Christian Porter, 42, a man who was often touted as a likely future Liberal premier of Western Australia, has announced he is leaving state parliament to become a federal MP.
He has resigned as treasurer and attorney-general in Colin Barnett’s government and is seeking preselection for the blue-ribbon federal WA seat of Pearce.
To understand this unusual turn of events, it is necessary to recall the desperate plight of the WA Liberals between March 2005 and September 2008. During those four years, the party had a rapid succession of no fewer than four leaders.
First came Colin Barnett who had led the party into the February 2005 election that the Liberals were confident of winning.
However, he committed a major blunder by announcing — without consulting his party or shadow ministers — that a Liberal Government would excavate and double-fence a 3,700-kilometres-long concreted canal from the rivers of the Kimberley ranges, in the state’s far north, to Perth to supply the state capital with water.
As the campaign unfolded, the sheer impracticality of Barnett’s extravagant and uncosted proposal became ever clearer.
Upon losing the subsequent election, Barnett resigned and was replaced as leader by the young but inexperienced goldfields MP, Matt Birney.
Christian Porter MP
However, after only 12 months in the job, Birney was also forced to resign, after a parliamentary privileges committee declared him to have been in contempt of parliament because he had surreptitiously updated his financial interests register.
He was thereupon replaced by an older and more experienced Paul Omodei who had served as minister in the Richard Court government.
Omodei, however, quickly showed he was no match in the polls for then Labor Premier Alan Carpenter, and so was replaced by the younger but also inexperienced south-west MP, Troy Buswell.
Buswell was then promptly forced to resign after his involvement in a deeply embarrassing office prank that attracted worldwide media publicity.
Never had the once dominant party of the legendary late premier Sir Charles Court been so dispirited and in such disarray — and just six months ahead of the scheduled March 2009 election.
The WA Liberals’ priority at this stage was to draft in a temporary stand-in, who could take them into that election, after which the party would have the leisure to examine why it lacked credible and qualified leadership candidates.
However, only two names emerged as likely candidates for the 2009 contest that the Liberals expected to lose.
The first was Christian Porter’s, who had entered parliament only six months earlier, at a by-election. He possessed excellent academic and other qualifications, but was viewed as having even less experience than Birney and Buswell.
The second possibility was failed former leader, Colin Barnett.
The next move was for party members to list the points “for” and those “against” alongside these two names.
Barnett had little going for him. He was seen as belonging to the party’s left wing, as having a reputation as a big spender when he was in the Richard Court ministry, and as having a curt manner and not being a team player. Many Liberal MPs refer to him as Col Pot, while Labor MPs habitually refer to him as the Emperor.
Moreover, he’d by then announced that he would not be a candidate at the coming 2009 election and a new candidate had already been endorsed for his seat.
Christian Porter is markedly different. He has impressive academic credentials and is far better qualified than Barnett. He is undoubtedly as ambitious as the WA premier, but is more quietly mannered and has a reputation for sound political judgement.
Porter is the son of Australian Olympics high-jumper, Chilla Porter, who during the 1970s and 1980s was director of WA’s Liberal Party.
Porter’s grandfather, the late Sir Charles Porter, was a Queensland Liberal state MP between 1966 and 1980 and served in the ministry of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen Government minister.
Like his grandfather and father, Christian Porter is an ardent champion of states rights — far more so than Barnett, notwithstanding the latter’s public rhetoric about unfair distribution of GST revenues and the Rudd-Swan mining tax.
So why did the WA Liberal Party’s inner sanctum in late 2008 not opt for the far sounder Porter, and instead recycle the already failed Barnett?
Many Liberals were confident then, and still are, that Porter was the superior candidate for the premiership.
However, they didn’t wish to see someone so young and with so much promise “burn out” through lack of experience, as Birney and Buswell had done.
So they reluctantly agreed to re-draft Barnett, and then revisit the leadership question after the scheduled March 2009 election, when Porter could pick-up a defeated Liberal Party and make it credible again.
That was the plan. What happened?
In a nutshell, the Alan Carpenter Labor government made half a dozen unprecedented tactical and other errors — including calling an early election for September 2008 instead of waiting until March 2009.
To everyone’s surprise, Barnett’s Liberals won Riverton — a crucial seat that the Liberals hadn’t expected to win — by just 33 votes.
Barnett was thereupon able to cobble together an alliance — not a coalition — with the Nationals and gain the crucial support of three independents, one of them a former Labor MP.
It was widely believed that Premier Barnett would retire either before the forthcoming coming March 2013 election, or soon after.
However, four years on, Porter, as treasurer and attorney-general, was growing impatient.
Porter realised he was in a Peter Costello bind. He should either challenge Barnett now, or at a later date, and in the process destabilise the Liberal Party in the way Costello’s challenge to Prime Minister John Howard had done.
Alternatively, he could look for greener pastures in order to realist his ambitions.
Rather than waiting indefinitely for the premiership, Porter decided to exchange state politics for the federal sphere by throwing his hat into the Pearce electorate contest.
In addition, Porter, as former state treasurer, knows the magnitude of the problems that will inevitably confront Western Australians owing to Barnett’s big-borrowing and big-spending proclivities.
On June 13, retired Perth accountant and former national president of CPA Australia, Ken Eastwood AM, addressed a rally on Parliament’s steps to oppose the outlay of over half a billion dollars on a proposed redevelopment of Perth’s foreshore, including a Swan River marina and nine high-rise towers.
Mr Eastwood told the rally: “When Premier Barnett took over the reins in 2008, the net state debt was $3.6 billion. Today it is $16.5 billion. This is an increase of 460 per cent in just three years.
“The net debt is forecast to rise to $23.9 billion by 2014-15. This will mean an increase in state debt over five years from about $2,100 per head of population to over $9,000 per head of population. Such an increase will have occurred during the most profitable five years of the state’s history.
“Is it any wonder that our public utility charges are increasing at such an alarming rate?
“At this rate the state’s AAA credit rating will be sorely tested and the loss of that coveted rating will mean even more pain for taxpayers. This is exactly the situation that occurred in South Australia just two weeks ago with a downgrade of that state’s credit rating from AAA to AA+.
“The net effect of the loss of such a cushion against the cost of our borrowings will be an increase in the rate of interest for all state borrowings.”
He warned: “Expect rises in the costs of power, water, electricity, health care, road construction and so on.”
Interestingly, Porter could have remained treasurer and attorney-general until the March 2013 elections, after which he would have needed to wait until the federal election later in the year to re-enter politics.
But he has opted instead to become a state backbencher, a step that removes him from having to defend his own recent budget that Barnett played a key role in formulating.
Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based historian and writer. (This article is a slightly longer version than the printed one).