Western Australian politics received its biggest shake-up in years yesterday when Rudd-Gillard government heavyweight Stephen Smith declared his interest in leading the state party out of the wilderness.
Rumours that such a move might be afoot have been bubbling under for some time, reaching a new pitch last week when Labor lobbyist John Halden told a radio interviewer that Smith had been sounded out, and would be amenable if the party room gave him its support.
While some may fault Smith for lacking a certain colour in his public persona, there seems little doubt that his reputation as a heavy hitter with experience outside the fishbowl of state politics would add substantial firepower in an election campaign.
It is also anticipated that Smith’s connections would attract the corporate donations needed to ensure the campaign was able to drive the point home.
To the objection that Smith is not a member of state Parliament, and has no immediate prospect of becoming one, backers of the scheme can readily point to Campbell Newman’s example in sweeping from the Brisbane lord mayoralty to the premiership of Queensland in 2011 and 2012.
The counter argument is that Labor seems to be doing well enough under its existing leader, Mark McGowan.
The most recent Newspoll survey for The Australian, conducted during the last three months of 2015, found Labor opening a 53-47 lead over Colin Barnett’s Coalition government, with McGowan recording a 47% approval rating and maintaining a long-established lead over Barnett as preferred premier.
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Since few other public polls are conducted in Western Australia, Newspoll plays a particularly important role in shaping perceptions of the political horse race, and the wind briefly went out of the sails of the anti-McGowan campaign after the result was published in early January.
However, the full weight of polling conducted through the current term suggests Newspoll was an aberration, and that the parties have, in fact, been evenly placed since the Liberal lead evaporated in the months following Barnett’s re-election in 2013.
Smith’s advocates argue that whatever advantage Labor might enjoy will be insufficient to deliver the 10 seats needed for victory, taking into account unfavourable electoral boundaries and the intensity of the advertising campaign to be waged by a well-funded Liberal Party.
If it’s easy to see why Labor strategists might cast a wistful eye over the Campbell Newman scenario, it should be noted that there is a less auspicious precedent for the federal-to-state leadership switcheroo — one directly relevant to Western Australia, and involving another politician with Foreign Minister on their CV.
When the previous Liberal government was dumped in 2001, the defeated premier Richard Court sought to go out in style by enlisting a rising star of federal politics as his successor: Julie Bishop.
It was widely acknowledged at the time that one of the main objectives was to ensure that the leadership went to “ABC” — “anyone but Colin”, today’s Premier having been a contentious figure in the party at the time.
Unfortunately, the entire scheme was predicated on Barnett agreeing to move to federal politics by swapping seats with Bishop, which no one had consulted him on before Court announced his “long-term strategic plan” to the media.
Barnett’s outraged response promptly put paid to the idea, and the whole fiasco dented Bishop’s prestige for a time, and ensured the party suffered a particularly bumpy transition to opposition.
It’s early days yet, but so far the Stephen Smith campaign has called Bishop to mind more readily than Newman.
When the plan to enlist Campbell Newman was unleashed a year out from Queensland’s 2012 state election, the momentum behind it was such that the then-leader of the Liberal National Party, John-Paul Langbroek, reluctantly relinquished his position to coup plotter Jeff Seeney, who went on to lead the party in Parliament while eschewing the title of opposition leader.
It’s a very different story in the Western Australian ALP, where McGowan appeared before the cameras yesterday with a cross-factional phalanx of state MPs to denounce the move.
Among those present was the party’s deputy leader, Roger Cook, whom Smith had just nominated as a possibility to play Jeff Seeney to his own Campbell Newman.
In the absence of acclamation from the party room, installing Smith as leader from outside Parliament would face formidable procedural hurdles.
A move to depose McGowan as parliamentary leader would initiate an unpredictable leadership election in which half the result would be determined by the party membership, which could be avoided only if the party room was united enough to put forward a single nominee.
Even if half the party room did fall in behind the scheme — and one report today says Smith could have as few as four votes out of 32, while another says “a case could be made for seven or eight” — the party organisation would present him with a second hurdle, given the special rules that would need to be invoked to find him a seat.
Smith indicated yesterday that the outer southern suburbs seat of Baldivis would suit his purposes, since it has been newly created by the redistribution and does not have a sitting member.
The problem with this is that the preselection has been sewn up for McGowan’s chief media adviser, Reece Whitby.
Resolving such difficulties would require backing for Smith from the leading unions in the party organisation, of which only the Right faction Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association appears to be on board.
Public support for McGowan yesterday from Roger Cook and the party’s upper house leader, Sue Ellery, signalled that he retains the loyalty of the biggest union on the Left, United Voice. Sources also say indicate that Smith also faces entrenched opposition from the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union on the Left, and the Australian Workers’ Union on the Right.
For such reasons, the ambitions Smith articulated yesterday were carefully limited to putting himself at the party’s disposal, should his services be required.
Conversely, McGowan’s take on the situation is that the matter will be definitively put to rest if the party room endorses his leadership when it meets on Tuesday, as clearly it will.
It may be that Smith’s intervention will ultimately be vindicated — that the party room will indeed conclude that McGowan is leading them to a place short of victory, and that Smith will ultimately deliver what would have been beyond McGowan’s grasp.
If not, Smith will wear responsibility for a disruptive exercise in self-indulgence that succeeded only in putting McGowan’s years of hard work in establishing Labor’s competitiveness at risk.
And in either scenario, he has presented the party with a distraction as it saddles up for a federal election it stands little chance of winning unless it can improve on its miserably low base in Western Australia.