If the Western Australia Liberal Party dumps Colin Barnett as its leader in 2004 then it will ensure that Geoff Gallop wins a second term as Premier. Colin Barnett is head and shoulders above his colleagues intellectually and politically and represents the best chance for the WA Liberals to articulate a real alternative to the ALP.
The Liberal Party around Australia - and Western Australia appears to be no exception – is obsessed with dumping its leaders when it is in Opposition. In Victoria, Dennis Napthine was replaced by Robert Doyle six months before that state’s 2002 election, and Steve Bracks was returned to office with a thumping majority. Same thing happened in New South Wales, where John Brogden replaced Kerry Chickarovski, who in turn replaced Peter Collins. Labor’s Bob Carr thrashed both Chickarovski and Brogden in the 1998 and 2002 elections.
It’s not as though Barnett is going to be replaced by a world beater. His ambitious Deputy, Dan Sullivan, appears to have meddled in the pre-selection of Vasse MLA, Bernie Masters, prompting the latter to tell the Western Australian newspaper on December 19, that Sullivan “is prepared to totally disrupt party loyalty in order to concentrate support for himself so that after the next election, where he may well be encouraging a loss, he can walk into the leader's position."
And then there’s Matt Birney – he’s been mentioned in dispatches as a possible leader. Mr Birney is a hard core Kalgoorlie conservative. On December 12, 2001, he issued a media release in which he prophesied, “I know that parents across our state are today horrified at the thought of a Government that would wish to “promote or encourage” homosexuality to their children whilst they are at school.” Talk about homophobia!
What those who want to replace Mr Barnett don’t understand is that it’s remarkable that the Liberals can even contemplate a return to the Treasury benches after only 4 years in Opposition. State governments in Australia generally serve out at least two terms. In recent years the only exception has been the National Party’s Rob Borbidge in Queensland who lost office to Labor’s Peter Beattie after the 1998 election.
And Labor governments around Australia are now running to a pretty successful formula. They are no longer interested in being genuinely reformist. They have worked out that if they deliver extra funding to health and education that will keep the Labor welfare constituency happy. Labor now wants to be seen as tough on law and order as the Liberals. After all it was Gallop who decided in August 2003 to place a curfew on kids in central Perth.
The Gallop formula is one that is replicated by Mike Rann in South Australia and Bob Carr in New South Wales. But the one difference is this – Gallop appears to have been plagued by Labor’s past. He has banned former Premier Brian Burke and his sidekick Julian Grill from meeting with ministers. And Gallop’s efforts at electoral reform have merely resulted in 11 of his own Party as seats now being classed as marginal.
For all these reasons, the Liberals have a real chance of winning the 2005 election. And that’s why they must not divide over leadership – division is death in politics, as all in the political game know.
In Barnett the Liberals have a leader who understands the need for good policy, not simply sloganeering and negativity. As someone who has written and read thousands of pages of speeches by political leaders in Australia over the years, Colin Barnett’s address to the State Liberal Party conference in Perth on the August 3, 2003, was one of the more interesting. It provided an insight into a politician who thinks deeply, strategically and who is prepared to take risks for the sake of policies that are not simply compromises between interest groups.
In that speech Barnett set out in detail his plans for rural and regional Western Australia. He acknowledged the failures of his own Party as well as Labor in dealing with rural decline: “In spite of the good intent of successive governments, we have before us a massive failure of policy,” he told the Party faithful.
Barnett then spelled out detailed policy prescriptions in areas such as devolution of government, social capital, and innovative use of port authorities, information technology, niche marketing and economic infrastructure – over 3,000 words in total.
This is the speech of a well educated, thinking political leader who is prepared to adapt and adopt policy prescriptions in a fast changing world.
The Western Australian Liberals have a leader with genuine vision and edge – they would be mad to dump him. Hopefully, the Party will resist the death wish temptation.