14/03/2016 - 06:48

Smith pitches economic credentials

14/03/2016 - 06:48


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Former senior federal cabinet minister Stephen Smith has identified Western Australia's economic future as a major factor in his audacious bid to wrest leadership of the WA Labor Party from the incumbent, Mark McGowan.

Smith pitches economic credentials
Stephen Smith has confirmed his interest in leading WA Labor, despite not being a member of the WA Parliament.

Former senior federal cabinet minister Stephen Smith has identified Western Australia’s economic future as a major factor in his audacious bid to wrest leadership of WA Labor from the incumbent, Mark McGowan.

In an unprecedented move in this state, Mr Smith (60), who retired from federal politics in 2013 after 20 years as the member for Perth, is seeking to replace Mr McGowan as opposition leader despite not being a member of parliament.

He confirmed his interest at a 30-minute news conference at Highgate’s Hyde Park on Sunday, after two days of speculation sparked by lobbyist and former Labor secretary and MLC, John Halden, who told the ABC he believed Mr Smith would be a better leader.

Mr Smith, a former defence and foreign affairs minister, told the news conference he had only decided to put his hand up after much soul searching and an approach from state MPs. But a group of supporters has been privately promoting his credentials for the past two years.

In fact I mentioned the possibility of a Smith comeback at a Committee for Economic Development of Australia forum early in 2014, based on what I had been hearing privately.

It sounded farfetched at the time, but has now become a reality, causing turmoil within the Labor Party.

Unveiling his sales pitch at the news conference, Mr Smith said that, economically, WA was at the crossroads. After the recent China export boom, the state had to develop a new sector in its economy to ensure it would have a secure future, especially with the projected opportunities linked with countries on the Indian Ocean rim, he said.

Pointing to the projected growth of economies such as India and Indonesia, Mr Smith said Perth was best placed to be Australia's Indian Ocean capital – to be the gateway to these large economies.

“Canberra will help but Canberra won’t do it for us,” he said.

“And if WA is not careful, when the trade and investment flows come from Indonesia and India, they'll fly over Perth and go straight to Sydney and Canberra.”

Mr Smith also took a swipe at Premier Colin Barnett.

“In the course of his time as premier, Mr Barnett has been to India once and Indonesia once. There has to be a wholesale change. This is one of the most important long-term economic priorities the state government has,” he said.

Mr Smith's immediate challenge is to convince a majority of WA’s 32 state Labor MPs that he is best equipped to lead them to victory in the March election next year. Most rely on Labor’s powerful affiliated unions for their endorsements, although Mr McGowan and his closest supporters are in the non-aligned group.

The Labor executive meets tonight (Monday), and the Labor caucus will meet on Tuesday in preparation for the parliamentary sitting week. Leadership will obviously be on the agenda.

Mr Smith said he hoped the matter could be resolved quickly. He added he would accept the decision of the caucus, but hinted it could take time. This would be in the hope that more MPs might come onside.

Mr McGowan took the Labor leadership from former treasurer Eric S Ripper four years ago. The latest Newspoll published in January had him leading Mr Barnett as preferred premier and Labor ahead of the Liberal-National parties on voting intentions. But the government would have to lose 10 seats, with a uniform adverse swing of 10 per cent, to lose power.

Mr Smith said it was possible for him to lead Labor and gain endorsement for a seat such as Baldivis, in Perth’s south. If Labor won the election and he won the seat, he would be officially elected as Labor leader – and premier – at the first party room meeting.

It’s an ambitious plan. But there is a precedent in Queensland, where the same approach worked for the Liberal National Party and Campbell Newman in 2011. Mr Smith is obviously hoping it will also work for him but with a better long-term result – the Newman government was tipped out after only one term.


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