26/09/2012 - 10:53

Time may be government’s enemy

26/09/2012 - 10:53


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Alan Carpenter paid the price for going to the electorate too early; now Colin Barnett may be ruing the move to fixed four-year terms.

Alan Carpenter paid the price for going to the electorate too early; now Colin Barnett may be ruing the move to fixed four-year terms.

WHEN then Labor premier Alan Carpenter called a snap election four years ago, it was generally considered to be one of the factors in his government’s narrow – and surprise – defeat.

Early elections might have been a useful tactic in federal polls, but Western Australians had become attuned to February polls every fourth year. The only real question was which Saturday would be selected.

Mr Carpenter changed all that, however. He acted, and lost, as the Liberals recalled Colin Barnett in place of the hapless Troy Buswell at the start of two weeks of saturation media coverage for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. 

Ironically the consequences of that early poll are now coming back to haunt Mr Barnett and his Liberal-Nationals government. 

Last Sunday marked a significant anniversary for the premier and his team. It was exactly four years since they were sworn in at Government House. In any other year, with four-year terms, voters would now be preparing to go to the polls.

But not this year, although Mr Barnett must ponder at times the merits of going now, as opposed to March 9 next year when his government will have served a record first term of four and a half years.

The reason for this is that MPs voted to restore the summer election pattern when they agreed to fixed four-year terms, giving the premier a bonus six months in power.

Right now, though, the idea of a September election must have attractions for the government. Against a more focused Labor Party the next six months could be pretty hard going, especially when compared with the first three and a half years on the government benches.

Mr Barnett faces problems that can be traced to the day earlier this year when his then right-hand man, former attorney general and treasurer, Christian Porter, announced his intention to quit state parliament and run for the federal seat of Pearce.  

Mr Porter had emerged as the heir apparent for the top state job. He also gave the government front bench some gravitas with his hardline approach on crime and his grasp of the often complex issues linked with the treasurer’s portfolio.

Following Mr Porter’s departure, the premier could have gone for a minimalist cabinet reshuffle. Instead he decided it was time to freshen up the team, and replace Liz Constable in the education portfolio (as she would be retiring from politics next March). Better to campaign with a team that would be there after the poll than have a minister in a sensitive portfolio who was moving on.

Then there was police minister Rob Johnson. For an experienced hand he had a surprising knack for finding controversy. At the age of 68 it could be said Mr Johnson had a fair go, and there were plenty of young turks on the backbench ready to step up.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the logic, a point made in Political Perspective at the time. Mr Johnson aired his displeasure, although Dr Constable – an independent who would no longer be bound by cabinet solidarity – kept her counsel.

The chickens came home to roost when parliament resumed for the last session before the election, however. 

First came Dr Constable’s extensive amendments to the Integrity (Lobbyists) Bill 2011, filling 14 pages of the Notice Paper in all, being handled by the premier himself.

Although Labor had said it essentially agreed with the premier’s measures, which were designed to beef up the system Labor had introduced when in power, the whole exercise took up 15 hours of debate, with division after division. Most of Dr Constable’s proposals, including for fines of up to $50,000 for non-compliance, were lost. 

Then Mr Johnson advised the party room last week he would not support extending the CCC’s powers into organised crime. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem; but with a minority government relying heavily on independents, it is a big problem – so much so that Mr Barnett had to drop the legislation.

Plans to control prostitution are set to collapse yet again as Labor plays tit for tat. Labor claims the Liberals were effectively unhelpful on the issue when it was in power, so they will return the favour. 

The government is pushing on with plans to establish the promised future fund, although the volatile economic conditions in recent months have raised questions about the merits of locking up big sums of money for years.

One issue the government will pursue is the ‘wild parties’ legislation, giving police broader powers to deal with unruly weekend suburban parties. That will be a big test for rookie Police Minister Liza Harvey, who will be closely monitored by Mr Johnson and her opposite number, Michelle Roberts. 

So, parliament will remain volatile. But if strict four-year terms had been observed, an election would have been imminent; probably a more attractive option right now than the uncertainties of the next six months.

The premier’s predicament might even bring a smile to Mr Carpenter’s face as admires the view from his city corporate office.

Patient approach

THE Greens are hoping that the push for same-sex marriage will become an issue in the Western Australian election campaign, following the rejection of the change in separate votes in the Senate and House of Representatives in Canberra last week.

The state-based push for reform had been on hold around Australia, as proponents waited to see how the federal MPs voted.

Now the WA Greens members in the Legislative Council are expected to step up their preparation to pursue change, and have already given notice in the upper house that they plan to introduce a bill on the issue.

Greens MLC Lyn McLaren believes there is strong community support for same-sex marriage, and that the party has flagged it will be seeking change in all state parliaments where it has members.

She says the party is still discussing the best strategy for its WA campaign, but indicated thinking on the issue at this stage is that early action could be counter-productive.

“If I push on with the debate too soon, and it goes to a vote and is defeated (before Christmas), it could prove to be wasted effort,” Ms McLaren said. “I would prefer to have it as an issue for the election period.” 

That timetable would ring alarm bells for the major parties, which, despite opinion polls saying there is majority support for same-sex marriage, would prefer avoiding a potentially socially divisive issue at election time.

Labor endorsed the principle of same-sex marriage at its last state conference, but also gave MPs a conscience vote. Party members say they will seek the advice of gay marriage advocates before deciding what action to take.

It is also a sensitive matter for the Liberals, with a number of MPs known to be strongly opposed to gay marriage.



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