In the aftermath of the Carpenter Government’s 2008 defeat, newly elected Opposition leader Eric Ripper confidently touted that Labor was “only one by-election away from government”.

Twelve months into Colin Barnett’s reign and that number has gone the other way, thanks to the shock defection of city-dwelling country MLA Vince Catania and the loss of Fremantle to the Greens. But no matter how small the government’s majority, the point is moot — the tide is well and truly in Barnett’s favour and Labor isn’t going to be taking any seats off his coalition colleagues any time soon.

Minority governments in Australia have a tendency to make improbably large gains at their second election, a prospect that should be keeping Labor’s marginal-seat MPs awake at night.

Those same MPs are quick to label Barnett “the accidental Premier” — a fall guy who was never meant to win — but if history is any judge, then it should be smooth sailing for the Libs.

Three such accidental Premiers in the past 20 years should set a reassuring precedent for Barnett. Peter Beattie, Mike Rann and Steve Bracks all came into the Premiership on wafer-thin majorities and all managed to engineer electoral wipeouts in their second term.

After a year in the job, Barnett has made similar progress in his efforts to secure his toehold on government and is looking to make further inroads into Opposition territory at the next election.

The first plank in the Liberals’ bridge to the next election is the $170 billion worth of private investment on its way to WA. In a state obsessed with big plans, big projects and big developments, that’s a hell of a stick to beat the ALP with. Secondly, while Barnett himself is a shrewd political operator, he came into the job too late to influence party preselections, inheriting a team of misfits and factional heirs bereft of political talent.

The fact that ultra-conservative deadwood such as Rob Johnson and Robyn McSweeney sit on the front bench is a testament to the challenge facing the Premier.

If he is to secure his position for the long term, Barnett needs to get down and dirty in the preselection process to bring in new talent and cut loose the dead weights occupying safe Liberal seats. As Alan Carpenter proved, such a move is risky for a leader with no factional base of support, but if done properly it could pay big dividends.

Carpenter’s mistake was to try and build his own faction by preselecting candidates with little or no previous connection to the party, when he should have been throwing his support behind existing contenders.

Doing so would have shielded him from accusations of power-grabbing, while having the added advantage of preserving the ALPs (relatively) peaceful factional hegemony.

Unlike Carpenter, however, Barnett has the authority of a leader who has actually won an election as opposed to a leader who is simply assumed to be wining one.

Instead of staging such a disastrous coup, the Premier needs to quietly but firmly nudge his party in the right direction, even if it puts a few caucus members offside. Hangers-on and seat warmers can thus be flushed out with minimal distress, but only if he lays the groundwork now.

Barnett’s inner managerial type knows this, but he’s yet to summon the gravitas to put it into action.

Notwithstanding some political disaster, the Liberals are on course for a second term in office. Barnett’s actions will decide whether that likelihood becomes a reality.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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