It’s been a good few days for the ALP in Western Australia. The
reaction to Colin Barnett’s surprise monster canal plan has ranged from
mildly sceptical to strongly negative. His friends in Canberra have not
been helping, either; Saturday’s Australian came with the remarkable front-page headline, WA Libs: butt out Costello, after the Treasurer was less then enthusiastic about the idea.

Costello
was actually in Perth to support the Barnett campaign. But not only did
he pour cold water, so to speak, on the canal plan, he also indicated
his dissent from another of Mr Barnett’s positions, support for
continued restrictions on shop trading hours. As TheAustralian
reports: “‘On the east coast, in the major states, there has been
deregulation. The experience, I think, has been a good one,’ the
Treasurer said.”

Readers in Victoria might remember a
previous occasion on which Peter Costello publicly disagreed with a
state Liberal leader. Back in 1991, then opposition leader Jeff Kennett
produced a plan to force an early election by threatening to
retrospectively deny superannuation benefits to Labor MPs [ed: if Race
Matthews’s piece reviewing the controversy is still on the site
somewhere you could put in a link to it] Most Liberals, shocked as they
were, kept quiet, but not Costello, and his criticism helped to sink
the idea. It was his finest hour.

Could history be
repeating itself? Well, neither a big canal nor shop trading
restrictions is quite in the same league as Kennett’s quantum leap. But
the culture of conformism in the Liberal Party gets worse all the time,
so this sort of public dissent is every bit as surprising as it was in
1991. And we’ve been waiting for a long time for Peter Costello to
distinguish himself from John Howard and explain to the public what he
actually stands for: perhaps he’s finally going to find his voice.

There
is something of an irony here, because Costello started out in politics
aligned with the Labor right and the NCC-controlled “shoppies” union.
Deregulated shopping hours is about the last issue anyone would have
expected him to stand up for. Like free trade, it used to be a left
wing cause: only Labor governments ever extended shopping hours (just
as only Labor governments ever cut tariffs), and only the left in the
Liberal Party ever supported them.

In the early 1980s, when
Costello had joined the Liberal Party, he and Michael Kroger led the
opposition to deregulated shopping hours. Going to the supermarket on
Saturday afternoons, we were told, would destroy the sanctity of the
family. It was a sign of Jeff Kennett’s divergence from this group
(multiple irony!) that he then supported deregulation, although he
subsequently performed several backflips.

But sometime in
the mid-1980s, Costello and others underwent a conversion to free trade
and deregulation. Perhaps they wanted to distance themselves from the
NCC; perhaps they were impressed by what Hawke and Keating were getting
away with. Perhaps there were bigger issues at work: the intellectual
case for free trade was finally being heard, and free-marketeers had
come to power in Britain and America. Whatever the reason, the
political debate in Australia was fundamentally changed.

Most
of the history of these issues has now been forgotten. Young Liberals
who think of themselves as warriors of the right brand themselves as
“Free Trade Youth”, apparently unaware of the incongruity. But the old
fault-lines have not been erased entirely, and sometimes in John
Howard, and even more in his acolyte and ex-NCCer Tony Abbott, you can
see the old scepticism about the free market still visible. If Costello
wants to appeal to the more liberal elements in his party, then
positioning himself as he has done in the shop trading debate is
probably not such a bad idea.

None of this will be much
comfort to Colin Barnett and his team. The Kennett-Costello feud
poisoned relationships within the Victorian Liberal Party for more than
a decade. In the vipers’ nest that is the Western Australian division,
an extra excuse for factional warfare is hardly necessary, but it will
probably be embraced anyway.

Geoff Gallop may still manage to fall over, but for now he’s looking good. As Barnett is quoted as saying in this morning.

Peter Fray

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