28/01/2011 - 00:00

Uncertainty the only definite

28/01/2011 - 00:00


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The manoeuvring is well under way as both state political parties evaluate their future leadership teams.

WHILE the current political tide seems favourable for the premier, Colin Barnett, and his Liberal-National government, an anniversary this week is a stark reminder how quickly fortunes can change.

It is just five years since then Labor premier Geoff Gallop stood in front of his cabinet colleagues at a packed news conference to announce that he had been diagnosed with depression and was quitting politics.

He had been in the job just five years, and was only one year into his second four-year term in government.

Aged just 54, it would have been reasonable to assume that he would have led Labor into the next election in 2009. Certainly the Liberal opposition, whose leadership was about to resemble a revolving door, was not applying significant pressure.

If Dr Gallop had remained in politics, all the signs were that Labor would have won an increasingly rare third term. That would have meant Alan Carpenter would still be a senior minister, and current Labor leadership pretender Ben Wyatt may not have even been in parliament. After all, he filled the vacancy in the Victoria Park seat created by Dr Gallop’s departure.

But there is another anniversary with implications just as important for the other side of politics.

It’s almost 10 years since Richard Court resigned as Liberal leader and quit parliament after losing the premiership to Dr Gallop.

Mr Court and other Liberal powerbrokers then dropped the bombshell that they had approached the federal member for Curtin, Julie Bishop, to cross to state politics and become party leader.

As audacious as the plan was, it also delivered a slap in the face to the party’s deputy state leader, who just happened to be Mr Barnett. As Mr Court’s loyal deputy during the eight-year Liberal government, he was the obvious successor.

It’s history now that Ms Bishop, after initially flirting with the idea, decided to stay put, seeing her federal career blossom as the party’s deputy leader.

And although Mr Barnett ended up state leader, the damage had been done and his authority in the state party effectively eroded. It was not a happy four years as opposition leader, during which he led the Liberals to electoral defeat, and then moving to the back bench.

Despite persistent speculation that he was likely to quit and force a by-election, Mr Barnett, decided to serve the full term, with Deidre Willmott endorsed to replace him in his Cottesloe seat at the poll due in 2009.

When Troy Buswell imploded as Liberal leader, the party turned to Mr Barnett at the 11th hour; he was re-endorsed and won government, in an alliance with the Nationals.

Now aged 60 – six years older than Dr Gallop when he quit – Mr Barnett is riding high, and planning to lead his party not only at the next election, due in 2013, but the subsequent poll in 2017 when he will be 66. Assuming the Liberals are still in power, that would make him WA’s oldest leader since Sir Charles Court, who stood down early in 1982, aged 70.

Then, according to the Liberal Party’s planners, it will be time for a leadership change. At this stage the two leading contenders would be the former leader Troy Buswell, who by then would have been fully rehabilitated, and the recently appointed treasurer, Christian Porter.

It’s here that the dynamics begin to get interesting. Mr Barnett has heaped praise on Mr Buswell and welcomed him back to the cabinet. But given the choice between Mr Buswell and Mr Porter, the premier is likely to back the latter.

Which raises the question, where does the Nationals leader Brendon Grylls stand on who his new Liberal counterpart might be?

The signs are that the Nationals, with an increasingly ‘small l’ liberal approach on social issues, might find Mr Porter difficult to support, especially if he continues with his current hard-line stance.

Mr Grylls’ views could carry considerable weight if his party continues to win key seats in regional Western Australia. He and the Nationals were kingmakers in 2008, and provided they maintain their momentum, they could continue in that role over the next six years at least.

Labor’s backroom will also have been working out the leadership moves, with Ben Wyatt’s spectacular recent abortive leadership foray only adding urgency to the issue.

Eric Ripper’s decision to remove the Treasury portfolio from Mr Wyatt as punishment for his “indiscretion” raises speculation as to who will get the job, generally seen as a stepping stone to higher honours. Mr Ripper is likely to fill the post, presently given to MLC Ken Travers in an acting capacity, when he returns from holidays next week.

The current favourite for the job is the member for Rockingham and one of the party’s most senior members, Mark McGowan. A lawyer by profession, he has been assiduous in his research to embarrass the government on a range of fronts.

One of Mr McGowan’s notable forays was placing Mr Grylls on the spot over the Nationals leader’s dealings with miner and major party donor Clive Palmer. The Labor MP questioned whether Mr Palmer and his companies received favoured treatment from the government over mining developments in the Pilbara.

Mr McGowan, 43, has now been in parliament for 14 years, has wide ministerial experience and is an able debater. Another factor in his favour is that he had no apparent role in the challenge to the Ripper leadership.

Which raises the question: does all this mean that Mr Wyatt is out of Labor leadership contention?

The answer for the short term is probably yes. But Mr Ripper has indicated he intends to lead the party at the next election, and many of his colleagues consider him a safe pair of hands.

If Labor continues to slide in opinion polls, however, unrest will fester in the ranks as MPs get nervous about retaining their seats, let alone winning seats from the Liberals and Nationals. And if they decide change is needed, they then may have to choose between the youthful Mr Wyatt, 36, and Mr McGowan.

Initial rejection is no barrier to higher office. Just ask Mr Barnett. He was a major beneficiary of the unexpected. If Mr Wyatt plays his cards right, with no more rushes of blood, he could re-emerge as the heir apparent.

However if Mr McGowan does get the Treasury portfolio, and is able to take the fight up to Mr Porter on economic issues, he’s likely to end up in the box seat.

But nothing is certain in politics. The anniversaries of the events involving Geoff Gallop and Colin Barnett are stark evidence of that.



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