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State Scene: Joe Poprzeczny - Big year looms in politics

IF elections, complex internecine party machinations and factional imbroglios aren’t your favourite – and you qualify for long service leave after mid-2004 – take some time off and go interstate or overseas for that long-planned holiday.

Prime Minister John Howard, who, despite Labor’s elevation of loutish Mark Latham to its leadership, is headed for a historic fourth term, must call an election for some time after August 2004.

And although WA Labor strategists have considered calling a State election ahead of John Howard’s, that’s probably now off the agenda since Attorney-General Jim McGinty is moving to enact fixed parliamentary terms.

Notwithstanding all that, Western Australians will see a State election campaign launched by at least early December 2004 for a mid-February 2005 election.

During the last five months of 2004 – August to December – there will therefore be an abundance of promises, political grandstanding and backstabbing, polemics and mountains of political spin – a diet only avid political buffs would appreciate.

Like it or lump it, politics will dominate 2004.

Unlike WA’s Labor machine, which decides via backroom factional deals who contests which seat, the situation in Liberal ranks is more fluid, and so won’t run as smoothly.

The reason is that WA Liberals have been without centrally controlled factions since the resignation from parliament of former senator Fred Chaney, followed soon after by the ignominious demise of his long-time rival Noel Crichton-Browne, known affectionately to factional buddies then and still as NCB.

Liberal pre-selection tussles are now haphazard affairs based on short-lived coalitions or alliances, not long-lasting factional loyalties as happens with Labor and during the Liberals’ halcyon Chaney-NCB days.

At least six State Liberal MPs retire at the end of the current parliament – Bill McNee, Arthur Marshall, John Bradshaw, Bill Stretch, Derrick Tomlinson and Cheryl Edwardes – meaning some quite dogged contests are in the 2004 pipeline.

But parliamentary hopefuls will be contesting many more than those six winnable spots.

Last weekend’s predictable Liberal State Council refusal to accept the candidacy of hills resident Frank Lindsey, who easily toppled incumbent John Day for the Darling Range seat, means that seat will now be targeted by Labor.

The fact that the rejected Mr Day had to resort to State Council intervention to save his political neck is a bad omen for the upcoming State campaign.

Darling Range’s Liberals are now badly, some say irrevocably, split between Lindsay and Day backers, meaning Mr Day faces being dumped by the voters.

The bad feeling emanating from Darling Range means unpopular Liberal leader Colin Barnett will go into the campaign

apprehensive about losing a seat his side presently holds.

And he knows only too well that every Liberal seat that goes to Labor means a difference of two seats, a not insignificant matter in a tight campaign.

If the Liberals and Nationals together should miss toppling Gallop-led Labor by just one seat, neither Mr Day nor Colin Barnett will live it down and one can confidently predict both will be permanently sidelined by the party.

Elsewhere, former Court Government minister and long-time Barnett rival Doug Shave is gearing up for a comeback.

This week’s announcement that another rival of Mr Barnett’s, Graham Kierath, will contest the riverside seat of Alfred Cove now held by Liberals for Forest member Janet Woollard, means Mr Shave will move to re-enter parliament via the upper house.

That means Barbara Scott MLC faces being pushed into the cold, into an unwinnable third slot on the Liberals’ South Metropolitan ticket.

Nor are things rosy in multi-member North Metropolitan Province where all sitting Liberals – George Cash, Alan Cadby and Ray Halligan – are likely to be targeted from within.

Several senior local divisional chiefs, some of them strong Barnett backers, have set their sights on becoming legislative councillors.

There’s also talk of North-West MLA Rod Sweetman moving to the outer suburban seat of Dawesville, near Mandurah, which Mr Marshall will vacate.

Mr Sweetman’s recent public criticism of Mr Barnett’s damaging $1.28 compulsory vote levee fiasco has meant Mr Marshall – a strong Barnett backer – won’t be paving the way for Mr Sweetman.

Moreover, Mr Barnett has been working on getting a former Perth television announcer slotted into Dawesville, so a backer not a rival holds that seat.

Depending on how these clashes pan out a sizeable number of incumbents could be toppled, something it’s difficult to imagine happening in factionally rigid Labor.

So nearly a dozen new faces could emerge in Liberal ranks in the next parliament, a sizeable figure considering their contingent presently numbers just 28.

The other great unknown, of course, is who’ll be Liberal leader after early 2004.

Mr Barnett, who is working to shore up his position for the longer term with an infusion of new backers to the next parliament whether he’s in opposition or government, may not need them since his hold on the top job is tenuous.

If toppled in 2004 the year promises a Federal election, the launching of a State campaign, several bitter challenges to Liberal incumbents, and a new State Liberal leader, suggesting it will be WA’s politically most eventful year since the torrid mid-1980s.

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