The crisis-wracked WA Liberal Party is in poor shape to unseat the Carpenter Labor Government at the next WA state election. Furthermore, the Liberals have lost their deputy leader and gifted strategist, Dan Sullivan, to the Family First Party which stands to benefit from the Liberal collapse. Joseph Poprzeczny reports.
Fifteen years ago, Western Australia’s Liberal Party expelled a former party president and senator, Noel Crichton-Browne, for making lewd remarks to a female journalist.
This year, the same party elected as its state leader, Troy Buswell, who snapped a female parliamentary staffer’s bra-strap and sniffed a chair that another female staffer had been sitting on.
That, in a nutshell, illustrates the decline of a party which, for much of the period since World War II, was seen, often justifiably, as the vanguard of Western Australian progressive conservatism.
The Labor Party, whose record since 2001 is little better than mediocre, is fortunate to be in power as the state’s minerals sectors continue booming with no end in sight.
That, as much as the decline of standards within the Liberal Party, ensures Labor another four, probably eight, more years in power.
Little wonder that a just released poll covering April and May showed that 42 per cent of 418 Liberals quizzed said they preferred Labor leader, Alan Carpenter, as premier to Buswell who scored just 33.5 per cent.
No WA-based political analyst or non-Labor politician is consequently claiming the Liberals will win government at the next election, which is due by May 2, 2009, but may be called anytime now. Quite the contrary.
The situation is so depressing for Liberal members and voters that many believe the party will be lucky to win 10 seats in the 59-member lower house. Some fear the more likely figure is seven.
And this by a party that held government comfortably from 1993 to 2001 in coalition with the Nationals who now say they will never again enter into such an alliance.
The Liberal leader over those years, Richard Court, left Parliament to become a political consultant for corporate interests. His deputy, and successor from 2001 to 2004, Colin Barnett, has announced he won’t be contesting the coming election; and two succeeding leaders – Matt Birney and Paul Omodei – were toppled in party-room coups that have sparked further ongoing recrimination.
Mr Birney plans to follow Mr Barnett out of parliament, while Mr Omodei, who last month resigned from the Liberal Party, has threatened to stand as an independent in a seat of his choosing.
Furthermore, Barnett’s deputy, Dan Sullivan, has also resigned from the party and become parliamentary leader of the state’s revamped Family First Party, now marketing itself as WAfamilyfirst.com.
The election to the Liberal leadership of Troy Buswell whose recent behaviour would have earned him certain expulsion 15 years ago, the ignominious departure of four Liberal leaders since 2001, and the resignation of a deputy leader who now heads Family First – all these are a measure of the utter shambles the WA Liberal Party finds itself in today.
Although Buswell has already been challenged twice as leader, he has staved off defeat only because no replacement can be found and a state election is imminent.
Even so, disheartened Liberal power-brokers – it is impossible to find a confident one – have already begun casting around for a Buswell successor. The man tipped to be next WA Liberal Opposition leader is Christian Porter, grandson of the late Sir Charles Porter, a senior minister in several Queensland Joh Bjelke-Petersen governments.
The fact that Porter, a lawyer who entered state parliament at a by-election only in February, is already seen as leadership material shows how bereft of talent the Liberals are on the eve of an election.
However, despite all the turmoil within Liberal ranks, the Carpenter Labor Government is unlikely to have it all its way after the coming state election.
First, Carpenter has been forced to sack four ministers from government. He dispatched two of them, plus an upper house Labor member, from the party. He has initiated moves for the expulsion of onetime Premier Brian Burke who was associated with several of the sacked ministers in lobbying activities exposed by the state’s Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC).
Second, WA’s upper house is elected on proportional representation lines, which means the balance of power is set to be held by one or more minority parties.
Those in the running for this determining big prize, either alone or with another one or two minority parties, are the rural-based Nationals, the Greens, and Sullivan’s new WA branch of Family First.
Because support for the Liberals has slumped so drastically since their 2004 election defeat, it is difficult to foresee how disenchanted Labor and Liberal electors will vote in the upper house’s regionally-based seats.
Many Labor voters, and even some Liberals, are likely to back the Greens, whose support has risen dramatically, according to recent polls.
Support for the Greens, in the April/June 2008 polling period for Newspoll, has reached a stunning 16 per cent, exactly double what it was in April/June 2007.
The Nationals, who currently hold only one seat in the 34-member upper house (set to be boosted to 36 members), are confident of winning at least two.
Which brings us back to the Sullivan-led Family First. This has seen the teaming-up of business and other Sullivan backers with the traditionalist-minded Family First Party that narrowly missing winning an upper house seat in 2004.
Sullivan was far and away the most skilful strategist in the Liberal Party’s parliamentary wing, and sees himself as a Menzies-style “forgotten people” traditional Liberal.
This, among other things, means he has no sympathy for ongoing favouritism for big corporate entities, preferring instead to see legislation leaning towards small, especially family-owned, enterprises.
He has already announced that the payroll tax threshold will be lifted from its present $750,000 to $2 million, thereby placing enterprises employing between 35 and 40 workers beyond this tax on job creation and job maintenance.
The $2 million threshold will be indexed, meaning it will automatically rise over time.
If he gains the balance of power as an upper house member, he is determined to pursue an extensive range of trade practices reforms in WA, ideas largely derived from pioneering work by University of NSW academic, Associate Professor Frank Zumbo.
Sullivan also subscribes to a range of other pro-family policies that he and Family First propose to unveil progressively over the coming months.
He is also a strong – indeed, the only – advocate in the WA Parliament of fundamentally altering the legislative process by adoption of Swiss-style direct democracy procedures that empower voters to call referendums, including being able to initiate referendums. (This scheme is discussed in more detail in the present writer’s article, “Australia – a democracy or just another ballotocracy?”, in National Observer, No. 76, Autumn 2008).
If Family First gains the balance of power in the upper house, the state’s system of governance could therefore be completely transformed with statewide binding referendums becoming a centrepiece of government, thereby placing voters ahead of politicians in this process.
Sullivan said: “If we gain the balance of power in the upper house, we propose negotiating with whoever forms government in the lower chamber the most far-reaching reforms to the state’s electoral system in 100 years.
“There is a growing sense of frustration that politicians do not listen to the people.
“Too often, they pass laws that the majority of Western Australians do not want. And referendum results, like the one on daylight saving recently, are rejected by our political leaders who arrogantly push their own political agendas.
“It’s time to give the people a greater say – a direct say – in the decision-making process.
“We would make all referendum results binding on the state government and the parliament changed by a future referendum.
“We plan developing an effective system of direct democracy, enabling Western Australians to initiate their own referendum questions – at present, only politicians can initiate a referendum – and to veto bills enacted by politicians that do not have voter support.”
Interestingly, the last time an attempt was made to introduce Swiss-style direct democracy in Western Australia was in 1913 by the then John “Happy Jack” Scaddan Labor Government.
The only reason the Scaddan move failed was because the upper house was controlled by non-Labor parties.
– Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based journalist and historical researcher.