Et tu, Buswell?

Sean Gleeson / October 08, 2013 05:05 PM

Word from Western Australia is that Premier Colin Barnett’s head may soon be on the chopping block, potentially making him the seventh Australian government leader to be rolled by their own caucus in the last five years. 


Some lessons of history are too banal to heed, no matter how many public scandals and sex romps ensue. Exhibit A: the WA Liberals.

Colin Barnett led the Liberal Party to a resounding second term victory in this year’s state election against a lacklustre opposition, securing the party a majority in the Legislative Assembly and making the Libs somewhat less reliant on the Nationals to govern. One might think that Barnett’s position in the pantheon of WA’s tory luminaries is assured, alongside the Court family, Edith Cowan and Fred Chaney.

Meanwhile Troy Buswell, Barnett’s scandal-prone Treasurer, has recently faced calls for his resignation after the state’s mounting debt and ambitious infrastructure plans resulted in a credit rating downgrade, the first since the dramatic corporate crashes and political scandals of the WA Inc era.

And yet, if the murmurings in Perth’s corridors of power are to be believed, a decisive majority of the Liberal caucus is preparing to negotiate Barnett’s exit sometime in the next year, to be replaced by Buswell.

Let’s recall that back in 2008, Buswell’s time as Opposition Leader came to an abrupt end after he turned out to be – to use the official nomenclature – a textbook pants man of the highest order.  Two days after his resignation, Labor Premier Alan Carpenter made the fateful decision to dissolve Parliament and call an election. Barnett renounced his previous stated intention to retire and was drafted unopposed as Leader of the Opposition, with Buswell as Shadow Treasurer.

Less than 18 months after the Liberal Party won government, state Greens MP Adele Carles announced she had been involved in a clandestine affair with Buswell. The Treasurer was dropped from the ministry, before being brought back into the fold with a couple of junior portfolios once he was cleared of any misuse of taxpayer money. Buswell launched defamation proceedings against Carles which are still ongoing.

So how is it possible that Barnett is on the nose with his colleagues while Buswell seems on the cusp of an unthinkable elevation?

First of all, there’s the lack of worthy challengers in the WA frontbench. Barnett’s first tilt as Leader of the Opposition was back in 2001, in the weeks following the Court Government’s loss of office to Labor. Outoging Premier Richard Court didn’t much care for his former deputy, and initially schemed to parachute Julie Bishop from Federal Parliament into the Opposition leadership behind Barnett’s back. When the plan fell apart, Court resigned and Barnett was elected leader unopposed.

Barnett failed to make any headway in the 2005 election and stood down after the party’s loss. The Liberals burned through two other opposition leaders before the six month tenure of Troy Buswell, both of whom resigned at the 2008 election, shrinking an already shallow talent pool.

WA Treasurer Christian Porter’s departure to federal politics to successfully contest the old seat of Liberal moderate stalwart Judi Moylan left Barnett without an obvious transition plan, while simultaneously clearing the way for Buswell to return to the Treasury.

The other potential successor, Deputy Premier Kim Hames, has underachieved in the Health Ministry, wearing the blame for a six month delay in the opening of a new hospital in Perth’s southern growth corridor, and has recently resigned from the Tourism portfolio after wrongly claiming travel entitlements. (Fortunately for everyone concerned, the current Prime Minister shows no signs of demanding the same level of probity from his Cabinet, even if his Coalition predecessor and mentor, John Howard, demanded it from his.)

Throughout this, Barnett’s relations with the caucus have slowly deteriorated. The Good Oil has a good rundown of where it believes present loyalties currently lie, but suffice it to say things aren’t looking good for the Premier.

The biggest threat to Barnett’s incumbency is the nexus between Federal Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and WA Education Minister Peter Collier. The pair have assiduously cultivated loyalty from the state Liberal Party’s organisational wing, particularly through the Young Liberals, and reportedly possess enough factional clout to bring about favourable preselection outcomes. As a member of the upper house, and with a decidedly mediocre record as Minister, Collier can be safely ruled out of contention for the job, but he should nonetheless have a decisive role on whether Barnett leaves and who will ultimately replace him.

As Energy Minister, Collier was previously hung out to dry by Barnett after pledging to guarantee entitlements to employees of the struggling miner Griffin Coal. Questions about Collier have also been raised in relation to his relationship with mining magnate Andrew Forrest, when the Minister was in a position to grant or deny mining approval around the Minderoo region in WA’s northwest. Nonetheless, Collier’s organisational power has rendered him virtually invulnerable, and could explain why Barnett has trod gingerly around accusations that the Minister has misled parliament in relation to recent statements on the state’s teachers.

Despite Opposition Leader Mark McGowan’s attempts to lay blame for the credit downgrade at Buswell’s feet, word around the traps is that Barnett is copping the blame for the fiasco among his colleagues. The Premier felt obliged to match Labor’s expansion of Perth’s metropolitan rail system with his own infrastructure spend, and a lack of fiscal discipline was cited as one of the main reasons behind Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade. Perhaps McGowan has caught wind of Liberal discontent, and has shrewdly decided to recalibrate his attacks on the man most likely to succeed him – not necessarily a guarantor of successful strategy, given that the Opposition Leader’s manner invites comparisons with slightly damp tea towels.

Buswell, for his part, has expressed support for Barnett and repeatedly ruled himself out of leadership contention. Based on recent events elsewhere in Australia, one could be forgiven for harbouring a few lingering doubts


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