27/08/2008 - 22:00

Upper house the main game

27/08/2008 - 22:00


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As so often happens in the unpredictable hurly-burly of party political rivalry, while you're looking one way there's something happening elsewhere that's at least equally, and often far more, important.

As so often happens in the unpredictable hurly-burly of party political rivalry, while you're looking one way there's something happening elsewhere that's at least equally, and often far more, important.

During much of July, Colin Barnett was being touted as likely to re-emerge as leader since the incumbent, Troy Buswell, lagged far behind Premier Alan Carpenter in the polls.

Interestingly, while The West Australian was being fed leaks by those driving the 'topple Troy' campaign from within Liberal ranks, that paper's embattled board was under growing threat of being toppled itself, due to ongoing share acquisitions by media baron, Kerry Stokes, whose first corporate raid had dismally backfired.

However, while The West's attention was on a Barnett re-emergence and who was likely to win most seats in the lower house - thereby forming a new government - markedly more significant developments were bubbling along elsewhere.

And intriguingly, this involves Mr Barnett's former deputy, Dan Sullivan, who early this year resigned from the Liberal Party and has become WA Family First's leader in state parliament.

All this is best revealed in a letter Mr Sullivan, who is contesting an upper house seat for his new party, recently sent to resource companies and other business houses, a copy of which has been handed to State Scene.

"The next state election is important for the resources sector, including [company's name removed]," the Sullivan letter begins.

"The prospect of a Labor government now seems inevitable, with the Greens holding the balance of power in the parliament.

"The Greens have used the balance of power to support and influence Labor's policies and legislative program and they will do so again.

"This is grave news for the resources and mining sector and for anyone who supports conservative ideals.

"Worse still, if the Greens achieve a high enough vote (as the polls indicate is possible), Jim McGinty would have the numbers necessary in both houses to pass electoral change legislation preventing the conservatives regaining control of parliament for decades.

"Family First, marketing as FamilyFirst.com, is a non-religious conservative party that supports small business and family owned enterprises like no other party.

"We are pro-development, pro-property rights and very strongly pro-traditional family values.

"Family First is the only conservative party capable of preventing the Greens from gaining the balance of power in the upper house, but we need a serious level of support to achieve this.

"My office is making arrangements for us to meet soon to discuss how your company can assist.

"In the meantime, I encourage you to examine the enclosed brief summary of the current political situation and the very real danger it presents.

"Kind regards, Dan Sullivan (MLA for Leschenault)."

Mr Sullivan's message focuses upon what's at stake at the coming election.

Put bluntly, it is that the political situation is essentially a clash between two ideological blocs, with Carpenter-led Labor still quietly confident it will hold power.

With Mr Barnett as leader it seems the Liberals are now far more likely to win a handful more seats than they would have had Mr Buswell remained leader.

Barring a major scandal, Labor is likely to be returned with, at worst, Mr Carpenter having to rely on the support of former Labor minister John Bowler, who has a good chance of emerging as an Independent pro-Laborite MP for Kalgoorlie.

The prospects in the lower house for what can fairly be described as WA's conservative bloc - the Liberals, Nationals, Family First and Christian Democrats - therefore remain bleak, with Labor likely to hold firm on 29 of the 59 seats.

As State Scene has pointed out, even if the Liberals won, say, a whopping 26 seats - which would include 23 by the Liberals and the three Independent Liberals, Liz Constable, Janet Woollard, and Sue Walker - they'd still need the Nationals to come on board as formal coalition partners or minority government backers.

True, nothing is impossible at any election, but to expect Mr Barnett to emerge with 23 seats is an almighty ask.

Here it must be kept in mind that recent unambiguous statement by Nationals leader, Brendon Grylls: "I won't be taking my team of Nationals into a party room dominated by Perth politicians, I don't mind what political persuasion they are, they are Perth politicians focused on Perth projects."

Election 2008 is shaping up as one in which a mediocre and unimaginative two-term Labor government looks set to be returned.

However, that's far from the end of the line for the disunited conservative bloc.

And it's here that the Sullivan message is crucial, for he fully appreciates that the real fight for the legislative control of Western Australia is indisputably in the contest for the upper house.

That chamber has had bestowed upon it the constitutional power to block bills initiated in the lower house, and Mr Sullivan fears it will remain under the thumb of a Labor-Greens bloc.

Therefore, if Labor and the Greens were to retain a combined majority in the upper house at the coming election, all conservative causes and aspirations would count for nought for at least the immediate future - 2009-2013 - and perhaps for much longer.

And there's a good chance that that may occur.

Mr Sullivan, for instance, has pointed out that the Greens have recently received a surge in support according to Newspoll, which showed them attracting up to 16 per cent statewide backing.

Matters briefly deteriorated for the conservatives when Mr Grylls announced he'd enter into preference swapping deals with Labor and the Greens wherever he deemed these could benefit him and his lower house colleagues and upper house candidates.

That would have meant that none of the others in the conservative bloc - Liberals, Family First or Christian Democrats - could have expected Nationals' assistance or cooperation.

In other words, there seemed to be no such thing as conservative solidarity across the ranks of those confronting the powerful leftist Labor-Greens bloc - a far cry from what one could expect.

However, that Nationals stance mellowed during tough preference swapping negotiations, with the Greens and Labor no longer to be the beneficiaries.

Even so, Labor is still likely to be returned with, in all likelihood, many lower house seats won by narrower margins.

But one shouldn't take too much notice of lower house contests since the determining clash is unmistakably in the upper house, as Mr Sullivan so poignantly pointed out.

The crucial question is, therefore, will Labor bag enough upper house seats and help Greens candidates win the others through preferences, so that the Greens and Messrs Carpenter and McGinty can dominate the upper house and thus the state's entire legislative program?

Or will it be the other way around; can WA's disunited and fractured conservative bloc gain control of that crucial chamber?

That question highlights the fact that, even though the coming election promises to continue being a dull encounter in one chamber - the lower house - it will be a nail-biter in the crucial other chamber, the upper house.

And the outcome won't be known on the evening of September 6, when there's all that cheering and shouting, but well into that month.

Ironically, when it is finally determined sometime around mid-September, very few will immediately realise it, and even fewer will care.

But control of the upper house, as Mr Sulllivan has pointed out, is where the real action will be.


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