PERHAPS IT’S SOMETHING in the desalinated Perth water, but the WA branch of the ALP must have a death wish; not content with the departure of a Senator and all of its lower house MPs ahead of this year’s federal election, some at WA Labor have orchestrated an attempt by former Defence minister Stephen Smith to lead the state party from outside Parliament ahead of an election next year. Even if it succeeds, it will all end in tears.
As senior ALP figures go, Stephen Smith is about as likeable — and as uncontroversial — as they get; in fact, during five years of publishing discussion pieces in this column, I have only ever found cause to focus on him directly just once: and perhaps in something of an omen, given what he has been up to in the past few days, that particular article noted a truly bizarre “opinion” piece that appeared in the Sunshine Coast Daily in late 2011, and which inexplicably implied he had spent time in a relationship with a dominatrix.
Nobody seemed to know what to make of it then, and I suspect anyone who recalls the piece is none the wiser now.
But as bizarre machinations go, what Smith has been up to in Western Australia — agitating to seize the leadership of the state ALP, from outside Parliament, to lead it into next year’s state election and become Premier (requiring a 10% two-party swing and an extra 10 seats in WA’s 59-seat lower house) — is simply astonishing.
That the apparent putsch by Smith to make a Campbell Newman-style foray into state politics without a seat in Parliament has been thwarted — for now — speaks volumes for the solidarity of his state counterparts, and their determination not to be shaken out of the kind of mediocre complacency that is so reflective of a federal party “led” by Bill Shorten: present state leader Mark McGowan performed impressively on a personal basis in 2013, just as his party received a comprehensive belting from voters, but the conduct of WA Labor ever since has been increasingly indicative of an approach based simply on waiting for Colin Barnett’s Liberals to fall over and die.
But it also seems clear that despite the shadow Cabinet unanimously closing ranks around McGowan — and Smith said to be able to garner just a handful of votes from the 32-strong state Caucus — the move to replace the former with the latter has been merely deferred, not abandoned.
To be sure, Western Australia is a basket case for the Labor Party, and that particular picnic seems unlikely to be unpacked any time soon.
Boasting just three of the 15 federal lower house seats in WA — a tally that does not increase on provisionally redistributed boundaries that will see the state command an extra seat from this year’s election onward — Labor has already been forced to endure the political embarrassment of all three of its MPs announcing their retirements from politics, deserting the ship in a rank humiliation of their “leader” that has delivered a clear indication of Labor’s likely election prospects in the process.
This evacuation of Labor’s federal ranks in the West was compounded by the resignation of one of its three Senators in Joe Bullock; whilst many in the ALP will not be sorry to see Bullock depart, of course, it still means that of the six elected representatives Labor could muster in its weakest state after the last election, two-thirds of them have jumped ship.
It’s not a good look.
But even with the limitations of McGowan’s leadership that have grown so evident over the past few years, the Barnett government looked like it would provide WA Labor with a silver lining; hit hard by the end of the resources boom, mired in ballooning debt as its export-dependent economy withers, and led by an ageing Premier with no obvious successor with Christian Porter now a federal MP, expectations on the ALP side (and among many Coalition hardheads) was that Barnett’s government would lose, however narrowly, the state election that is now just a year away.
In this context, the nonsense of the Smith leadership push is ridiculous.
One, it seems clear that for Smith to become leader in this unorthodox fashion, a huge amount of bad blood is going to have to be shed: not a helpful internal component in any serious bid to win a state election from opposition at the best of times, let alone when a 10% swing is required.
Two, the “template” most recently pioneered by Campbell Newman in Queensland — switching from City Hall in Brisbane to George Street — should be a warning to those who would emulate it, not a masterstroke to be adapted and redeployed: whilst far from a neophyte, Newman’s experience of state politics on becoming Premier was exactly zero (as is Smith’s) and the same political problems that befell Newman (who never really stopped being Lord Mayor of Brisbane in terms of style) could be expected to afflict Smith (who spent decades in federal politics and was twice a federal minister, which is in no way a comparable vocation to state politics).
Three, the Queensland LNP went into the 2012 state election needing a swing of just over 4% to get the 12 seats it needed to win; WA Labor approaches next year’s election needing more than double the swing to get 10 seats, which is a difficult ask at the best of times.
Four, Newman was co-opted into state Parliament to seal what shaped as a likely election win that some believed (mistakenly, in my view) was in jeopardy of being squandered under the leader he replaced; circumstances in WA are very different, and even with consistently favourable polls for the past 18 months or so, a Labor victory early next year is arguably far less certain than the one the LNP was always lined up to record in Queensland in 2012.
And finally, the prospect of a protracted leadership struggle — with Smith and his backers wearing down resistance through attrition — is likely to compound federal Labor’s chances in what has been its worst state for years; reputable polling over the past few months has seen the Coalition vote recover to the point the Liberals are likely to hold all (or almost all) of the 12 lower house seats they are defending, and perhaps win the new seat of Burt, too; in fact, when the resignations of its three lower house MPs are taken into consideration, there is a very real risk that Labor’s federal lower house presence could be cut to a single seat in Western Australia, and if that occurs it will be almost impossible to make up much ground overall at all, let alone install Bill Shorten in The Lodge.
In any case, Smith — already 60 years old, and set to turn 61 before next year’s election — hardly constitutes a long-term prospect for the state ALP, which means that if he succeeds in tearing McGowan down, then sooner rather than later Labor will be faced with the same dilemma that confronts the Liberal Party, with an ageing Premier leading a party with no obvious replacement.
After all, with just 21 lower house seats, McGowan presides over a shallow pond in which the talent quotient does not run deep; for Smith to succeed, McGowan’s viability as a leadership prospect down the track will be seriously (if not fatally) compromised just as John-Paul Langbroek’s was in Queensland, and Labor’s leadership stocks in WA are arguably much thinner than the LNP’s are now, its present leadership contortions notwithstanding.
You really have to wonder whether some at WA Labor simply have a political death wish.
Historically, WA has been far less unfriendly to the ALP than recent state and federal returns suggest; in fact, Labor has formed government in the state for roughly half the time since the party’s inception, and held half or more of the federal seats in the state as recently as 1998.
There is clear scope for the ALP, in favourable circumstances, to make hefty gains in Western Australia at both the state and federal level over the next year, even if it falls short of overthrowing Barnett at an election.
In this sense, and far from a masterstroke designed to seal victory for Labor, Smith’s machinations seem more like a puzzling plot designed to sabotage and then destroy his own party.
Even if he succeeds in dispatching McGowan, Smith’s victory will be a hollow one indeed: very likely to end in tears, bitter recriminations, and crushing defeat.