The state government is facing its first major personnel crisis, and the opposition is keen for a win.
The extraordinary demolition job the former Labor member for Darling Range, Barry Urban, inflicted on himself over the misleading details on his service background and educational qualifications will almost certainly nip his political career in the bud.
But what is a major blow to the now-independent MP is an embarrassment for Labor, with its bloated majority after the landslide election victory in March.
For opposition leader Mike Nahan, however, who hasn’t had much to smile about since taking on the Liberal Party leadership post-election, it could prove to be a godsend.
Mr Urban’s victory in Darling Range was only a vague possibility when Labor endorsed him last year. Former local government minister Tony Simpson held the seat for the Liberals, but he crossed swords with (then) premier Colin Barnett and quit the cabinet.
So Mr Urban was a surprise beneficiary of the ‘it’s time’ factor, plus Mr Barnett’s personal unpopularity, which dragged the Liberal-National government vote down.
A decimated Liberal Party, with only a handful of MPs left who actually knew what opposition was all about, attempted to hold the new Labor government to account, without a great deal of success.
The Liberals can’t take much credit for Mr Urban’s demise, which was essentially led by The West Australian’s Gary Adshead, who had accompanied Mr McGowan on his trip to China and Japan early in November.
There were questions about Mr Urban’s educational qualifications and his military and police records, and the appropriateness of the medals he occasionally wore.
And when he had his chance to clear the air in a statement to parliament, Mr Urban simply dug a bigger hole for himself with apparent inconsistencies in his local government qualifications, again exposed by the media. That’s when Mr McGowan demanded his resignation from the party.
The premier was far more patient than another Labor leader, Alan Carpenter who had no qualms in demanding, and getting, the resignations of several ministers only hours after they had been embarrassed in the Corruption and Crime Commission.
So where’s the upside for Dr Nahan? The Urban issue is now in the hands of parliament’s procedures and privileges committee, which will report when parliament resumes in mid-February. If it finds that Mr Urban has deliberately claimed false qualifications and military service, it has the power to inflict punishment ranging from reprimand to expulsion.
Even if it did not push for the extreme penalty, an adverse finding would place Mr Urban’s credibility in tatters. He would come under enormous pressure to quit. Any MP exposed in that way would find it virtually impossible to remain.
This would pave the way for the first official test of the Labor government’s popularity. And by-elections traditionally achieve a swing against the government of the day. Mr Urban’s winning margin was a useful 5.8 per cent, a handy buffer; but whether it would be enough in the current climate of big swings would be cause for much conjecture.
Dr Nahan would have his first chance to lead his party in an election campaign, with the opportunity of winning back a seat from Labor. That won’t make much difference to the numbers in the assembly – Labor would still have a handsome majority.
But Liberal morale would get a boost, as would that of Dr Nahan, who could claim he has the first Labor scalp on his belt.
It’s all conjecture at this stage, but it does show the potential for a rapid fluctuation in political fortunes, regardless of whether it is an opportunity that just falls into your lap, or comes as a result of your own hard work.
Certainly the Liberals want a stroke of luck; they can’t afford to have another year like the last. The party needs new talent in parliament, and this can only occur if some long-serving members (who would not be frontbenchers in the next Liberal government) move on.
They include Mr Barnett. He may well decide to quit in the first half of next year after the report on his government’s spending programs by former under-treasurer John Langoulant is made public.
Mr Barnett may wish to defend his record in parliament and then bow out. That would give Dr Nahan another reason to smile.