Writing for Crikey on Friday, I suggested that there was a serious factional undercurrent to the Corruption and Crime Commission’s war on Brian Burke. The circumstances of Environment Minister Tony McRae’s forced resignation from Cabinet confirm this.
Perth’s political commentariat went berserk on Thursday after McRae was accused by the CCC’s lawyer of talking to Centre Faction colleague Julian Grill about organising a Centre Faction fundraiser. The hysterical reaction gained credibility when a number of print and TV media reported commentary from local academic Peter van Onselen, who said that the government was now shown to be “rotten to the core” and required a major purge. Interestingly, none of the journalists who put these stories together thought it was important to disclose that Mr van Onselen is a former Liberal Party political staffer.
With the media storm in full flight, Premier Alan Carpenter made the extraordinary decision to cut short an important trade mission to India so he could fly back to Perth and deal with the “scandal”. Carpenter got back to Perth on Friday evening and by all accounts spent the weekend wringing his hands until Sunday afternoon, when McRae put him out of his misery by accepting that the only way to end the mess was to hand in his resignation.
The problem for Carpenter is that the CCC enquiry — and more importantly, the political opportunism associated with it — is out of control. It has now gone far beyond the personal fate of Brian Burke, Julian Grill or Tony McRae and has become a bitter contest of wills between the Socialist Left and breakaway “New Right” alliance on one side, and the Centre and Right factions on the other. Factionally unaligned, and with little understanding of the ALP’s internal workings, Carpenter is ill-equipped to deal with the crisis.
Attorney General Jim McGinty, who leads the Left-New Right alliance, worked hard to nail McRae. He told the Premier that convention demands that a Minister should step aside or be removed when facing serious allegations. As far as McGinty’s concerned, though, this noble convention doesn’t cover matters in which McGinty himself is involved — such as his dodgy work on the Mickelberg affair, when he briefed his mate Bob Kucera about the contents of the secret Lewandowski affidavit.
Over the weekend, most Left and New-Right MPs dutifully fell in behind McGinty in calling for McRae’s head, while Centre and Right MPs were just as determined that he should stay. And both sides took their cause to the media, with unnamed “senior MPs” enthusiastically briefing journalists on either side of the argument. It was an undisciplined and unsightly display, which vividly demonstrated the chaos that the freewheeling CCC inquiry has brought upon the Government.
The mood of the ALP backbench is grim and despairing. If Alan Carpenter is to maintain any sort of control over an increasingly chaotic government, he needs to assert his authority over faction leaders — and that means summoning up the courage to tell Jim McGinty that his continued prosecution of an ancient tribal feud with reckless disregard for both the Government and the Labor Party’s interests is unacceptable and must end now.