Liberal leadership change in WA shows conservative confidence

Jun 14, 2019

Liza Harvey’s unopposed ascension to leadership of the West Australian parliamentary Liberal Party points to growing confidence among conservatives in the West but Mike Nahan deserves high praise for holding the fort after the Liberals’ 2017 rout.

Despite its massive majority in West Perth’s Legislative Assembly, is it possible for Western Australia’s Labor Government to be a one-term wonder? The volatility of electorates worldwide is so extreme that such a fate is not out of the question. WA Labor is not complacent. Indeed a senior front-bencher told me well before the disappointing federal result that a massive turn-around would not surprise, although he said the government was working well and harmoniously in a collegial environment.

Mike Nahan took on the Liberal leadership job when nobody else wanted it and personally led the WA Liberals to a resounding victory in the Darling Range by-election in June last year. The Liberals in WA again performed way above expectations in the May federal election but the criticism of Mike’s leadership did not fade away.

The main objection seemed to be a matter of manners. Mike was not the mongrel attack-dog we have grown used to in Australian politics, constantly barking and nipping at the heels of his opponents. On the contrary, his was a lofty, academic and dignified manner. Perhaps he reminded me of my dad. Anyway, I liked his style although I disagreed with his neoliberal economics and I suspect we will now see the local Liberals less rigid on privatisation policies.

After his by-election triumph, Mike was quoted complaining about white ants in the Party. I wrote about this in Pearls and Irritations, 11 August 2018. “Since white ants have voracious appetites Mike will probably have to call a leadership spill in the new year, if not before.” I got that right but picked the wrong candidate. In an earlier post after the Cottesloe by-election I predicted that David Honey would take over from Mike Nahan within 18 months (Pearls and Irritations 16 March 2018). David was not mentioned in recent reports but his solid establishment presence in the parliamentary Party is reassuring to Perth’s conservatives.

Political groupies need not worry about a continuation of gentlemanly opposition. Liza Harvey will be in their faces like a blue heeler. She was a high-profile deputy to Colin Barnett, who increasingly brought her to front-of-stage as he became aware of his own sagging popularity in the final months of his government. Liza is the first female Liberal leader in the West. The candidate I favoured for that role was June Craig from an earlier generation but she tackled a marginal seat and was a sad loss to the Parliament. Instead the colourful Ray O’Connor took over following the retirement of Sir Charles Court and lost to Brian Burke’s Labor in 1983.

An interesting and smart move by the Liberals is the election of Bill Marmion as Liza Harvey’s deputy. Bill is more in the gentlemanly mould of Mike Nahan and makes a balanced fit with Liza’s attack-dog. The new deputy is a civil engineer with good experience inside the public service. He was Minister for State Development when he spoke to a conference I attended in Port Hedland and he impressed me. We need engineers in our parliaments.

My favourite definition of politics came from Liberal front bencher and original “Dry” Jim Carlton. “It is a funny sort of job but somebody has to do it.” It is not a good career choice for people looking for job security. When Mike Nahan took on the job nobody else wanted, many commentators saw him as a caretaker. I wonder if people are thinking the same about Anthony Albanese keeping the seat warm for Tanya Plibersek?

Tanya’s withdrawal from leadership calculations had people talking. The standard response from the commentariat was that she did not have the numbers, which surprised me. Her own comment was that this was “not her time.” My impression was that Tanya had invested so much effort in the campaign and preparation for government over such a long period that she felt she had no more to give in the short term.

It is such a mercurial business. Just a few weeks ago Bill Shorten, Tanya and their capable colleagues looked ready to bounce into government while the Coalition after Malcolm and Barnaby and high profile retirements looked like a dispirited and beaten team expecting to lick their wounds in opposition. Now it is the ALP team in the change room, still stunned by the score board.

Just a few months ago Labor in WA was confident and I predicted the Party would pick up three federal seats (Pearls and Irritations 15 March). Now Labor WA is by no means in panic but the Party goes into election mode next month and knows it has to work hard.

Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter and a member of the ALP

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