26/09/2012 - 10:39

Unravelling loyalties leave Libs exposed

26/09/2012 - 10:39

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The state election can’t come soon enough for the premier.

The state election can’t come soon enough for the premier.

COLIN Barnett must be ticking off the days on his desk calendar until the end of this year’s parliament that will, most likely, be the last before the state election.

The poll can’t come fast enough for the premier, as the patchwork of political deals, favours, sweeteners and allegiances holding our state government together begins to fray.

The general certainty the minority Liberal-National government has come to rely upon in state parliament has become decidedly uncertain in recent weeks.

Two former ministers in the lower house have decided to side with independent MPs to oppose important pieces of legislation. In the upper house, Nationals MPs Max Trenorden and Phil Gardiner are now going their own way after falling out with their leader, Brendon Grylls.

The decision of former ministers Rob Johnson and Liz Constable to withdraw support for the premier’s legislation to reform the Corruption and Crime Commission has symbolically signaled the end of the minority government.

Mr Barnett is not going to face a Gough Whitlam moment and have the governor remove his commission. That will be up to the voters to decide one way or another at the election; but for all intents and purposes the gig is up on the current arrangements.

The premier and the government are vulnerable on too many fronts – the Nationals (who are not in coalition), the independents and a growing list of disgruntled backbenchers inside his own party room.

It’s also no coincidence that Mr Johnson and Dr Constable have chosen to oppose legislation heavily supported by the premier. Their actions are squarely aimed at making his leadership an issue, both inside and outside the parliament.

Dr Constable loaded and pointed the gun at Mr Barnett in her initial opposition to a series of bills, but it was left up to Mr Johnson to fire it when he announced his opposition to the CCC legislation.

The premier, by and large, has done a remarkably good job over the past four years at keeping a lid on internal Liberal and parliamentary craziness.

He’s managed to keep the strained alliance with the Nationals moving forward, which at times has required the patience of a saint, particularly in putting up with Mr Grylls’ Napoleonic ambitions.

A large part of the premier’s success is the authority he brought to the job through the general acknowledgment of his parliamentary colleagues that he had not only saved the party from an electoral rout, but had managed to turn vinegar into wine by securing government.

His other smart move was shoring up the numbers by offering friend and independent Dr Constable a ministerial portfolio and handing out generous electorate resourcing to independents Janet Woollard, Adele Carles and John Bowler.

Mr Barnett knew the minority government’s success and longevity would only be assured if it could manage the numbers in the parliament.

In the government’s early days this was never a certainty, until Labor backbencher Vince Catania ditched his mates and the party that had nurtured him and joined the Nationals in a selfless act of career opportunism.

The premier must be looking back to this period as the golden days.

It could be argued that Dr Constable has simply rediscovered why she broke with the Liberal Party all those years ago and is now acting like the true independent she’s always been.

The same cannot be said for Mr Johnson, however. His actions were designed to fan the winds of discontent that have been building inside his party room and ensure the dirty laundry got a public airing.

For those not familiar, the Liberals’ party room is where MPs meet weekly in a kind of AA session to talk openly and candidly as a group about legislation and plot their attacks on the opposition.

The support and confidentiality people get in an AA meeting is not what you get in these meetings, or the equivalent Labor caucus, however. Instead, meetings often resemble a room full of smokers who have been locked up for too long without a cigarette and are going through a nicotine withdrawal rage.

Mr Johnson knows full well just how nasty things get, so decided to skip the recent meeting and inform the party of his decision not to support his government’s CCC legislation by way of a letter.

He wasn’t going to throw himself into the lion’s den of abuse that has befallen colleagues such as backbencher Peter Abetz, who took a mauling when he was championing franchise legislation.

The well-meaning Mr Abetz was rounded upon for championing a private members bill and accused of betrayal when offered bipartisan support. 

Those same accusers, working with opponents to his bill, anonymously leaked their party room attacks to the media.

Until recent weeks it’s been easily forgotten how beset with factional bickering, personal dislikes and acts of disloyalty the Liberal Party was just four years ago.

For many Liberals it must be extremely frustrating that these issues are now back in the headlines and making the prospect of another term more difficult than it need be.

During the past 20 years, governments in WA change when the electorate loses confidence in the performance and behaviour of the government rather than any overwhelming desire to vote in the other guys.

Not only is this party room malevolence distasteful to voters, it has been a gift for Labor leader Mark McGowan and his team.

It has brought into question the ability of the government to actually govern, and has focused media and electorate attention on the leadership of the premier and his ability to hold the show together.

Clearly the current style and make-up of our minority government has run its course. While it might be something of a political fantasy, the Liberals and the Nationals may need to provide a cohesive coalition at the next election or risk making way for the return of a majority Labor government.

• Paul Plowman worked for a client that supported the franchise legislation. A former head of the state government’s media office, he is currently MD at Plowman & Co, which specialises in business-to-government relations.


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