F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that family quarrels don’t go according to any rules; they’re like splits in the skin, he said, that won’t heal because there’s not enough material. Lord only knows what the great man would have said about the WA Labor Party. Splits? Healing? It’s more drama than General Hospital.
Last Friday nearly half of the state parliamentary Right caucus walked out on the faction, going over to join the rebel “New Right” as they once were known. From the 2001 election, the “New Right” and the “Right” have been engaged in the sort of mutual loathing found only in divorced couples, former friends and old Rolling Stones band mates — both sides preferring to deal with sections of the Left rather than heal the split in Labor Unity that has dogged it for a decade. So this latest rend on the fabric sees old friendships renewed at the cost of new ones, new wounds created in the healing of the old.
Well you may ask, why? Well may you ask.
In January disaffected rural MP Tom Stephens sent an email, calling for a leadership spill. This was shocking for two reasons; one, that Stephens knew how to email anybody in the first place and two, because it seemed that this was a challenger without a challenge. No alternative was proposed, no suggestion made. Stephens had simply decided that nothing was better than something, damn the torpedoes, and let’s have a leadership ballot courtesy of modern technology and a leak to the media.
Into the breach stepped Ben Wyatt, shadow treasurer and designated Talented Young Man of WA Labor. Considered by most good judges to be the best thing the ALP in Western Australia has going for it, there were still some questions over his youth (36 years old), his experience (he’d never been a minister, and had only four years as an MP) and the timing (taking the job more than two years before the next election). But there’s something to be said for political bravery, and screwing his courage to the sticking place young Ben set off to the Right faction in search of support.
And it’s here that we come to the pivot of our story.
In a secret hideaway, the 12-member Right faction decided they would split on the leadership vote 6-all. To save you the time of working that out, the Right effectively decided they would have no collective influence on the ballot — cancelling each other out in a fit of debilitating indecision. Not content with that, when the Talented Young Man showed up to hawk his wares in the leadership contest, they somehow contrived to give the impression that he had 11 votes in his column and only one against.
The difference between 11 and 6 in a ballot needing 19 votes to win is not, shall we say, insignificant. What no one can seem to say with any confidence is just how Wyatt came to that belief; whether he was misled or simply misheard is one for the eventual biographies of those who were there. What is known for sure is that Wyatt promptly launched his challenge and then withdrew, doing himself no favours and leaving the faction looking rather silly after his withdrawal.
From this display of numerical prowess a few grumblings were heard, grumblings that came to a head last Friday. Five of the 12 “Right” MPs announced they were leaving to join their four excommunicated brethren in the “New Right”, on the basis that a faction that voted 9-0 was better than one voting 6-6. This was done with the consultation of the powerful SDA, whose Upper House member Helen Bullock had already joined the “New Right” six months before. (The fact that Bullock’s husband Joe is the state secretary of the SDA, and a formerly sworn enemy of the “New Right”, only adds to the confusion. But please, do try and keep up).
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All this has left the remaining seven “Right” MPs rather out in the cold, surprised by events to the extent that at least one of them found out about it by reading the paper the next day. One can only imagine what the Left thinks of it all; say what you will about the Left in WA, but they’ve stayed disciplined throughout Opposition and must rather tire of the shenanigans in Unity. The newly merged “Right”/”New Right” grouping insists it’s open to more Right MPs joining as they see fit, but even the atmosphere of a four-day love-in in the state’s north hasn’t as yet proved convincing to any of the magnificent seven. Liberal Premier Colin Barnett? He’s got a 14-point poll lead and a wedge called uranium yet to play.
And spare a thought for Paul Papalia, until yesterday the spokesman for Correctional Services. The well-regarded frontbencher, one of very few Labor MPs to formulate a credible policy response in what is a graveyard portfolio for oppositions, found himself on the wrong side of the leadership divide and was yesterday promptly sacked for his pains. Such is life, as they say.
So half the band is back together in the Right, the Left look on with bemusement and a third of the shadow frontbench have been either sacked or forcibly relieved of their factional duties. The Liberals are in power and normal service, so it would seem, has been resumed in WA. So they beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past …