Match of the round at Victoria Park

The Western Australian ALP’s factional chieftains have been kept busy lately, their silly season interrupted by the surprise resignation of Geoff Gallop as both Premier and member for the lucrative seat of Victoria Park. This was followed by Environment Minister Judy Edwards’ decision to return to the back-bench, which left four crucially important positions (the premiership, two cabinet posts and a safe seat preselection) suddenly up for grabs.

As we now know, the first and most important of these has gone to Alan Carpenter. A former presenter of the WA edition of The 7.30 Report, Carpenter was head-hunted in the mid-1990s by far-sighted elements of the state ALP hierarchy who felt the parliamentary party lacked a telegenic next-generation leadership figure. Carpenter’s ministerial appointments in the education, energy and state development portfolios were chosen with a view to preparing him for the top job, and while it would have been hard to bungle the latter two in the state’s current economic environment, he was reckoned to have navigated all three without embarrassment. Nevertheless, Carpenter’s background meant he did not have a factional base, and he was not wanting for ambitious rivals who did (although his status did make him a logical successor to fellow independent Geoff Gallop).

Here a step into the abyss of ALP factional politics cannot be avoided, much as one would like to. Broadly speaking, the party has Left, Centre and Right factions, but this is complicated by the existence of sub-factions in both the Left and the Right and the dominance (until now at least) of a "strategic alliance" consisting of elements from either side. The three factions respectively claim 16, 10 and 15 members in caucus, with six independents left over. The Centre is dominated by the Transport Workers Union and its senior member in parliament is Deputy Premier Eric Ripper. On the Left, Jim McGinty’s LHMWU grouping (six votes) is estranged from Jock Ferguson’s AMWU (nine or 10 members) – as Robert Taylor of The West Australian puts it, "the Missos and the Metallies (LMHWU and AMWU) haven’t got on since Mr McGinty tried to parachute protege South Metro MLC Sue Ellery into the safe seat of Bayswater (I believe he means Bassendean – PB) before the last election".

The divide in the Right is a legacy of preselection clashes for the state seats of Girrawheen and Ballajura ahead of the 2001 election, in which candidates aligned with Brian Burke and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) – the "Old Right" – were defeated by a grouping headed by federal Perth MP Stephen Smith and premiership aspirant Michelle Roberts, who naturally became known as the "New Right". The rivalries between the two intensified before last year’s state election when the Old Right sought to recover Girrawheen by deposing member Margaret Quirk in favour of Wanneroo Mayor Jon Kelly, which had a lot to do with the national executive’s intervention to protect the preselection of all sitting members. The two Right factions are respectively worth seven and eight votes in caucus.

To prevent Carpenter from emerging as a consensus candidate, McGinty and Roberts needed to heal the rifts in the Left and Right respectively, while Roberts needed to simultaneously keep intact the strategic alliance between her New Right and the LHMWU Left. McGinty’s efforts may have been half-hearted; it is generally believed that he plans to retire at the next election, and he may only have entered the fray to strengthen his faction’s bargaining position. Roberts was obviously more keen, and by Friday morning a view was developing that her bid was building decisive momentum due to alleged deals (disputed in each case) with the Old Right and the Centre. That left the AMWU Left looking the crucial player, and some observers were predicting on Friday morning that it too would fall in behind Roberts.

It is not clear if this was merely speculation, or whether the faction became spooked by various poll results showing overwhelming public opposition to Roberts, or indeed by her amateurish performance at a doorstop interview during the day. Whatever the reason, the faction’s announcement late in the afternoon (which involved Jock Ferguson standing before AMWU Left MPs to announce how they would all be voting) that they would back Carpenter put the bandwagon effect into motion. Decisively, McGinty announced he would not run and declared his support for Carpenter, and talk of a deal between Roberts and the Old Right became undone. The Centre also backed Carpenter, and significantly its senior parliamentary figure Eric Ripper has kept the deputy leadership despite earlier reports to the contrary.

Inevitably, this contest is impossible to disentangle from those for the two cabinet posts and the preselection. It is widely expected that the cabinet positions will be filled by Wanneroo MP Dianne Guise, a member of the AMWU Left who threw her weight behind Carpenter, and Peel MP Norm Marlborough, a veteran who has forever carried the burden of his loyalty to Burke and the Old Right. Marlborough was deprived of a cabinet post last year due to a veto applied by Geoff Gallop, who went so far in his resistance to the Burke faction as to ban ministers from associating with Burke or his fellow lobbyist, former Deputy Premier Julian Grill. Carpenter is now signalling a softer line, which according to today’s Australian is the culmination of a confusing sequence of events – if I understand the report correctly, Burke first convinced Roberts she could win with his support, apparently in order to spur McGinty into action, and then persuaded the AMWU Left to detach themselves from the McGinty camp to deliver the job to Carpenter. Marlborough’s elevation would suggest that the episode has marginalised the New Right and strengthened the hand of the Old, which was under-represented relative to its factional weight for as long as Gallop was in power.

The contest for Victoria Park is more complicated still and cannot be neatly explained in terms of existing factional rivalries, although Jessica Strutt reported in Tuesday’s West Australian that "it is understood there has been a guarantee from the New Right that it will not support any candidates from the Left". Those named as potential candidates who to my knowledge have not specifically ruled themselves out:

Bill Johnston. The ALP state secretary and Poll Bludger fan is said to be interested, but Jessica Strutt reported in The West on Tuesday that his faction was urging him not to run, as he only recently saw off a challenge to his state secretary position from Helen Creed of the LHMWU (see below). Johnston is a former state secretary of the SDA, the backbone of the faction associated with Brian Burke. Reports of his interest in the seat are intriguing given that another rumoured contender is …

Kate Doust. Mentioned as a potential candidate by Jessica Strutt of The West Australian, the South Metropolitan MLC is married to the aforementioned Bill Johnston and shares his background in the SDA.

Helen Creed. Creed has risen from state to federal leadership of the LHMWU, which was the dominant faction in the Left until the schism with the AMWU group. Late last year she challenged Bill Johnston for the state secretary position and was loudly critical of his performance (arguing that he rather than Mark Latham was to blame for the loss of Stirling and Hasluck), although she ultimately agreed to withdraw. Helpfully, she has lived in Victoria Park for 30 years.

Tony Cooke. Now a social policy professor at Curtin University, Cooke was formerly president of Unions WA and has been a major figure in the WA union movement since the 1980s. He has always been forthcoming about the delicate matter of his father, Eric Edgar Cooke, a serial killer who in 1964 became the last man to be executed in Western Australia.

Ljiljanna Ravlich. Graham Mason of The West Australian reports that the New Right are keen for the high-profile Education Minister to use Victoria Park to switch to the lower house. This would allow McGinty Left favourite Sue Ellery to assume one of the two cabinet posts vacated by Gallop and Edwards without overloading Cabinet with MLCs, and create an upper house vacancy that could be filled by the New Right’s Batong Pham, a "rising star" of the Vietnamese community.

Ben Wyatt. A director of Indigenous Business Australia, Wyatt has lately emerged as a fancied contender, with The West Australian reporting he has support from the Right.

Simon Ward. The West Australian reports that Ward is a policy officer who has the backing of the New Right.

John Hammond. The high-profile lawyer and Mayor of Cottesloe (a high-income beachside area in safe Liberal territory) has expressed interest, although he is not currently a member of the party.

Among those who have ended speculation by ruling themselves out:

Jock Ferguson. The AMWU Left factional chief was originally rated the favourite to take the seat, and it was presumed that his aspirations featured in negotiations for his union bloc’s leadership votes. But on Tuesday, Jessica Strutt of The West Australian reported he had "ruled himself out of the preselection battle, saying his loyalty was to the AMWU and he never had any real political ambition".

Peter Bell. Talk that the Fremantle Dockers captain had been head-hunted (he is also a lawyer and president of the AFL Players Association, a distinction he shares with Victorian Sports Minister Justin Madden) attracted predictably intense media scrutiny in Perth, but he declared himself unwilling to finish his AFL career at this time.

Sarah Burke. The Right factional player and daughter of Brian Burke has long been known to harbour political aspirations, with some suggestions she might succeed factional ally Graham Edwards as the federal member for Cowan. Possibly for this reason, she has dismissed speculation that she might be interested in Victoria Park. UPDATE (26/1/06): Well, what do you know – Graham Edwards has just announced he will quit politics at the next election.

Sue Ellery. Ellery’s ambitions for a lower house seat are plain enough, in light of the factional brawl that followed her efforts to succeed Clive Brown as member for Bassendean at last year’s election. So her announcement last week that she did not plan to run might be seen to support the Ljiljanna Ravlich theory outlined above.

Surprisingly, the Liberal Party have also seen fit to nominate a candidate for this unwinnable seat. Perhaps they were conscious of the unbecoming name-calling the New South Wales Liberal Party suffered when it declined to contest two of the three seats up for grabs at last September’s "triple M" by-elections. But there are plenty of worse things that can happen in politics than being called names, some of which were outlined in yesterday’s Crikey email by legendary WA Liberal factional warlord Noel Crichton-Browne:

The inmates have really taken control in the Western Australian Liberal Party. The State Council of the Party met last night and unanimously resolved to contest the State seat of Victoria Park recently vacated by Geoff Gallop. The meeting also endorsed 59-year-old Bruce Stevenson, a teacher and more recently a real estate agent (interestingly, NCB fails to mention that he is also the local deputy mayor – PB). The by-election is expected to be held on 25 February.

The obvious arguments against the Liberal Party running a candidate are: The swing required is an impossible 16%; there will be an enormous wave of transferred sympathy for the Labor candidate given the circumstances of the by-election; Gallop whose support in the community is now greater than at any time during his parliamentary career will publicly endorse and embrace the Labor candidate; it will be the first election contested by new Premier Alan Carpenter who comes to office with enormous goodwill and who will be at the pinnacle of first flush popularity; the Government is about to announce an enormous budget surplus, unemployment is at a record low and Labor is well ahead in the polls.

The Opposition does not have one detailed policy in any portfolio; Opposition Leader Matt Birney who is presently embroiled in a controversy about his public register disclosure is currently recording his lowest approval ratings since his election to the position; this will be Birney’s first election campaign; the Liberal Party has a debt of a million dollars and has recently been embarrassed by being unable to pay its operating costs and the Party organisation in the seat is non-existent …

Senior office bearers of the Party breathlessly informed the meeting behind closed doors that the Party expected to win the seat. This was no canter around the track to give the Liberal punters someone to vote for; this was no flag showing exercise, this was a seat the Party seriously believed it could win. What must be terrifying to those tortured Liberal souls in Western Australia who have all but given up on the State Party winning an election in the foreseeable future but still hope for a credible Opposition is that those running the Party really do believe that the State seat of Victoria Park is going to be won by the Liberal Party on 25 February.

Matt Birney could not have been given a worse battle ground upon which to fight his first election. In many respects the outcome will define his leadership. Were the folly of this campaign not just transparent stupidity by those who now claim ownership of the Western Australian Liberal Party, others could be forgiven for suspecting it to be a devious plot to destroy him.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.