01/04/2009 - 22:00

Tough days loom for local Labor

01/04/2009 - 22:00


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The Labor Party in WA is becoming a shell of its former self.

THE word's out; Western Australia's Labor Party - the only one in opposition across Australia and now under tight oversight by east coast power brokers - is thoroughly demoralised.

Its condition is far worse than the protracted despondency that prevailed across WA Liberal ranks from 2001 until the morning after last September's state election, when Liberals awoke utterly stunned to find they looked like winning.

That they'd snatched power from an incompetent and unimaginative Alan Carpenter-led government by a mere 33 votes is something most still find difficult to believe.

But back to local Labor.

Remember we're talking of the party that easily won the 1983 and 1986 elections when Brian Burke was in charge.

It's the party that managed to just fall over the line in 1989 with Mr Burke's successor, Peter Dowding, leading, despite the Liberals having won many more votes statewide. And it's also the party that arose phoenix-like in 2001 under Geoff Gallop to easily topple the Richard Court-led Liberals, who themselves had looked increasingly unimaginative and tired.

Despite such achievements, Labor's mood today is one of palpable despair.

Rank and filers are of the view they're unlikely to taste power until at least 2016, perhaps 2020, or even beyond.

Things are that bad, and that's made more so when one realises the Barnett-led Liberals aren't exactly in good shape.

The reality for both major parties now is that they each only attract a third or so of the statewide vote and must increasingly rely on preferences from a growing number of minor party candidates - Greens, Christian Democrats, Family First, or the Nationals.

The fact that these minors exist is further evidence of the failure of both declining majors.

And the fact that the minors together attract one third of statewide votes, with one in 10 Western Australians not bothering to vote, shows that tens of thousands have fled from the uninspired offerings of the Liberal and Labor parties.

The magnitude of this dismal showing can also be gauged by looking at the latest Newspoll of the federal scene, which shows Rudd-led Labor commanding 45 per cent backing to the Liberals' 32 per cent.

Australia-wide, the Nationals are on 5 per cent (the same as at WA's September election), the Greens on 8 per cent (well below their WA performance), with all others together at 10 per cent, meaning the minors nationally command just over 20 per cent (well below their WA appeal level).

But again, back to WA Labor.

Firstly, consider current leader Eric Ripper.

It must be said that, during the Gallop and Carpenter years, his performance was superior to that of any of his cabinet colleagues.

And on crucial issues like energy sector reforms and state development he's far and away superior to Mr Barnett, who has a peculiar fascination with monopolies - public and private - making one wonder if he grasped what was in those micro-economics text books assigned to him as an undergraduate.

Quite frankly, it's a pity Mr Ripper isn't today sitting in a conservative cabinet as energy and resources minister.

But the harsh reality is it's impossible to find anyone in Labor ranks who believes he'll be the next premier.

The word is that the new leadership team that will eventually emerge will include his deputy, Roger Cook, and Dr Gallop's replacement in Victoria Park, Ben Wyatt, or perhaps former minister, Mark McGowan.

Only time will tell when that occurs.

And rumours persist about the imminent departure of Alannah MacTiernan, Jim McGinty, and the always hard to find John Kobelke.

Ms MacTiernan is said to be keen to repeat former premier Carmen Lawrence's ministerial career path into Canberra.

Mr McGinty looks worn out after 40 years of ring-arounds, constant attendance at strategy meetings as the left's paramount chief, and always the pre-eminent anti-Burke adversary.

With the one-time party supremo (Mr Burke) now scrubbed out by the McGinty-created Corruption and Crime Commission, and Mr McGinty set to vacate his Fremantle seat, that's about 80 years of combined tactical know-how lost to Labor.

Mr Kobelke, as one source told State Scene last week, "is nowhere to be seen - a disappearing act he perfected as police minister".

Eventually, therefore, there'll be a leadership changeover due, accompanied by the departure of three former ministers.

Not exactly morale-boosting stuff if true.

Furthermore Victorian nuts-and-bolt man David Feeney, a boffin behind electorally successful former Victorian premier Steve Bracks, has been to Perth to knock heads.

Senator Feeney was pulled in to be Labor's campaign director at the 2006 South Australian election.

As well as being the Bracks government's director of strategy, he was Victorian state Labor secretary, fund-raiser, plus campaign director

He's a pal of ex-senator Robert Ray, who was sent westwards to assess the Carpenter debacle.

What's emerged is a new campaign committee headed by Labor's former national secretary and now Brand MHR, Gary Gray, with involvement of eastern staters whose eyes are firmly fixed on the coming federal election, which may be called later this year even though it's not due until some time in late 2010.

Some suggest Labor is in with better than a fighting chance to bag three federal Liberal seats at the next poll - Swan, Cowan and Canning - in that order.

If that happens, the Rudd government would be that much more likely to retain power since a sizeable number of Queensland and NSW seats may well tumble to the coalition.

If, however, none of the three falls into Labor's dilly bag, lots of Perth Labor heads will roll.

Without putting too fine a point on it, a guillotine is ready to be rolled across the Nullarbor, another way of saying Labor's national office will step in boots and all, purging all local officials and replacing them with outside appointees - so the biggest shake-up in WA Labor since the great split of the mid-1950s.

Redemption must be effected one way or another and if locals can't bring it on, moves will be made to bring it about for them.

The Ray and Feeney visits are therefore precursors of far worse to come.

At this stage WA Labor, which produced premiers like John "Happy Jack" Scaddan, Bert Hawke and John Tonkin, is therefore on the brink of becoming a satellite of east coast power brokers.

Failure to win Swan, Cowan and Canning will trigger a root and branch overhaul.

And that will mean that WA Labor's dwindling memberships won't even have a say on who will administer their party at its Perth headquarters.

Mr Ripper will be told to stand aside so east coasters can decide who among Messrs Cook, Wyatt or McGowan will lead.

The fate of the party that gave Australia, in its most desperate hour of need, John Curtin, and the country's best ever, by far, finance minister, Peter Walsh, is thus set to be decided from afar within about 18 months.

n Next week, State Scene outlines a reform and revival plan for Mr Ripper on how WA Labor's members can move to avoid having their party usurped by east coast-based operators


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