In April a po-faced Cottesloe mayor Kevin Morgan was asked by a staffer from the West Australian Premier’s office to move away from Colin Barnett because he was ruining the photo opportunity with his disapproving glare. Morgan was seething at the beachside press conference where Barnett was talking up the new taller limits to building heights the state government had imposed along Cottesloe’s iconic beachfront, overriding the will of the local council.
So it would have been mixed feelings of justice-about-to-be-served and trepidation that Morgan announced last week he was challenging Barnett for his long-held seat of Cottesloe at the March 9 state election as an independent candidate.
Building height is just one simmering point of contention between Morgan and Barnett. The most bitter is the proposed amalgamation of smaller West Australian local councils to form larger regional authorities, which Cottesloe also vehemently opposes.
Western Australia’s equivalent to Sydney’s Bondi Beach, Cottesloe is part of an enclave of well-to-do western suburb councils which have banded together under the Western Suburbs Alliance to oppose the super councils which Barnett — or “the Emperor” as he is known — is determined to achieve. They include Perth’s most prestigious postcode, Peppermint Grove, with less than 2000 ratepayers who would no doubt lose their personalised rubbish bin collection service if the shire was swallowed by a super council.
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Greens candidate Cameron Poustie confirms on his Facebook page what most commentators are thinking: that the fiery Morgan has a hell of a battle on his hands to unseat Barnett. Poustie welcomes him as a distraction for Barnett, forcing the Premier to campaign harder in his own electorate and sapping time and energy from marginal seats. But as part of the Western Suburbs Alliance, Morgan may have more pull than observers initially give him credit, especially if he rides the groundswell of opposition to amalgamation throughout the western suburbs. And he will not be alone.
Nedlands is another of the aligned councils, where mayor Max Hipkins is a chance of ousting Environment Minister Bill Marion when he runs as an independent. Churchlands is the third, where another independent Wayne Monks is campaigning for the seat of Churchlands vacated by for Liberal-turned-independent Dr Liz Constable.
The Alliance and the Premier are clearly on a collision course in his very own blue-ribbon backyard and the March election will be point of impact. Barnett held the seat of Cottesloe with a 15.8% margin in the 2008 election but this week was booed leaving an Alliance-organised community meeting where amalgamation and other “anti-democratic” state government strategies were on the agenda.
Morgan says if the Barnett government succeeds with amalgamation it will silence the voices of opposition which are so demonstrable in the western suburbs. “I figured someone should at least tell people the direction they should be heading because if they don’t the seven communities that make up the electorate of Cottesloe will essentially be wiped off the map after the election,” he told Crikey. “I’ve seen councils just flicked out the wayside by dictatorial state government and there’s not anything any local council can do about it. I’d probably have to do a [Steven] Bradbury and someone would have to fall over to win but I wouldn’t put that past me.”
Labor’s election candidates won’t be named until December. But a tweet from Labor MLA Ben Wyatt the day after Morgan’s nomination shows the gutsy mayor will be not only have to win over voters to claim Cottesloe but also The West Australian, the state’s only daily newspaper, which seems increasingly reluctant to upset the government:
“Independent mayor runs against Labor in Kwinana makes front page. Independent mayor against Liberal in Nedlands makes page 28. Independent mayor against premier not in the paper”.
It’s noteworthy too that the paper’s editorial, applauding Cottesloe’s new increased building heights on the day of Barnett’s announcement, bore a striking similarity to the Premier’s press release on the issue.
Barnett told Crikey he did not want to comment on Morgan’s candidacy or amalgamation as an election issue. He has held Cottesloe since 1990, climbing to become Liberal leader in 2001 before being dumped after losing the 2005 election on the back of grandiose plans to build a water canal almost the length of the state from the Kimberley to Perth.
While warming the backbench waiting for his retirement he made one of the most remarkable comebacks in Australian political history in 2008, replacing Troy Buswell, who had sniffed a seat and snapped a bra strap too many. By the end of September he was premier in the election Labor lost with its sneaky snap-election tactics.
Buswell almost equals Barnett for sensationalism political comebacks; after his ousting as leader in 2008, he resigned as treasurer in 2010 after a secret affair with Greens MP Adele Carles, but has once again taken his place as Barnett’s right-hand man and Treasurer.