The hapless Western Australian Liberals have a new leader after incumbent Paul Omodei stepped aside at today’s party room meeting. His successor is Vasse MP Troy Buswell (right), who just five days ago told the media he needed more experience in the House and more time to develop before I could be considered for that position. This was prompted by a now celebrated display of tired and emotional behaviour in parliament last October, which culminated in him pulling on the bra strap of a Labor staffer in the Speaker’s office. News of this episode came to light courtesy of a letter to the Albany Advertiser by Paul Omodei’s electorate officer Ron Scott, whom Omodei has refused to dismiss. Carine MP Katie Hodson-Thomas (who today made a surprise announcement she would retire at the coming election) subsequently complained of being subjected to inappropriate remarks from Buswell in the presence of male colleagues, with other unnamed Liberals suggesting he had a reputation for such behaviour.
These developments appeared to put an end to months of leadership jockeying by Buswell, who by all accounts had the numbers to dislodge Omodei (left) following a series of bad opinion polls and a disastrous performance in last February’s Peel by-election. The West Australian responded with an editorial on Monday arguing that the party must persuade Troy Buswell that while his behaviour in Parliament last October was juvenile, stupid and not befitting of a member of Parliament, it was not so reprehensible that he need rule himself out of leadership contention a line which evidently echoed the feeling in the party room. The West’s Robert Taylor reported on a tense one-hour meeting on Tuesday at which Omodei and Buswell agreed that the issue would be resolved at today’s party meeting, which nobody doubted would result in Buswell assuming the leadership if he chose to contest it.
Buswell’s rocky rise to the top comes just three years after he entered parliament at the February 2005 state election as member for Vasse, where he won preselection at the expense of sitting member Bernie Masters. Masters ran against Buswell as an independent and came within 209 votes of defeating him. Buswell went on to play a key role in the dumping of Matt Birney, who led the party for a year after the 2005 election and recently announced he would not contest the coming election. It was widely believed in the party that Buswell had pledged his vote to Birney but subsequently voted for Omodei, who prevailed by one vote in an outcome the Liberals would have little cause to celebrate in hindsight. High-profile Hillarys MP Rob Johnson, who stood against Buswell in today’s leadership vote (there has been no word on the result of the count), said at the time: His cowardly and gutless disloyalty will be the start of his demise and I think you will find the shining star of Troy Buswell will diminish over the coming months. Let me tell you, if he is the future of the Liberal Party then God help the Liberal Party.
Robert Taylor wrote in The West this week that Buswell’s strategy was to unite members of his own faction, which is associated with current Senators Chris Ellison and Mathias Cormann and the recently departed Ian Campbell, with the opposing Noel Crichton-Browne camp. This has been achieved through an alliance with party upper house leader Norman Moore, who is strongly identified with Crichton-Browne. Taylor reported that Moore was expected to retire at the next election but is now on the verge of going around for another four years, sending a strong message to those MPs still furious with Mr Buswell over his support for Mr Omodei in his battle with Mr Birney.
It would be something of an understatement to say that the plot has not come to fruition under the happiest of circumstances. The ABC reported that today’s leadership vote was delayed 25 minutes while the party awaited the arrival of Murdoch MP Trevor Sprigg (right). It was then held without him after news arrived he was being hospitalised after a suspected heart attack. Half an hour later, the ABC reported that Sprigg had died. Buswell now faces an immediate test of his electoral appeal in the reasonably safe southern suburbs seat of Murdoch, where the newcomer Sprigg boosted the party’s margin from 4.1 per cent to 5.9 per cent at the February 2005 election. Murdoch will be abolished as of the next election due to the one-vote one-value redistribution, to be replaced by the new seat of Bateman. According to Antony Green’s calculations, the Liberal margin in the new seat is 6.9 per cent. The map belows shows the old (green) and new (red) boundaries with booth results from the 2005 election.
UPDATE: The West Australian understands that the result of the ballot was 17 votes for Troy Buswell and 10 for Rob Johnson, with one MP scrawling the name Paul Omodei on the ballot. It also observes that Nedlands MP and Shadow Attorney-General Sue Walker was absent from the meeting, fuelling speculation that she intends to run for her seat of Nedlands as an independent at the next election.