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Stage is set for Liberal Party showdown

IT’S going to be a battle royale, a huge barney, one hell of a shebang.

That’s how most in-the-know party activists are depicting the Liberal State Conference on July 28 and 29, two days after Prime Minister John Howard’s birthday.

“All State conferences are important but this one – coming after Richard Court’s election trouncing and just before a federal campaign – will be much more so,” one activist said recently.

The repercussions of Conference 2001 are set to be felt, especially by Mr Howard, Australia’s most uncompromising anti-One Nation Liberal.

The battle lines were drawn months ago.

On the Right – made up largely of One Nation sympathisers – is WA’s most hardened political war-horse, Noel Crichton-Browne (NCB to mates), even though he’s no longer a party member, having been expelled in 1995.

But NCB isn’t one to let technicalities like that get in his way.

The key fight comes on day two of Conference 2001, Sunday, the day Mr Howard leaves Perth to return to Sydney. That’s when the election for the powerful post of party president for 2001-2 is to be held.

NCB is sponsoring, behind-the-scenes of course, four candidates, all faithful backers: Julie Reay (formerly Debnam); Lindsay Colless; David Siglin; and Will Scott.

Countering this onslaught is the Center-Right, whose ticket is headed by Perth lawyer, the reluctant Ron Birmingham, currently party senior vice-president.

This faction has a dual leadership; Senators Ian Campbell, mainly, and Chris Ellison.

Their involvement makes the fight something of a grand tussle because both owe their Senate seats to NCB.

Both were his loyal lieutenants for years but broke with him during his problems with Mr Howard and his expulsion in 1995, and are now Howard loyalists.

Both (are) increasingly seen as Canberra’s men in WA, thus further putting them offside with NCB.

Mr Howard expects them to perform – come forth with the numbers at Conference 2001 – to ensure NCB doesn’t re-emerge as a formidable force within the WA party, thereby embarrassing the Prime Minister nationally through a Liberal pro-One Nation stance in WA.

Both men are, and have been for a long time, working overtime on their telephones.

Because they’ve worked so closely with NCB in the past they know his modus operandi, his every ploy – split tickets, branch office holders in place, heavy phone usage, and so on – so what we’ll witness is the master challenging his two top apprentices.

The third, and weakest, faction, the Left or the Colin Barnett Wets, won’t be contesting, so its backers will support Mr Birmingham.

But there’s a complication.

If any of the five candidates withdraws from the race, nominations reopen until the night of July 28, meaning another candidate may yet emerge for the next day’s clash.

One tip is that NCB is lobbying former Court Government minister Graham Kierath to throw his hat into the ring because he’s seen as having a greater chance of toppling Center-Left and Wets-backed Mr Birmingham than any of his four contenders.

But Mr Kierath, who’s nominated for one of the four vice-presidential positions, has had a family tragedy, so isn’t keen to take on the close-to-full-time presidency.

Another reason he’s hesitant this time round is because he and State Liberal leader Mr Barnett don’t get along.

Many feel Mr Barnett is performing dismally, so is likely to be toppled as leader in a year or so, and Mr Kierath doesn’t want to be at the top when it happens, to perhaps be publicly blamed for the demise.

Mr Kierath made no secret of his stand on One Nation preferences on election night, as he watched Liberal and National seats tumbling across WA.

He’d argued behind closed doors before the campaign began that the Howard stand must be ignored in WA. This no doubt brought him to NCB’s attention.

NCB is currently a consultant to former Liberal Party member and now One Nation MLC John Fischer and both are working overtime to ensure a Liberal-One Nation preference deal is struck for the coming Senate contest.

As long as Mr Birmingham is president, the odds of that happening are zero. Like Senators Campbell and Ellison, he fully backs the tough Howard anti-One Nation line.

Without such a deal One Nation’s number one Senate candidate, former Labor MHR Graeme Campbell, may narrowly miss being sent to Canberra.

One Nation’s response will be no first preferences to any of WA’s sitting Liberals and certain targeted candidates contesting Labor-held seats.

If Conference 2001 elevates an NCB candidate or Mr Kierath to the presidency, the party’s tough Howard-Birmingham line will be reversed and a Liberal-One Nation preference deal will follow, leaving Mr Howard livid and Senators Campbell and Ellison shattered.

The Prime Minister would feel compelled to refuse to campaign in WA because of the cozy Liberal-One Nation campaign relationship.

Federal Labor would say it meant Mr Howard was leading a divided party with WA out of step with all other states.

That certainly wouldn’t concern NCB and it would be a huge confidence booster for former Liberal party member (now One Nation leader) Pauline Hanson, who is justified in her belief that Mr Howard is her number one nationwide political rival.

Whatever the outcome, by about 3pm on Sunday, July 29, lots of scores – in Perth and Canberra – will have been settled.

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