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How the West was lost

By Kevin Rennie - posted Wednesday, 10 September 2008

When the Western Australian State government visited Broome earlier this year for a Community Cabinet, all was not rosy but it seemed that Alan Carpenter was over the worst of internal party division and the Liberals were divided and discredited. What went wrong between then and now? This is a view from the east, tempered by 15 months in Broome and eight years in Northern Territory ALP politics.

First the obvious: the timing of an early election was a major miscalculation. It isn’t clear whether the Premier received bad advice or it was his own idea. There does not seem to have been much political nous among either the government advisers or the State ALP apparatchiks. It would have made more sense with Tony Buswell as leader, but trying to pull a swiftie on a retreaded Colin Barnett was courting disaster. He was Mr Clean, all good-humoured innocence fighting the evil manipulators in the government. The Liberals let the ALP do all the work for them.

As Andrew Bartlett remarked in his analysis of the result:


But perhaps the message for the Liberals federally from the WA election is to go full steam ahead with a leadership brawl or two, don’t worry about developing clear policy distinctions and see if they can have an embarrassing scandal or two, some pre-selection disputes and get some MPs to resign in disgust.

Second, West Australians seem to like their politicians as colourless and non-threatening as possible. Carpenter is not a typical Australian leader. He is very serious and intense. Moreover, despite his journalism background he seems to relate poorly with the voters, perhaps because of an unlikely shyness. He does not come across as a warm, natural character like Peter Beattie whom some compared him with.

Ironically during his Broome visit, I found him a genuine straight talker, to borrow John McCain’s slogan. He has the capacity to make an important contribution to Australian politics but it seems fate might have it otherwise. He has a vision for WA but it is not one that is understood by the public. Carpenter is certainly different. His comment afterwards that working with the National Party would be exciting sounded genuine. He didn’t seem to be forcing the smile.

The Brian Burke factor was not of Carpenter’s making though he naively ignored it when he took over, to his lasting detriment. His later attempts to clean up the party had considerable success. But this was at the cost of public support that perhaps only a Beattie could have retained. This was reinforced by his inability to fully unite the Labor Party behind his leadership.

The WA result was both part of a national trend of punishing under-performing political parties and a unique set of circumstances. The forced exit of my local member Shelley Archer from the ALP and the departure her husband, union official Kevin Reynolds, was something that I had never experienced before as a constituent. Then there were the five ministerial sackings under Carpenter.

The catalyst for many of the government’s woes came from a creature of its own making: the Corruption and Crime Commission. On May 8 this year I responded to the media reaction to a police raid on the Western Australian Sunday Times in these terms:


When we moved to WA in January last year I was staggered to learn of both the powers of the CCC and their exercise of those powers: phone taps, bugging, recording of private conversations and surveillance involving people not directly accused of anything. A sort of Star fishing Chamber.

Despite or perhaps because of my long time involvement with the ALP, I would not be surprised if the assertions of dirt on the government's hands were true. However, at this stage it is pure speculation. I suggest that someone ask the CCC to investigate whether [any] Ministers have abused their powers.

As a Broome ALP sub-branch member I enjoyed Shelley Archer MLC's hospitality at Party functions in her home before her forced resignation and regularly visited her electorate office. I have often joked that my political jokes and anecdotes were being recorded and would be taken out of context, or worse, in context.

The public seem happy to watch the squirming of politicians and the legion of urgers and suits (and hats in Brian Burke's case) who inhabit the decision-making lobbies. It is a costly exercise in both financial and civil liberties terms. Lots of unethical behaviour[s], some bordering on the illegal, [have] been exposed. I'm not aware of any successful criminal charges.

The old cliché that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them had a strange twist. The official opposition in the guise of the Liberal Party had been worse than dismal before the election was called and they used the time-honoured tactic of taking no risks during the campaign.

However, the real opposition came in the form of West Australian Newspapers whose traditional antipathy to Labor, as evidenced during the 2007 Federal election, had taken the form of a vendetta against the State ALP. The feud between them and Jim McGinty, Heath Minister and Attorney General, far exceeded any other government/media stoush I can remember. Carpenter seemed either unwilling or incapable of negotiating a truce. He paid the price in a State where WAN own the only daily and nearly all of the weekly regional papers.

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First published in New Matilda on September 9, 2008.

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About the Author

Kevin Rennie is a retired secondary teacher, unionist and has been an Australian Labor Party member since 1972. He spent eight years teaching in the Northern Territory: four in Katherine, followed by four in Maningrida, an aboriginal community in Arnhem Land. Kevin lived in Broome from January 2007 to May 2008 and now lives in Melbourne. He blogs at Red Bluff, Labor View from Bayside and Cinematakes. He is also a Global Voices author.

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