Built to spill

The West Australian today carries a “snap” Westpoll survey of 413 voters showing 50 per cent think the beleagured Troy Buswell should resign as state Opposition Leader following the revelation of his chair-sniffing indiscretion. The poll also has Buswell in third place as preferred Liberal leader with 12 per cent support, behind former leaders Matt Birney (21 per cent) and Colin Barnett (19 per cent). These figures will further stir a pot which could yet come to boil either with Buswell’s resignation (suggested as a serious possibility by “several MPs” cited in The West), or at the spill motion to be called on Tuesday by party whip Graham Jacobs with the backing of front-bencher John Day.

The favoured scenario among most of the anti-Buswell group is a return by Barnett, who stepped aside after leading the party to defeat at the previous election. However, Barnett seems determined to follow through with his plans to quit politics, and a successor has already been preselected for his blue-ribbon western suburbs seat of Cottesloe. The other obvious contender should surely be Birney, Barnett’s immediate successor, whom the party foolishly dumped for the unelectably mediocre Paul Omodei at the first whiff of a bad opinion poll. Birney too had proclaimed his intention to jump ship at the coming election, but is now reconsidering. But for whatever reason, there is reportedly a view that Birney has considerably less party room support now than at the time of his one-vote defeat at the hands of Omodei in March 2006.

The circumstances of that fiasco are worth revisiting, as it was widely believed in the party that Troy Buswell swung the outcome after pledging his vote to Birney and then supporting Omodei. Hillarys MP Rob Johnson, who had built a high media profile as Shadow Justice Minister, declared 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.” Johnson’s prediction initially appeared to be misplaced, with speculation soon emerging that Buswell was preparing a move against the floundering Omodei. The party’s disastrous showing at the February 2007 Peel by-election confirmed Omodei’s likely status as a stop-gap leader, and he spent the rest of the year battling the perception he would be gone after the federal election was out of the way.

Just as Buswell’s plot neared fruition in January, the Albany Advertiser published a well-timed letter by Omodei’s electorate officer Ron Scott, alerting the world at large to the “bra-snapping” incident involving a Labor staffer in a parliamentary office. Significantly, there were also hints at the time of other skeletons in the closet which Buswell’s foes might see fit to expose at the appropriate juncture. Buswell then announced he would not proceed with his challenge after all, as he needed “more experience in the House and more time to develop before I could be considered for that position”. This prompted the West Australian to editorialise 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”. This echoed the feeling in the party room, and Buswell was prevailed upon to pursue a leadership vote which Omodei ultimately did not contest. Rob Johnson confirmed his ongoing hostility to Buswell by throwing his hat into the ring, but reportedly found little support.

Other episodes of discontent with the Buswell ascendancy underscored the perception that the new leader had a less than soft touch with the opposite sex. Shadow Tourism Minister Katie Hodson-Thomas, who two days earlier claimed Buswell had made “inappropriate remarks” to her in front of a “large number” of male colleagues, announced on the morning of the spill that she would not contest the coming election. The only other female Liberal in the lower house, Shadow Attorney-General Sue Walker, did not show up for the spill and kept herself out of contact for the following fortnight. She then emerged to announce she was quitting the Liberal Party to contest the election as an independent, damning Buswell as “untrustworthy”. Another departure from the party was former deputy leader Dan Sullivan, a Matt Birney loyalist who had been left homeless after the redistribution abolished his seat of Leschenault. The West Australian recently reported Sullivan was “considering forming a special interest party to run for an Upper House South-West seat”.

As well as the two former leaders, some less familiar hopefuls have been testing the leadership waters (nobody has mentioned Omodei, who in any case is pursuing an upper house berth after the redistribution left his seat vulnerable to the Nationals). Shadow Treasurer Steve Thomas – like Buswell a newcomer at the 2005 election representing a seat in the south-west – says he will “consider his options” if the spill motion succeeds. However, Thomas faces the difficulty that his seat of Capel has been abolished, forcing him to compete with popular Labor member Mick Murray in the new seat of Collie-Preston, which by Antony Green’s reckoning has a slight notional Labor majority. Deputy leader Kim Hames says he will oppose the spill motion, but The West Australian “understands” he will nominate if it succeeds. Rob Johnson, whom many in the party suspect of being the source for the Sunday Times’ report on Buswell’s chair-sniffing activities, has ruled himself out, saying he does not expect the spill motion to succeed in any case.

All of which would leave Alan Carpenter eagerly eyeing his election date calendar. Western Australia does not have fixed terms, so in theory he can call an election for the Legislative Assembly at any time. However, he faces two very significant complications. One is familiar from the federal level: while terms for the lower house are flexible, the Legislative Council has a fixed expiry date of 21 May 2009, and its election must be called no earlier than a year before that date. Given the minimum 31-day period that must follow the issue of the writs, the earliest possible date for an election for both houses is June 21. The second difficulty relates to the ultimate date of expiry of the next Legislative Assembly, which depends on the date of the first sitting of parliament after the election (there is presumably an equivalent to the requirement of Section 5 of the Australian Constitution that the first sitting of parliament take place no later than 30 days after the return of the writs). If this comes after August 31, the next Assembly will expire on January 31, 2013. Otherwise it will be a full year earlier – in which case simultaneous elections at the subsequent poll will be impossible, as the earliest date for a Legislative Council election will be June 2012 (the expiry date being May 2013). Carpenter is thus effectively constrained from calling an election before August, for a date earlier than September.

UPDATE (3/5/08): Today’s West Australian offers remarkable talk of a party split if Buswell does not step aside. One “senior delegate” quoted by the paper predicts he will agree to do so, but there are no shortage of opinions to the contrary. In any case, The West says the spill motion is set to fail by between three and seven votes out of 31, although Amanda O’Brien of The Australian reports “it is believed many have not made up their minds what to do”. The West says that if Buswell goes, deputy leader Kim Hames is “likely to defeat Shadow Treasurer Steve Thomas in a leadership ballot”.

UPDATE (4/5/08): Another tumultuous day for the Liberals as Paul Omodei quits the party and declares Buswell “unfit to lead” after effectively being rejected for upper house preselection by the state council conference. Last month local preselectors voted to give Omodei the safe number two spot on the South West ticket, which itself followed an initial ballot that reduced him to unwinnable number four. This was overturned by the party’s appeals committee on the grounds that eligible delegates had not been invited to the meeting. For whatever reason, the party’s state council conference has now decided to reinstate the original outcome, putting Omodei behind Robyn McSweeney, Nigel Hallett and Barry House (those who think this an unconscionable way to treat a senior front-bencher are reminded that Omodei refused to stand and fight in the lower house seat of Blackwood-Stirling because he risked losing to the Nationals). As well as Buswell himself, Omodei is blaming Senator Mathias Cormann and state upper house MP Peter Collier, operatives of a faction known as the “northern alliance” due to its power base in the northern suburbs. The conference also decided not to proceed with threats to block the preselection of Rob Johnson, after the unnamed woman at the centre of the chair-sniffing incident vehemently denied he was the source of last week’s Sunday Times story. It’s not all one-way traffic though: this week the Sunday Times reports of rumoured inappropriate behavior by Alan Carpenter at a party social event four years ago. The claim is strongly denied by Carpenter, but he might have hoped for a more emphatic statement of support by witness Louise Pratt, former state upper house MP and soon-to-be Senator.

UPDATE (5/5/08): Reports in The West Australian and The Australian give an impression Buswell will narrowly survive today’s spill motion, if only for the want of a credible alternative. Four months after arguing that “juvenile” and “stupid” behaviour by Troy Buswell “was not so reprehensible that he need rule himself out of leadership contention”, The West Australian today offers a front page editorial which begins:

Today is the day of reckoning for the WA Liberal Party: if it retains Troy Buswell as leader, the party will be condoning sexual harassment in the workplace, treachery and dishonesty. By dumping him, MPs will show they are prepared to implement the ideals their party has long advocated.

The matter of Buswell’s honesty was of no concern to the paper in January: now it talks of “the ease with which he employs deviousness and downright dishonesty in a bid to achieve his personal ambition”. We are even told that Buswell’s “knifing of another of his leaders, Paul Omodei” showed he “had not lost his appetite for hacking down those ahead of him on the greasy pole” – an interesting interpretation of actions The West had openly advocated. The paper’s call for Buswell’s departure has been echoed elsewhere in the media by The Australian’s state political reporter Amanda O’Brien and in various television news bulletins by the ubiquitous Peter van Onselen, Edith Cowan University academic and John Howard biographer. Van Onselen told the Sunday Times yesterday he had been approached by “several senior Liberals seeking advice on how to form a new party”, apparently with a view to usurping the established Liberal Party as the Nationals’ coalition partner. The ranks of conservative independents in parliament now includes recently disaffected Liberals Sue Walker and Dan Sullivan along with the established Elizabeth Constable and Janet Woollard (many Liberals would dispute the conservative credentials of the latter), and is soon to be joined by Paul Omodei (who has not yet formally resigned, and is threatening to show up for the spill motion). The West also reports that the initiator of the spill motion, Graham Jacobs, is refusing to comment on his future with the party if Buswell survives.

UPDATE (6/5/08 3pm): ABC Radio reports the spill motion has been defeated.

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.

60 comments on “Built to spill”

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  1. Oh my goodness.
    The Keystone Cops couldn’t put on a shambolic display to rival the WA Libs…
    what a farce!

  2. curious there has been no follow up in the press of the karaoke party allegations levelled at Carpenter. Has he threatened to sue or obtained an injunction?

    Unless they follow up with some evidence real soon Carpenter has an open and shut cause of action for substantial damages, given the number of Liberal bloggers who have repeated it as gospel on the papers’ own blogs.

  3. I can’t see the basis for substantial damages myself. From what I have seen the papers were reporting on a matter of substantial public interest a story that what provided to them and was put to the Premier. I don’t believe the papers have reported it as the truth – merely as the report of an incident that has come to light. If I have read it correctly, the story has also not actually been denied by either of the two females involved. While the reports I have heard have the two women down-playing the event only the Premier has come out and said it didn’t actually happen. Of course, that’s only as far as I know – I could be wrong.

  4. [curious there has been no follow up in the press of the karaoke party allegations levelled at Carpenter. Has he threatened to sue or obtained an injunction?]

    Watch Milne & Pies use this againgst Louise Pratt once she officially becomes a Senator, in particular when there is swome sort of Anti Sex Disicrimination legislation being introsuced.

  5. Such a small sampling (if any at all) is taken from WA that I doubt it will have any effect.

    Anyway, Nelson has done such a good job of making a caricature of himself that he doesn’t need any assistance from Buswell and the WA Liberals to retain his single digit ratings.

  6. As funny as this chair sniffing thing is it is not exactly the best thing for our democracy. The Labor government in WA facing no creadible opposition could end up being like the dreadfull Iemma government in NSW.

  7. Labor in WA is nothing like Iemma and co, we got our smartcard systemm 3 years ago/ Carps n Co are actually spending money on infrastrcture and his pref prem rating is quite high, nothing to compare

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