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Consensus leader stayed out of factional wrangling

By Peter Van Onselen - posted Thursday, 19 January 2006

Geoff Gallop has publicly taken the personal step of announcing that he, like 16 per cent of Australians, has depression and is consequently resigning as West Australian premier and member of the state parliament. He has requested he and his family be given the time and space required to come to terms with his condition.

In the light of recent high-profile depression cases (rugby league star Steve Rogers and former NSW Liberal leader John Brogden), one can only hope that he is given that space.

Gallop's resignation came as a shock not only to the public but to his colleagues as well. The man most likely to succeed him, Energy and State Development Minister Alan Carpenter, was caught on the hop in London: given the time difference, he was fast asleep with his mobile phone turned off when Gallop made the announcement yesterday.


Gallop's failure to contact the man most likely and warn him of his decision to resign is representative of how he conducted his politics as premier. That is, without deal-making or factional games. He was a genuine consensus leader who did not emerge from the party's powerful old Right. In resigning, Gallop simply did his duty, calling a press conference to inform the media, preceding that with the necessary discussions with the state's deputy premier to arrange a period of caretaker leadership.

Staying out of factional wrangling might sound like a trite observation, but in the WA Labor Party it is to be commended. In a state where the party's disgraced former premier Brian Burke still holds court with many senior party personnel, Gallop kept an arm's length between his office and internal party games. This allowed him to get on with the job of governing.

In the nearly five years Gallop served as premier, he presided over the lowest unemployment rate on record and delivered consecutive years of economic growth. He also maintained the state's AAA credit rating, which had come under threat under the Court government that preceded Labor's return to power.

The economy was not his only platform for success. As a former university lecturer in history, Gallop took education seriously, making it the centrepiece of his 2005 re-election campaign. During his years as premier, 27 new schools were built and school retention rates increased to 63 per cent, the highest in more than a decade.

While the Federal Government has been running a campaign to encourage early school-leavers into trades, Gallop has introduced laws to keep young people in school until the end of the year they turn 17 (to take effect in 2008). Such bucking of national trends is a West Australian pastime, and popular with the public.

Gallop was never afraid to use federalism to defend WA rights, not a common tactic in Labor circles. It was less than a year ago that he won his second term, defeating Colin Barnett and his notorious canal proposal, to maintain Labor's five-seat majority in the state parliament. Gallop's next election, in the normal course of events, was three years away.


Before he first won office, Gallop was considered a capable man but one unlikely to be elected premier, not unlike former US presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who contested successive elections against the popular Dwight Eisenhower. Unlike Stevenson, Gallop was able to overcome his popular opponent, then-premier Richard Court, winning by a record 14 seat swing at the 2001 election to become premier.

The overseas comparison is appropriate for a man used to walking the international stage. While in other states becoming premier might seem second best to opportunities in Canberra, to isolated West Australians the premier is a de facto prime minister. Gallop was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he met Tony Blair and the two of them became the best of friends; Gallop was an usher at Blair's wedding.

However, he has not been without his detractors. In WA, Gallop gained a reputation as "good news Geoff", always available when the going was good but the first to wheel out the relevant minister when the news story turned negative for the government. The worst that could be said about such tactics is that he could be a canny politician. Within his own party, Gallop will be best remembered for introducing one-vote, one-value legislation, improving his party's electoral chances for decades to come. Among Western Australians, he will be best remembered for banning logging in old growth forests.

His depression and resignation makes Gallop's story that of a political career only partly fulfilled. Unlike other political leaders, he faced no leadership threats and the state's Liberal Opposition remains in disarray. He could well have governed for at least another seven years.

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First published in The Australian on January 17, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

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