Here’s a riddle. What do Shane Watson’s body and the federal Liberal Party have in common? Bits of them keep letting themselves down.

The WA Liberal Party had its annual state conference knees-up over the weekend, a gathering once memorably described by former Gallop-era Minister Fran Logan as a “rabble of failed businessmen, anti-union zealots and the born-to-rule”.

Premier Colin Barnett coasted above it all, the real talking point being Malcolm Turnbull’s reception.

Whatever his current polling woes, in Turnbull the Liberal Party may just have found a potent template for its political direction and indeed, its very future. However, that’s not an easy thing for a conservative party obsessed with the past to come to grips with.

Economically dry, socially progressive and environmentally aware, Turnbull’s politics represent a potentially lethal governing coalition. Poor old Malcolm, though, is trying to make that argument to a party that denies climate change is either anthropogenic or combatable, that retains a fondness for Howard-era middle-class welfare and, one suspects, still hasn’t really got used to Abos, wogs, boongs or poofters.

It’s not helped when your polling numbers resemble Wilson Tuckey’s IQ tests. But more later on the political genius of the Member for O’Connor.

WA is probably the least Turnbull-friendly branch of the whole party. In power at the state level, relatively positive on the fund-raising front and holding 11 of 15 Federal seats, they don’t see the need for Sydney spivs telling them how to run the show, thank you very much. WA as a whole has never been overexcited about this whole Federation business, anyway … not to mention the natural conservatism of a state without civilised trading hours or daylight saving. Welcome to Perth; please turn your watches back three hours and your calendars about 35 years.

How well Turnbull’s brand of ego and progressiveness goes down in Perth suburbs and Pilbara mines will be interesting — if he’s still around in 2010, that is. And it’s unsurprisingly, again it’s   climate change that’s doing him damage in WA Liberal circles.

How many of WA’s Federal Liberal MPs actually back their leader’s views on climate change, we don’t know for sure. But any reasonable guess wouldn’t require you to start using the fingers on your second hand.

The people who staff the booths, write the cheques and put their names on the ballot next to the word Liberal in WA are, in the main, hard-core conservatives and more than likely related to mining and resources in some way. They’d really rather the whole global warming thing would just go away and they seem to be hoping that’s what’ll happen if they ignore it long enough. Which brings us back to Uncle Wilson, of course.

While it’s popular to simply dismiss Tuckey as a buffoon — albeit one that John Howard saw fit to make a Minister of the Crown, let it not be forgotten — there’s a bit more to his blustering than simple cussedness. Despite his seat of O’Connor looking safe at first glance, a sort of “Put Tuckey Last” preference arrangement meant that in 2007, another 3% added to the 19% the National Party polled would have seen Wilson unceremoniously dumped from Club Fed. A redistribution since hasn’t done him any favours either — the new boundaries are even more Nationals-friendly than the old ones.

Tuckey knows that the National Party will be targeting O’Connor, and he also knows that WA’s conservative voters are very receptive to the maverick stance Barnaby Joyce is carving out for his party on the ETS. It’s not stretching credulity to suggest that if Tuckey wanted to run again in 2010, his current utterings on climate change and an ETS are the minimum necessary for him to even have a chance against a National opponent.

Tuckey wouldn’t be alone in his predicament. Rural and regional Liberals Australia-wide can sense a Nationals comeback on the ETS issue … and Turnbull can expect Tuckey and Co to continue their infantile rants indefinitely while this situation continues.

There is one consolation for Turnbull though, up in the northern Perth suburb of Joondalup. Local government candidate Christine Hamilton-Prime has crossed the Tiber to the Liberal Party this month after years in the LHMU and the Hard Left of the ALP. The niece of Labor’s 2007 candidate for Cowan, Hamilton-Prime was profiled in the West this week, complete with a charming picture of her protesting against VSU (despite not being able to recall what it stood for in a debate). Clearly a deeply committed conservative idealogue, at least this week.

If Turnbull’s leadership can attract weather-vane socialists with poor memories for acronyms to the Broad Church of St Menzies, he can’t be all bad, can he?

Peter Fray

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