Poll Bludger: chair-sniffer's resignation robs Labor of an enduring gift
Yesterday morning, former Western Australian treasurer Troy Buswell resigned, ending his political career on his own terms. Unfortunately for Labor, the resulting byelection is unlikely to further ruffle the state's already embattled Liberal government.
Throughout what has been one of the most dismal periods in its history, the Labor Party in Western Australia has had one gift that it could always rely upon to keep on giving. However, that good thing has finally come to an end with the news overnight that Troy “chair-sniffer” Buswell has decided to quit politics.
As reported in The West Australian this morning, Buswell has judged a continued career in politics to be incompatible with the management of his bipolar disorder, and says he has “lost his passion” for the job.
For most of a parliamentary career that began in 2005, Buswell was simultaneously an indispensable asset to a state Liberal Party that had struggled to recruit and retain top-rank ministerial talent, and perhaps the greatest walking disaster area in modern Australian politics.
Observers from outside the state will forever associate him with the most eccentric of his indiscretions, in which he sought to wind up a female staff member by sniffing the chair in which she had been seated while acting out (or so one hopes) noises of sexual pleasure.
News of that event — which was broadcast far beyond the state’s shores when it emerged in April 2008 — threw new light upon his puzzling announcement at the start of the year that he had decided against proceeding with an anticipated leadership bid on the grounds that he needed “more experience in the House and more time to develop”.
Dissatisfied with the lacklustre performance of then-leader Paul Omodei, party colleagues prevailed upon him to think again. But when the chair-sniffing story broke three months later, as Buswell seemingly realised was bound to happen sooner or later, his leadership never recovered. After two coup attempts fell through for the want of a credible alternative, former leader Colin Barnett resolved the impasse by cancelling his retirement plans and agreeing to be drafted back into the leadership. Labor premier Alan Carpenter’s attempt to catch the Liberals off-balance by calling an election immediately afterward backfired, and Barnett’s improbable victory delivered Buswell the substantial consolation prize of the Treasury portfolio.
The story of Buswell’s career thereafter was one of long periods of political rehabilitation that in time restored him to the status of leadership contender, punctuated by further scandals that returned him to the dog house.
“With the door on his ministerial career fully bolted, Buswell’s decision to spare himself from a further two-and-a-half years’ grind on the backbench will have surprised nobody.”
The first of these came in April 2010 when it emerged that he had been conducting an extramarital affair with Greens MP Adele Carles. This prompted his resignation from cabinet on the grounds that he had used a ministerial car and government credit card to pay for accommodation for himself and Carles, an indiscretion he would no doubt have toughed out under different circumstances (and for which he was cleared by the Public Sector Commissioner two months later). However, he was only to remain on the sidelines for eight months, returning first to the frontbench and then to Treasury after his successor Christian Porter’s decision in mid-2012 to make the jump to federal politics.
At first Buswell continued his relationship with Carles, but it came to an acrimonious end in March 2012. Later that year, Carles publicly accused Buswell of having a drinking problem, and of again exercising his unusual sense of humour by “dry humping” the leg of a businessman at a private party. Buswell filed suit for defamation, ensuring that the spectacle generated headlines throughout the 2013 election campaign. It was finally resolved by a settlement reached in February that included an apology from Carles.
Buswell’s next disaster struck very soon thereafter, and this time the damage to his political career was terminal. The episode began in March with the curious news that Buswell had quietly gone on personal leave for reasons that were described as “health-related”. Only three weeks after the event did the full story become clear. Having spent an evening at a wedding reception, Buswell was observed driving erratically along the short route between the venue and his house in Subiaco. A trail of wreckage between the two points included damage to his government car, front fence, and three cars that had been parked on the side of the road. Buswell pleaded guilty to charges of careless driving and failing to stop and report an accident, but declined to answer police questions regarding his sobriety.
With the door on his ministerial career fully bolted, Buswell’s decision to spare himself from a further two-and-a-half years’ grind on the backbench will have surprised nobody. A byelection now looms in his electorate of Vasse, encompassing his home town of Busselton and the delightful surrounds of Yallingup and the Margaret River region.
With the government suffering a severe mid-term malaise on the back of credit rating write-downs, a broken promise on light rail and, it seems, the low regard in which it is held by the federal Treasurer, it might have been thought that a byelection would grant a success-starved ALP a welcome opportunity to draw blood. But with victory in the Liberals’ second-safest seat realistically out of the question, and party coffers depleted after the unwelcome Senate election in April, the word from inside the party is that it will most likely sit it out.
In Labor’s absence, a strong showing can be expected from the Greens, the Margaret River region in particular being a haven for sea-changers, tree-changers, surfers and dropouts. But ultimately, there seems little reason to suppose that the Liberals’ hold on the seat will be disturbed.
That being so, the byelection represents a crucial opportunity for the Liberal Party to deepen its parliamentary talent pool as it contemplates the prospect of life after Colin Barnett.
William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, is one of the most heavily trafficked forums for online discussion of Australian politics, and joined the Crikey stable in 2008.