The West Australian Liberal Party is a shambles as this insider’s account reveals.

The Annual State Council meeting at which the chairmen and members of the various Party committees are elected is to be held on Saturday next. With the exception of one Committee, they are of themselves insignificant and inconsequential.

The relevance of the Committees is that the Chairman of each is ex-officio, a member of the State Executive and the State Council of the Party. The State Council of the Party is the body which preselects the Senate candidates. Hence the Chairman of these Committees and in turn the membership of the State Council is of great interest to the Senators. Senators Ellison and Campbell who will be appearing before this body sometime in the next twelve months have a particular interest in its membership.

The one Committee which is important in the affairs of the Party is the Constitutional and Drafting Committee. This Committee is charged with interpreting the Party’s constitution and ruling on internal disputes. It is also the party’s disciplinary body.

Crikey readers who are familiar with the internal machinations and internecine warfare within political parties, will immediately grasp the significance of this committee.

The nomination for the Chairmanship of this committee which has caught the eye of Crikey is that of Brian Lee Pontifex. Mr Pontifex is an employee of Senator Ellison or as he styles himself, Adviser to the Minister for Justice and Customs.

Mr Pontifex’s nomination form shows his address as 197 Rosebery Street, Bedford, a suburb of Perth. Below that he shows an address of Canberra Avenue, Canberra. The truth is, Mr Pontifex lives and works in Canberra. Presumably in keeping with a Canberra based Ministerial staffer, his visits to Perth are occasional and spasmodic.

At a personal level, the significance of where a staffer is based is that a generous travel allowance of $178 per night is paid when the staffer is away from his home base on official duties. In Mr Pontifex’s case, when he is in Perth living at his given Perth address.

Mr Pontifex who joined Ellison’s staff this year has also nominated to be a member of the Party’s Rural Committee. To begin to do justice to these positions, Mr Pontifex must anticipate considerable travel this year because the State Executive of the Party meets at least once a month, the State Council meets monthly, as does the Rural Committee and the Constitutional and Drafting Committee meets when required, often at very short notice.

This all begs the obvious question. Given that Mr Pontifex has no control over the dates of these various meetings, how does he propose to find himself in Perth on the relevant dates? It is of course inconceivable that the Minister for Justice would arrange Mr Pontifex’s duties so as to allow Mr Pontifex to fly to Perth at taxpayers expense in addition to Mr Pontifex receiving $178 per day, on the premise that he is needed for his employment duties on precisely those dates.

Perhaps such is Mr Pontifex’s commitment to the Liberal Party that he intends to personally incur the enormous cost of travelling very regularly between Canberra and Perth so as to fulfill the obligations and responsibilities that membership of these committees requires.

Of course, the third option is that Mr Pontifex only comes to Perth when his Liberal Party vote is crucial to a certain outcome. What then if he is required in the Minister’s Canberra office at the same time? How someone who lives on one side of the continent can properly contribute in an informed way to a Party organisation on the other side is another matter.

Crikey, which likes to think the best of people, assumes that Mr Pontifex will adopt option two. No doubt we will be soon informed by Crikey readers if our faith is misplaced.

As Chairman of the Constitutional and Drafting Committee, Mr Pontifex has in the past been involved in controversy which also embroiled Senator Ellison. In 2000, a complaint was made to his Committee that the President of the Nedlands Branch, Mr Peter Collier, a friend and political ally of both Ellison and Pontifex, had signed a membership form in another person’s name without the consent or approval of that person.

At the time Mr Collier was standing for preselection for a State Upper House seat and he was recruiting members of his local tennis club to that end. One member of the tennis club, Mr Peter Getgood was surprised to receive a letter from the Liberal Party accepting his membership. Mr Getgood responded saying in part, “thank you for accepting me as a member of the Liberal Party, this in spite of the fact that I have not formally applied for memberhip.” “I do not wish to become a member of a political party at this time.”

Collier, Pontifex and Ellison were at the time from the same political grouping. Pontifex had been on Collier’s “ticket” for office bearer positions of the Curtin Division of the Party. Collier at the time was the President of the Nedlands Branch of which Ellison is a member and of which his wife has previously been secretary. Pontifex was the President of the Crawley Branch. Both Branches are within the Curtin Division.

When it broke in the media that Collier had presented membership forms to the Liberal Party which were not signed by the purported applicants and of which they had no knowledge, the Management Committee of the Party, of which Senator Ellison is a member, was driven into inquiring into the matter.

The fact that the Management Committee has no specific constitutional power to do so is beside the point, however it was obviously a tactic to head off formal proceedings. The State Director was instructed to inquire into the matter and he reported to the Committee that Collier had signed Mr Getgood’s application form.

In spite of the fact that Collier had never discussed Liberal Party membership with Mr Getgood, that the constitution specifically requires that the applicant personally sign the application form, that the money used to pay for Getgood’s membership did not come from Getgood and that Getgood had never agreed to join the Liberal Party, the Management Committee found that it was all a misunderstanding.

In all the circumstances it may have been expected that Ellison would disqualify himself from any body which was inquiring into Collier’s behaviour on the grounds of perceived bias. On the contrary, Ellison was Collier’s most ardent advocate, in particular arguing openly that Collier, in placing on an application form, a signature which on the face of it purported to be that of Peter Getgood, and of which Getgood had no knowledge, had not forged Getgood’s signature.

There was no indication on the form that the signature was anybody else’s other than Getgood’s and nor did Collier disclose to the Branch President to whom he handed the form, that he had signed the applicant’s name, rather than the alleged applicant.

The form also showed the Branch President to whom Mr Collier presented the form, as having recruited Mr Getgood. This was patently untrue.

It is worth quoting what the Western Australian Constitution says about membership of the Party.

A person shall be qualified to become and remain an Ordinary Member if the person inter alia who:

* is in accord with the objects of the Party;

* has agreed to be bound by the Constitution and the Rules of the Party;

* has signed an application for membership

* has paid the relevant membership subscription fee;

Mr Getgood had not agreed to be in accordance with the objects of the Liberal Party, he had not agreed to be bound by the Constitution and the Rules of the Party, he had not signed an application for membership and he had not paid the relevant membership subscription fee.

Subsequently, another Branch within Curtin Division, so offended by events, carried a motion that the matter be referred to the Party’s disciplinary body of which Mr Pontifex is the Chairman. In spite of Mr Pontifex’s close political affiliation with Mr Collier, as with Senator Ellison on the earlier occasion, he chose not to disqualify himself.

As matters transpired, Mr Getgood chose not to provide evidence, Mr Collier chose not to give evidence on his own behalf and the Committee found that the case had not been found.

However the rules of the Appeals and Disciplinary Committee state inter alia that;

In its determination, the Committee shall not be bound by the rules of evidence and shall, subject to the rules of natural justice, be at liberty to take any matter into account in determining a complaint in the best interests of the Liberal Party.

Of significance, the State Director who had prior knowledge of Mr Collier having signed Mr Getgood’s form, and who took part in the disciplinary proceedings as Secretary to the Committee, did not disclose that critical information to members of the Committee.

One might have expected in accord with the forgoing committee rule, that such a critical piece of evidence would have been provided by the State Director to the members of the Committee so as to have it tested by each party to the action. Mr Wells kept this vital piece of information upon which the hearing turned, to himself.

Such is the conduct of proceedings within the affairs of the Western Australian Liberal Party.

More recently the State Director attended a controversial Branch Annual General meeting and personally witnessed blatant unconstitutional behaviour and activity and while saying so at the meeting, subsequently did nothing about it. His later excuse was that there was no appeal against the proceedings.

This is in spite of the fact that under the Party constitution, the State Director is explicitly given power to refer such matters to the Constitutional and Drafting Committee. Such is the present state of the Liberal Party.

In the Collier case, Mr Collier went on to be selected onto the Upper House ticket for which purpose he had submitted membership application forms not signed by the applicants.

As a foot note to the operation of the Constitutional and Drafting Committee, the State Director failed to to notify two of its members that nominations had opened for the 2002 elections. Consequently nominations closed without their nominations. One of these members is a prominent Perth Queen’s Council and the other a senior barrister.

Presumably the Committee could have benefited from the participation of a senior barrister and QC. Both men incidently are regarded as independent of any party faction or grouping.

For a Party that suffered its worst defeat in its history at the last State election, received a bath at the federal election, has its lowest membership in forty years and operates from the basin of a benefactor’s building, the Western Australian Division of the Liberal Party obviously has no need of talent.

Peter Fray

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