three, the one with least claim for re-endorsement is Senator Lightfoot.

By mid-2008 he’ll be nearing his 72nd birthday, meaning he’d be approaching 80 at the end of another term. That’s well known across party ranks, with most quite stunned over his recent claims he intends to re-nominate.

If the senator is unaware of that, it will soon be pointed out to him.

He’ll be diplomatically told he’s been a member of both chambers of WA’s parliament, so has had a good innings, and should go quietly and cease seeing himself as an evergreen.

On top of his advancing years, he has the least impressive educational background.

Senators Johnston and Eggleston have degrees – the former a lawyer, the latter a medical practitioner.

The nearest Senator Lightfoot comes, according to his parliamentary biography, is attending two years each at Adelaide’s and Kalgoorlie’s School of Mines. Whether he actually graduated from either isn’t indicated.

There’s also an unusual entry that reads: “Life Fellow, International Biographical Association, Cambridge”.

It’s unclear from this record if Senator Lightfoot’s referring to Cambridge, England, home of one of that country’s top two universities, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University.

But whichever, it matters little beyond making one wonder why something called a life fellowship from some foreign biographical association was included.

There’s also his proclivity for attracting media attention in ways others prefer to avoid.

Senator Lightfoot has made provocative public comments about Indigenous Australians, which many Liberals find an embarrassment, and recently surfaced in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he was photographed toting a Soviet-made AK-47 on his hip. In that case, at least, he shares something with controversial and much travelled former AWB Ltd chairman and one-time National Party candidate, Trevor Flugge.

These attributes, and the fact that he’s without a power base within the party – he was a long-time loyal ally of expelled former party power broker, Noel Crichton-Browne – suggest his spot is set to be snapped-up by a new candidate.

It should be noted that senators Johnston and Eggleston are also light-on when it comes to having a power base because they too were closely linked to the Crichton-Browne faction, which split years ago.

Both are presently trying to cobble together a support alliance of delegates for preselection day.

Another reason for their lack of broad support is that the party is now controlled by the ever-growing faction that’s headed by two other senators, both of them Howard government ministers, but who are not up for preselection this time – Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison.

It’s primarily their followers who will decide the fate of senators Johnston and Eggleston, since they form the majority on the state council, which selects senatorial candidates.

It’s here that some quite interesting behind-the-scenes manoeuvres will take place.

The crucial new ingredient is that there are three Campbell-Ellison faction followers who aspire to becoming senators, and therefore want their names at the top of the ballot paper.

They are – in order of likelihood of realising their dream – Matthias Cormann, Nick Bruining and Michael Mischin.

Unfortunately for them, three simply doesn’t fit into one, which means two miss out if incumbents, senators Johnston and Eggleston, manage to secure enough numbers by pulling off career-saving deals with those at the upper echelons of the dominant Campbell-Ellison faction, or others.

An example of such a deal would be to get Prime Minister John Howard to either publicly or privately indicate he wants sitting members re-endorsed.

If he did so publicly he’d simply say it on radio and one can be fairly confident state council would vote accordingly. But that’s not guaranteed – it’s just likely, nothing more.

Another way is for Mr Howard to simply whisper into Senator Campbell’s and/or Senator Ellison’s ears so they pass it down the line, and state council votes accordingly.

That’s all well and good.

But there are some immediate problems that surface from such prime ministerial involvement.

The first is where Senator Lightfoot would fit into all this.

He’s an incumbent and he’d feel quite put out if a Howard edict backed the other two but not him.

And with so finely balanced a senate, Mr Howard wouldn’t want to have even one upset senator who may perhaps vote with Labor, the Greens and Democrats between next federal election day – due sometime late in 2007 – and July 1 2008.

But the soon-to-be 70-year-old Senator Lightfoot, despite being without much party backing, and unlikely to attract a prime ministerial nod, still has aces up his sleeve.

He could well indicate his disgust at being discriminated against and leave the Liberal Party and prime ministerial office wondering what he might or might not do on the Senate floor unless a plum overseas or national job was on offer.

Undoubtedly Mr Howard could find him something appealing since there are hundreds of Canberra quangos to choose from to make political appointments.

Both major parties have been adept at looking after dumped or defeated parliamentary pals.

Mr Howard did precisely that for former Curtin MHR Allan Rocher by dispatching him to Los Angeles after he lost his seat.

Perhaps Senator Lightfoot, who loves donning his kilt, could be tempted with something north of Hadrian’s Wall.

He once told State Scene he’d love to retire north of that wall and live in a two-storey stone house.

But his desires and future are only a small part of the battle facing the Liberals.

Here we must return to the fact that three simply doesn’t fit into one, which means that two of the three hopefuls – Messrs Cormann, Bruining and Mischin – miss out since only Senator Lightfoot’s spot is likely to be available.

Most Liberal state councillors know the Campbell-Ellison faction has already looked favourably upon their key numbers man, Mr Cormann, for the Lightfoot spot, meaning Messrs Bruining and Mischin are in line for plenty of nothing, at least this time around.

But the latter two face a longer-term problem.

Next time, in 2010, there’s likely to again only be one vacancy, since neither Senator Campbell nor Senator Ellison intends to retire.

The fact that both are ministers gives them far greater claim to senatorial re-endorsement than in the cases of senators Johnston and Eggleston cases.

In light of this, WA’s sixth Liberal senator, Judith Adams, whose term expires with those of senators Campbell and Ellison, will be closely watching to see how Senator Lightfoot’s age factor is treated.

All this is, of course, only part of the story. Another part is that the three finally named will battle it out for first place. None will want to be lower than number two on the ballot, although third spot should still manage to be elected. The Liberals have been winning three Senate spots in WA for years.

So, as well as the matter of tactfully displacing Senator Lightfoot there’s that of Mr Cormann possibly over-taking senators Johnston and Eggle-ston from either of the top two spots.

If he does, and many feel he’ll do so to at least one of them, there’s likely to be considerable recrimination against those pulling the strings within the Campbell-Ellison faction.

Moreover, Mr Howard may not become involved, something Messrs Cormann, Bruining and Mischin would welcome.

And even if he did, senators Johnston and Eggleston can’t be absolutely certain all Campbell-Ellison faction members will meekly and fully abide by prime ministerial edicts.

All in all there are lots of fingernails set to be chewed to the quick over coming months.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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