17/01/2006 - 21:00

State Scene: Joe Poprzeczny - Image problem dogs Birney

17/01/2006 - 21:00


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Last week, State Scene canvassed some of the underlying reasons for the collapse in Liberal leader Matt Birney’s standing among party colleagues during the closing months of 2005, which may well result in the emergence of pressure for his replacement duri

State Scene: Joe Poprzeczny - Image problem dogs Birney

Last week, State Scene canvassed some of the underlying reasons for the collapse in Liberal leader Matt Birney’s standing among party colleagues during the closing months of 2005, which may well result in the emergence of pressure for his replacement during 2006.

Before considering some remedial steps he could take, he should be aware of two things; the first being that no credible challenger is on the horizon, not yet anyway.

Most people to whom State Scene has spoken about the Birney predicament the Liberals now find themselves in immediately say: “Yeah, but whom do we replace him with?”

Mr Birney’s deputy, Troy Buswell, is promptly discounted because he’s even less experienced than Mr Birney, and the Liberals are extremely hesitant about again treading down such a track.

And distinct signs of discomfort are evident whenever former leader Colin Barnett’s name is mentioned.

People recall all sorts of nerve-racking memories over and above his infamous election-losing unassessed $2 billion Kimberley-to-Perth canal proposal.

It was pointed out, for instance, that Mr Barnett had great trouble getting along with many of his party colleagues.

He was not what one could describe as a team player and gave the impression that he was their superior, not one among equals.

Despite such undoubtedly serious draw-backs, State Scene does not discount Mr Barnett, if for no other reason than the fact that the Liberal leadership cupboard is so bare and because their current federal leader, Prime Minister John Howard, did what Lazarus was capable of.

If Mr Howard can do it, why not Mr Barnett?

Other names sometimes mentioned are Paul Omodei, who was Mr Birney’s deputy until his tragic family shooting accident, and Rob Johnson.

But it’s being generous to say support for either is less than tepid.

Strangely, no-one’s out there spruiking Dan Sullivan’s name, even though he is probably more politically astute than any of those mentioned above.

Perhaps that’s because he let himself be sidelined when he was Mr Barnett’s deputy, so his few loyal backers may feel he’d be unlikely to succeed as number one.

Clearly, therefore, Mr Birney, despite his dismal performance since at least October last year, is still without a serious challenger, which is perhaps his only remaining plus.

Another matter he should be clear about is that apart, from his lacklustre performance, growing numbers of key people are coming to doubt his commitment to politics.

Many now believe that politics is not really Mr Birney’s primary burning interest.

A growing number of Liberal MPs, Liberal staffers, and even party office bearers are coming to the view that he’s as focused on the trappings of office – sitting in VIP boxes at special events and the like – as the hard grind of policy development and the careful planning of tactical manoeuvres to ensure Labor is ousted in 2009.

State Scene cannot say with any confidence whether or not Mr Birney, deep down, sees his career in politics as a simply a remunerative way of passing time, as a gentleman’s hobby, or as a serious vocation.

But what can be stated quite categorically is that he’s increasingly being described as one who is not so inclined, someone who does not have his heart 100 per cent in the noble craft of politics.

If that’s the case he should, and as quickly as possible, reverse this by turning over a new leaf.

Otherwise he’ll find himself at the wrong end of a series of broad party room hints that say he should pack up and instead become a humble backbencher.

The Liberal Party of WA has bestowed upon him a great honour, indeed privilege – to be their leader.

And that requires a commitment 24 hours a day, seven times a week, and 52 times a year into the indefinite future. Those who placed him in that top post are hoping he’ll storm Labor’s barricades and lead them into power.

If, however, he concludes that such a dogged and full-time approach is not for him, he should tell his party room this, and sooner rather than later.

One former Liberal MP, who served as a minister and who still attends party branch meetings, put it to State Scene over the festive season thus: “He’s going to have to re-invent himself, and I’m not sure that that’s possible”.

Mr Birney only has a handful of months to make up his mind in this regard because he’s already slipped a long way in the eyes of many. And if he does not quickly plateau and begin the long grind back to inspire confidence, he’ll find himself being nudged aside by one of those named above.

The best advice Mr Birney could receive from the few strong backers he still has is that he lifts his game and begins inspiring colleagues by steadily convincing them that he’s in there for the long haul, and to win.

Now, while all this soul-searching

is taking place, Mr Birney should take the initiative and tell his party room that not many of those presently on the front bench have been performing well either.

Several of those in the frontbencher ranks appear to be more focused on how they’ll be spending their pensions than policy development.

That being the case, it’s time Mr Birney told them to stand aside for those who plan remaining in parliament beyond the 2009 election.

He should also say that, this time next year, or maybe in 2008, a redistribution reflecting Labor’s one-vote-one-value approach will be disclosed.

And the outcome is likely to show that it will be far more difficult than under the old boundaries to dislodge the Labor government.

In other words more rather than less will be required from the conservative side of politics.

It is entirely possible under the coming redistribution that the conservatives could find themselves in opposition until the 2013 or even 2017 election; things are that bleak for them.

With such a distinct possibility in mind it’s clear that a team effort is what is required, not a one-man band with a long tail of frontbenchers who are just keeping seats warm.

Put bluntly, therefore, not only Mr Birney, but the entire conservative side in parliament needs to lift its game, and promptly.

Despite Mr Birney’s steady deterioration over the closing months of 2005 and the lacklustre performance of his frontbenchers, The Australian’s Newspoll made the following two pertinent findings for the October-December period.

• Labor’s primary support had slipped from 41.9 at the February election to 37 per cent, while the Liberals’ primary support rose from 35.6 to 39 per cent.

• Although Labor gained 52.3 per cent on a two-party preferred basis at the election to the coalition’s 47.7 per cent, this had been reversed to 48 for Labor and 52 per cent for the coalition.

Where things were not as rosy for the opposition was in the leadership stakes, since Dr Gallop had 51 per cent backing – down from 58 per cent at the election – compared with Mr Birney’s 25 per cent.

The only way Mr Birney can turn this around is to cease being accident prone and to get wind into his sails by conveying to all on his side his determination to put in a real effort during 2006 and beyond, and that he has no desire to be a one-man band.


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