22/05/2007 - 22:00

Trapped by the party machine

22/05/2007 - 22:00


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The days of senators being champions for the states that send them to Canberra have long passed.

The days of senators being champions for the states that send them to Canberra have long passed.

Labor senators have been beholden to their party’s policies and interests since at least 1921, when Victorian MP and socialist lawyer, Maurice Blackburn, arranged for the adoption of that party’s centralisation plank.

That included slicing-up of the states into 31 tiny and not-so-tiny provinces, all of which would come under direct political and bureaucratic control of the central government, which soon after was relocated from Melbourne to new offices on farmland overlooking the Molonglo River, now called Canberra.

Under the adopted Blackburn centralist blueprint, the Senate was to be abolished with only a 100-member House of Representatives operational – like unicameral Queensland – and an even smaller say from outer states such as Western Australia.

The late senator Sir Hal Colebatch (1872-1953) – briefly a WA premier – and his close pro-federalist friend, the late Senator Bertie Johnston (1880-1942) – briefly WA Legislative Assembly speaker – were the last two Western Australians to doggedly put state far ahead of party by being ever-cautious about Canberra’s power-hungry mandarins and their transient parliamentary blow-in backers.

Since the early 1950s, when Robert Menzies-led Liberalism started moving into full stride, the slide towards centralism over state loyalties has hastened, so that the Senate is now one of the great letdowns of the Australia’s 1901 constitutional arrangements.

State Scene highlights this unfortunate aspect of governance because of ongoing rumours about former Howard government minister, senator Ian Campbell, who departs the Senate this month.

While some pundits contend he’ll give politics away forever, others suspect that, after a restful breather, he’ll be back punching as a hard-nosed behind-the-scenes Liberal activist seeking to influence affairs.

Others still believe he’ll eventually opt for a state lower house seat to become party leader and thereafter hopefully a premier.

It must be said, however, that he’s insisted to all State Scene’s Liberal sources who know him well that he’s turned over a new leaf, which leaves no room for political life.

He’s insisted that he’ll be following in the footsteps of the man he replaced, ex-senator Fred Chaney, after his stint as the Pearce MHR.

Only time will tell how things pan out. Leaving politics forever at 48 years of age certainly isn’t easy to imagine.

But it’s been known to happen, so can certainly be done, as it was with history’s most famous such departure by the great Roman ruler, Lucius Cincinnatus.

After helping suppress a revolt threatening Rome, he forsook power and returned to being a humble farmer.

America’s great independence war hero, George Washington, took this to heart and emulated Cincinnatus after his second presidential term.

But back to the departing Senator Campbell. State Scene first encountered him about 1980, when he was a tertiary student.

He’d already been politically active, though not as a Liberal; his first political inclinations were for the Australian Democrats.

That shouldn’t be seen as astounding or unusual.

WA has a long line of youthful political enthusiasts jumping ship from first political loyalties and subsequently finding themselves in markedly different political surroundings.

Probably the best most recent case is former Labor premier, Geoff Gallop, son of a company secretary, who has jumped ship not once but twice.

While at the University of WA he was an active Liberal, though only for a year or so.

But while at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar he became a disciple of Leon Trotsky, whose following in British student and theatrical circles has been stronger than across Australia.

Probably the most famous such disciple has been British actress, Vanessa Redgrave, who has moved about various left-of-centre micro-parties.

After returning to Perth, Dr Gallop again shifted ideological allegiances – this time with help from Burke government minister, Bob Pearce, and Brian Burke’s concurrence had his way paved into parliament.

But let’s return to Senator Campbell.

Although not an initiator of the WA Liberal Party’s most principled and dogged post-war internal ideological brawl – the fight to outlaw compulsory student unionism on all WA’s tertiary campuses – he teamed-up with its advocates and backers when it looked like a lost cause.

With the support of growing numbers of Liberal university graduates and others who drew-up motions for annual Liberal Party state conferences these dogged liberty loving individuals, against the odds, eventually tasted sweet victory.

In 1993, the first Court-Barnett Liberal government, under the ministerial leadership of Norman Moore, made campus unionism voluntary.

Unfortunately, that government performed so poorly at the 2001 election that Gallop-led Labor was able to promptly reinstate compulsory student unionism with help from the leftist Greens, who held the balance of power in the upper house because of the conservatives’ deplorable electoral showing.

That said, it’s quite possible, indeed, probable, that Senator Campbell, as a cabinet member, played a role in December 2005 in overthrowing the 2001 Gallop reversal through the Howard government declaring compulsory student unionism unlawful nationally.

In other words, no Australian university can now deny students entry to taxpayer-subsidised studies for refusal to either join or fund a student union.

The closed shop, the no-ticket-no-study is thus once again dead in WA and similarly so across Australia.

If indeed Senator Campbell helped ensure this happened, it was his major contribution to liberty in Australia and means his move from the Democrats to the Liberals was worthwhile.

Before winning pre-selection for senator Chaney’s Senate spot, he was also active in promoting within Liberal ranks a reduced role for government in WA.

Here he helped find the funds by passing the hat around to certain WA business interests to bring to Perth a leading British free-enterprise advocate, Dr Madsen Pirie of the influential London-based Adam Smith Institute.

Dr Pirie had a beneficial impact upon several Liberal state MPs who went into the upper echelons of the first Court-Barnett Liberal government.

Here again Senator Campbell must therefore be given a sizeable blue ink elephant stamp.

Unfortunately, once a Howard government minister – and putting aside the compulsory student union issue, which surfaced only late in that government’s existence – his zeal for liberating people from government and other controls, seems to have markedly dwindled.

In fact it almost completely disappeared.

Like his WA ministerial colleagues, Senator Chris Ellison and Ms Julie Bishop, he obediently fell in line with Prime Minister John Howard’s penchant for ever greater Canberra control through bureaucratic intrusion and costly ongoing duplication.

Much has been made in the media of his campaign against Japanese whale hunting and his move to ban construction of a Victorian wind farm under the guise of saving the orange-bellied parrot from extinction.

With respect to the former, his timing appears to have been quite inept since he was leading the anti-Japanese whaling crusade just as Australia was negotiating important security arrangements with Tokyo.

Only time will tell if this deplorable failure of judgement hastened his humiliating demise as environment minister.

That, however, will be a tough call because his replacement by Sydney millionaire banker, Malcolm Turnbull, may well have eventuated anyway, since Mr Howard sees Mr Turnbull as his likely successor rather than long-time Melbournian and heir apparent, Peter Costello.

Senator Campbell may have simply been in the wrong spot at the wrong time when launching his anti-Japanese whaling crusade and backing for that allegedly threatened parrot.

It would be nice to be able to make a final judgement on his demise in environmental affairs but we’re simply unable to do so for lack of definitive evidence.

The situation is akin to that described in the now-famous recently published essay by British Lord, Professor Robert Skidelsky, on Russian President Putin’s increasingly authoritarian control over of his energy-rich economy, titled Vladimir Putin: A Tsar in a Democrat’s Clothing.

Professor Skidelsky begins this important essay thus: “When asked about the effects of the French Revolution, [Communist China’s onetime foreign affairs minister] Chou En-lai is famously supposed to have said – ‘It is too early to tell’.”



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