18/07/2006 - 22:00

Uncertain times after Howard

18/07/2006 - 22:00

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The latest silly fracas between the nation’s two top Liberals – Prime Minister John Howard and his deputy Peter Costello – over who’ll be king of the castle highlights several troubling features within Liberal ranks.

The latest silly fracas between the nation’s two top Liberals – Prime Minister John Howard and his deputy Peter Costello – over who’ll be king of the castle highlights several troubling features within Liberal ranks.

The most bizarre of these is that both these former lawyers, while in the same room in December 1994 carving up top party jobs and deciding on leadership succession, now disagree over what was happening.

One contends a deal was struck.

The other says nothing of the sort happened – thereby confirming the old adage that gentlemen’s agreements are as good as the paper they’re not written on.

Forget the equally bizarre fact that another Liberal MP who was present penned a few words on a scrap of paper confirming they were divvying up top jobs, and that he carried that note in his wallet for more than a decade.

Yet another outcome is that Mr Costello’s naivety has again been confirmed.

When will someone tell him that the more media coverage he gets on being heir apparent the less likely it is that he’ll get the top job he so obviously desires?

Just about everyone aged 18 and over knows Mr Howard is more likely to lead the Liberals to victory in 2007 than Mr Costello.

Yet Mr Costello, the leader-in-waiting, seems oblivious to this, which surely disqualifies him from even entering a leadership contest.

He’s obviously forgotten that the main reason Labor’s overly and overtly ambitious former deputy, Paul Keating, was unsuccessful as PM was because he similarly put himself off-side with voters by tediously touting his ambitions nationwide.

The only reason he just won the 1993 election was because his Liberal challenger, John Hewson, went into that campaign with an honest program dubbed ‘Fightback’ where he candidly and honourably told voters he’d be introducing a GST.

But being ‘Honest John’ – a nickname too often associated with Mr Howard but never, for some strange reason, with Mr Hewson – meant Labor’s anti-GST scare campaign succeeded.

All that’s now history.

What of the future? Where does this molehill that’s become a mountain range now lead us?

To answer this State Scene turns to recent words of The Australian’s long-time political commentator, Paul Kelly, who sees more clearly than others what’s happening to the Liberals.

In just six paragraphs, Mr Kelly got to the quick.

“Howard has always said he will make a decision [on when to depart] in the Liberal Party’s interest,” Kelly writes.

“The real battle between Howard and Costello transcends numbers (because Howard has them) and goes to their competing interpretation of the Liberal Party’s interest.

“The party, in truth, is weak and vulnerable, a weakness concealed by Howard’s long success.

“The party lies in near ruins in each state.

“If it loses the 2007 federal election and Labor keeps its state governments, then Labor will control every government in the nation.

“That opens the path to Labor hegemony, a prospect that preys on Howard’s mind.”

What few appreciate – and those in the Liberal Party’s hierarchy never highlight – is that Mr Howard is kept fully informed of the condition of his party, both nationally and across the states.

The Kelly claim that the Howard-led Liberals are “in near ruins in each state” refers to their respective finances, memberships, virtually non-existent policy input to Canberra and state parliamentary ranks, and, in many cases, dismal quality of candidates.

Recall the arranged endorsement for the 2004 election of Paul Afkos for the federal seat of Stirling, only to find a vehicle he owned was linked to a drug trafficking investigation?

Yet, just before that, Mr Howard flew to Perth to officially launch Mr Afkos’s campaign office.

Then there was the Liberals’ endorsed candidate for the federal seat of Swan, Andrew Murfin, who was linked to a letter sent to a local newspaper but written by someone other than its signatory.

Mr Howard knows that the reason he’s so often invited to address lunch-eon functions is to help raise money for cash-strapped state divisions.

Here, State Scene takes the opportunity to correct a claim in a recent column that the WA division’s membership is currently below 2,500.

Party president Danielle Blain has provided figures showing it is 5,700.

Her statistics also disclosed membership had slumped from 9,133 in 2003-04 to 6,361 in 2004-05 – a drop of 30 per cent.

It then fell from that 6,361 to the 5,700 in 2005-06, a non-election year, a further 10 per cent drop.

That’s nearly a halving of member-ship during the past three years.

True, not all the blame for this can be placed on Mr Howard.

The less-than-illustrious performances of state leaders, Colin Barnett and his successor, Matt Birney, must also be included in any equation.

Nor does State Scene for a moment see these slumps as being due solely to voluntary party office bearers such as Mrs Blain. Let’s hope she can use the party presidency and prestige to initiate and lead any long-term reformist movement.

Voluntary party workers can only do so much.

But whoever is most to blame, Mr Howard knows of all these and other problems.

He also knows that one slip in next year’s federal election campaign means Labor gains a historic cast-iron grip over every government across Australia.

What, therefore, should be done?

Whenever anything is broken there are certain essential things that must be repaired, after which an array of minor refinements can be attended to.

In this regard, State Scene is interested only in the essential steps, which means two absolutely crucial reforms; otherwise all else will be a waste of time and effort.

The first of these is to immediately dismantle, root and branch, the party’s currently ruling faction headed by senators Ian Campbell and Chris Ellison and increasingly with them by party vice-president, Matthias Cormann.

This faction is now so powerful that anyone wishing to get ahead in the party must join or pretend to join it.

People with the longer-term aim of possibly gaining preselection for parliamentary seats simply cannot ignore it.

This faction is becoming ever more powerful, with the result that many are simply leaving the party.

The second essential turnaround also involves the two powerful senators, both of whom are Howard ministers.

They and Curtin MHR, Julie Bishop, should be told in clear-cut unambiguous terms that they are expected to back the WA Liberal Party long-standing and traditional support for a federal Australia.

The Howard-Costello duo has not only dismantled the party’s federalist commitment that its founder Robert Menzies embraced and so highly valued, but are adopting behaviour more like that of the Labor Party, which embraced centralism in 1921.

The Campbell-Ellison-Bishop ministerial trio should therefore be told to become WA’s people in Canberra, not the other way around.

The ball is very much in these three MPs’ court. If no action is taken not only the Liberal Party, but also the state, will continue being a mere satellite of powerful Canberra bureaucrats.

Probably the best way of initiating such a fundamental reform is the calling of a special closed-door meeting at which the three are present.

Although the Liberal Party has in some ways been fortunate to have been led by Sydney lawyer John Howard for the past decade, many rightly believe that this successful campaigner has sown the seeds of that party’s eventual destruction.

Whatever arrangement for his departure Mr Howard eventually finalises with Mr Costello, the one thing we can be certain of is that his days as leader are now measured in half the number of fingers on any hand.

In other words, it’s time WA Liberals, especially those in control of their party, began thinking about the days after Howard.

Such a thought is presently not a particularly pleasant one.

But with deep and wise reforms, all that can be reversed and the basis of future long-term electoral success could be re-instituted.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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