Following mass layoffs at the state election in March, Western Australia’s Liberals have a lucrative new position to fill when their state council convenes next weekend to anoint a successor to retired senator Chris Back.
The winner will complete a Senate term that expires in mid-2019, and be all but guaranteed one of the unloseable top two positions on the party’s ticket at the next election. Whereas the myriad preselections that precede general elections are influenced by deals, carve-ups and quid pro quos, a mid-term Senate vacancy is a winner-take-all contest that can offer a particularly clear picture of where the balance of power truly lies.
In this case, it looks like being a demonstration of the growing power of Mathias Cormann — and of the fact that the WA Liberals have a long way to go if they’re to shake off their reputation as a boys’ club.
The short-priced favourite is Slade Brockman, who spent nearly eight years before the last election working for Cormann, first in opposition as his chief-of-staff and then in government as a ministerial adviser.
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Brockman is backed by a network that encompasses Cormann himself along with two state politicians, Peter Collier and Nick Goiran, who are respectively noted for their influence in party branches in Perth’s northern and southern suburbs.
Party observers say this alliance carries more than enough clout to put together a majority on state council, a body dominated by branch delegates in a manner conducive to the influence of motivated and well-organised professional players — and which determines Senate preselections without the complication of a direct vote by the membership.
Goiran in particular is of a familiar breed of emerging Liberal numbers men who have marshalled evangelical Christian support in local branches, having begun his political involvement with the Australian Christians, formerly known as Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party.
His roots in the rival conservative party go deep: his father, Gerard Goiran, was its state president and a regular election candidate (and more recently worked for defeated Liberal MP Peter Abetz, brother of Senator Eric Abetz); his mother, Madeleine Goiran, was one of its candidates at the state election in March; and his critics complain of wholesale recruitment of the party’s members into Liberal branches as part of his empire-building.
The ideological dimensions to the Liberals’ internal politics are not always clearly defined, but it’s noticeable that the state division lacks a powerful moderate tendency of the kind that looms large in New South Wales.
This has been particularly apparent at federal level since two prominent wets, Judi Moylan and Mal Washer, bowed out in 2013, bequeathing their seats to Christian Porter and Ian Goodenough, both associated with the Right.
The state party’s senior federal figure, Julie Bishop, is now identified as a moderate by virtue of her alliance with Malcolm Turnbull, but it wasn’t always thus — her sponsors at the start of her political career included Noel Crichton-Browne, the controversial hard right numbers man whose reign officially came to an end following an ungentlemanly exchange with a female journalist.
However, Bishop is no ally of Cormann’s, and was mentioned as a potential supporter of two prospective rivals to Slade Brockman, both of whom withdrew.
Among the progressive causes that clearly doesn’t excite much interest among the state party’s dominant conservatives is gender equality, which the Senate preselection will demonstrate regardless of the outcome.
Since the state election, the WA Liberals have had just three women out of 22 members in the state Parliament, along with a federal contingent numbering five out of 16.
As Latika Bourke of Fairfax reported on the weekend, all five nominees for the Senate position are men — partly because one seemingly well-credentialed aspirant, Erin Watson-Lynn, director of AsiaLink Diplomacy at the University of Melbourne, withdrew after recognising she could not gain the required support.
Of Brockman’s four rivals, it’s perhaps telling that two felt their best shot was to make explicit pitches to the right on their nominations, with former state MP Michael Sutherland promising to combat “the ceaseless propaganda of the ABC and other groups who support the left”.
Another, Bunbury businessman Gabi Ghasseb, spruiked his Christian faith and pro-life credentials — while also noting, if he did say so himself, that he was “keenly receptive to women’s intuition”.