In Time Regained, Proust’s Narrator discusses his discomfort when an interlocutor whom he had assumed was of like mind and outlook to himself reveals via a chance remark that they are barking mad. I call this the Western Australian effect, from all the times when an apparently intelligent, rational and thoughtful person from the west has suddenly revealed their true nature. This invariably takes the form of an opinion, hitherto hidden but ferociously held, that WA is carrying the rest of the country, that it doesn’t need the rest of us, and that they’d be far better off seceding.

Brendan Nelson might be wondering at the moment whether he wouldn’t be better off if WA went its own way. Despite their support for him against Turnbull in the leadership ballot last year, his WA colleagues seem bent on making life difficult for him.

First it was the stolen generations apology. Many of the Coalition dissenters were from the west, giving credence to the view that Western Australian conservatives have some sort of hang-up about indigenous issues — although Ross Lightfoot, who has a long history of deriding Aborigines, did back the apology.

Then came Julie Bishop’s desperate efforts to keep WorkChoices on life support after Brendan Nelson had read the last rites over it, giving the Government plenty of opportunity to get stuck into the Coalition, and allowing Julia Gillard to establish a valuable ascendancy in Parliament. Only after Bishop got mugged by her own party room did this nonsense end. But even then, Don Randall was hinting that the Coalition could bring Workchoices back in five years. The Prime Minister leapt on this as valuable material for his Workchoices scare campaign.

Now Dennis Jensen has come out to attack Nelson over the Coalition’s shift away from backing nuclear power, complaining about the lack of consultation. Jensen is particularly miffed that he didn’t get a look-in, because he’s the Coalition’s “leading proponent of nuclear energy”. There hasn’t “been an adequate assessment of the way the public actually thinks about nuclear energy,” he lamented. Possibly he could use one of those television phone-in polls that he relied on to back his opposition to an apology.

Jensen does have a point. Given how loath most Australians will be to seriously change their energy-intensive lifestyles, it’s hard to see how we’re going to meet the sort of carbon emission targets Garnaut is talking about without seriously considering nuclear power. The alternative appears to be a sort of “Magic Happens” approach of hoping some brilliant new energy technology will appear to save the day.

But coming out and bagging his leader just adds to the growing sense that no one particularly respects Nelson’s authority and that Coalition MPs regard it as appropriate to comment about pretty much anything, regardless of party policy. Backbenchers like Jensen probably can’t be blamed too much — after all, shadow Defence minister Nick Minchin was happy to share his views about climate change, or what he claims is the lack thereof, earlier this week. He didn’t appear to be too worried about what Greg Hunt, supposedly the Shadow Minister for Climate Change, might have thought.

Perhaps Western Australian Liberals think that their status as the strongest Federal Liberal state gives them licence to throw their weight around. But it’s not helping the man they backed in November. The quickest way to a Turnbull leadership would be the Western Australians to keep undermining Nelson’s authority.

The latest Morgan poll shows that the Government has extended its already massive lead over the Coalition, gaining 2.5% on its primary vote, while the Coalition has slipped to 1.5%. The 2PP position makes for gruesome reading for the Coalition – Labor leads 64.5 to 35.5, despite the reheating of the Rudd-Burke leftovers by News Ltd. Will we see a 2:1 poll before gravity eventually takes hold and we return from the honeymoon? The Coalition leadership should think about having a break for a few weeks. Nothing they’re going to do will fix these polls for some time.

Peter Fray

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