PM Morrison goes in search of lost Liberals in Western Australia

PM Morrison goes in search of lost Liberals in Western Australia


The glass doors to Perth’s convention centre slide open, disgorging a prime minister, fresh from promising $200 million for hydrogen projects and telling Western Australia’s mining brahmans that the Pilbara “is the world’s greatest mining region”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison leaves the press conference at Perth Convention Centre.Credit:Duncan Wright

The jaw is thrust forward beneath Scott Morrison’s signature face mask fashioned from the Australian flag.

Colleagues – senior ministers Michaela Cash and Stuart Robert among them – sweep along with their leader, but he has eyes only for his waiting limousine.

Scott Morrison is in a hurry. He has to be.

He has a lot of nervous Liberal WA state branch members and federal colleagues who want to know if he can lead them out of the near dead-end street in which their party has found itself in the west, or at least to stop any more rot. It is a heavy load.

Once, not so long ago, a Liberal prime minister could rely on serious party muscle to carry the weight in Western Australia. Mathias Cormann took care of the right-wing factions, raised funds when needed and played prefect in the conservative religious pool with a sub-faction known as The Clan.

Julie Bishop could throw a serious WA society fundraiser at the drop of a serviette. The gatherings were often at her splendid Subiaco electorate office which had previously served as the Mediterranean Restaurant, a noted playground in the boom years of Perth’s testosterone-fuelled rich and infamous.

The money raised by Bishop – $200,000 an evening from a typical dinner for 20 – was available to be spread across Perth’s Liberal electorates, for she had captured the wealthy seat of Curtin so successfully that she didn’t need the money to hold it.

And there was Christian Porter, a player across the factions who many West Australians firmly believed would be prime minister one day.

All past tense. These days, much of the glamour has gone.

Fundraising and campaigning are problematic, with most local Liberal MPs and their squadrons of staffers swept away. The factions have been in a simmering war after 700 pages of text messages among members of The Clan – including Cormann – were leaked last September, gloating about legal branch-stacking adventures.

Bishop left politics after the boys’ club made sure she was sidelined during the dealing for Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership, won by Morrison.

Cormann, who backed Peter Dutton in the mayhem, proving his famed counting skills weren’t faultless, is now in Europe as Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, trying to persuade nations to adopt a carbon tax, which he had spent much of his career opposing in Australia.

Christian Porter, former attorney-general, his political promise in ruins after he refused to say who was behind a blind trust established to pay his legal bills after a defamation case against the ABC, has gone, too.

Anthony Albanese’s ALP, on the hunt for any seats that could shift the coming federal election, senses opportunity in the heavyweight absences from Morrison’s Liberal team in Western Australia.

Labor strategists think they can pick up two seats: Pearce, left vacant by Porter, and Swan, vacant also with the retirement of Steve Irons, a Liberal who once shared a Canberra flat with Morrison. They hope for a third, suburban Hasluck next door to Swan, occupied on a margin of 5.9 per cent by Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt.

Indeed, a couple of hours after Morrison’s appearance at the convention centre on Tuesday, Albanese’s deputy, Richard Marles, turned up at a TAFE in Hasluck to announce, with ALP candidate Tania Lawrence, a promise of more than $3 million for a wind turbine training facility.

Candidate for Hasluck Tania Lawrence, State Education Minister Sue Ellery and Deputy Labour Leader Richard Marles hold a press conference at North-Metro Tafe, Midland in the seat of Hasluck.Credit:Duncan Wright

Even Tangney, the seat of federal frontbencher and confidant of Morrison, Ben Morton, seems under pressure.

The professor of politics and international relations at Notre Dame University, Martin Drum, has a theory that Labor is pursuing a clever strategy rather than a serious challenge to a seat that sits on a 9.5 per cent margin.

During the last federal election, Morton was one of Morrison’s key strategists and had his eyes and ears on WA.

But with Labor throwing significant resources into the rapidly gentrifying electorate to assist ALP candidate Sam Lim, a diversity engagement officer with WA Police, Morton, says Drum, will be tied to his electorate and unable to travel or help Morrison easily.

Labor may be on the hunt, but from the first days of the election campaign, Albanese appeared to have a significant adversary in the west, and Morrison had an influential friend.

The West Australian, owned by billionaire businessman Kerry Stokes’ Seven West Media, is Perth’s only local daily newspaper. Stokes also owns The Sunday Times, giving the group a seven-day monopoly.

In the first week of the campaign, the paper’s front page openly taunted Albanese following his much-publicised blunder over official interest rates and employment figures.

“DOES HE KNOW HIS A*** FROM HIS ALBO?“, screamed one front page.

By contrast, the West Australian devoted its front page on Monday this week to a picture taken by Morrison’s personal photographer showing the prime minister busily writing notes on his plane. “PM’S BLUEPRINT FOR PERTH” a huge headline shouted, foreshadowing Morrison’s intention to praise WA’s “centrality to the national economy”.

A man reads The West Australian at Dome Cafe, Midland in the seat of Hasluck.Credit:Duncan Wright

Next it was “THE PM FOR HYDROGEN”.

By Wednesday, however, when Albanese let it be known he would launch his official election campaign in Perth – the first time for any major party, and a strong signal of Labor’s faith that the west might deliver – the West Australian went full-bore parochial.

“THE CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSE,” it cried across its front page, complete with graphic showing a map of Western Australia dwarfing the planets.

“Yes, your vote means THAT MUCH as Albo to launch campaign in WA,” read the sub-heading.

Western Australia, of course, only began emerging last month from the cocoon in which it existed for the previous two years.

Masks are required almost everywhere. To be served in a restaurant, you need a stamp on your arm proving your vaccination status before you can be served.

Western Australia, in short, is only beginning to adjust to the idea – exotic to locals – of living with a pandemic to which most Australians have long become accustomed.

And now they have a federal election being thrust upon them from the east.

Perth is a state capital of around 2 million, powered by the mining industry, but unless you have driven the stupifying distance of the Nullarbor it is difficult to understand just how isolated it is. To the west, across the Indian Ocean, is Africa. To the east, 2700km away, the next capital city is Adelaide.

St. Georges Terrace in Perth’s CBD. Credit:Duncan Wright

This is a place that has always played by its own rules.

Everything that went before, however, became unrecognisable, at least politically, during the 697 days when the rest of Australia and the world itself was kept out to preserve the west’s COVID-free life.

This is a place that has always played by its own rules.

The state Liberal vote collapsed in a way never previously imagined at last year’s state election, the party stumbling out with precisely two seats in the parliament’s lower house.

Labor, led by Premier Mark McGowan, whose insistence on keeping the borders closed earned him stratospheric approval ratings, emerged with 53 of the 59 Legislative Assembly seats.

What remains unknown, and is causing Liberal strategists sleepless nights, is whether Liberal voters who ditched their party for Labor last year will switch back in large enough numbers to restore some dignity to the Liberal name in the approaching federal election.

Which is why, when Scott Morrison came to the Perth convention centre to deliver his key speech to the movers and shakers of WA’s Chamber of Minerals and Energy, he briefly and deliberately diverted from his written notes to deliver a carefully crafted message.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at The Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia Perth Convention Centre.Credit:James Brickwood

“Don’t kid yourselves about this,” Morrison told the miners in that one unscripted moment. “Federal Labor under Anthony Albanese is not the same as state Labor under Mark McGowan. They are two completely different things. They have very little in common, especially when it comes to these important economic issues that are important to the future of Western Australia.”

Labor’s decision to launch its campaign in Perth, then, will go some way to blunting Morrison’s attempt to persuade West Australians to differentiate between “good” McGowan and “bad” Albanese.

It will mean that McGowan will stand in the floodlights alongside Albanese and declare, loudly, that they have the Labor Party and its values in common.

Meanwhile, Morrison has another pressing problem.

In what has been one of the safest Liberal strongholds in metropolitan Australia – Julie Bishop’s old, immensely wealthy beachside seat of Curtin – a woman of a high-powered Perth Liberal dynasty is standing as an independent, doing her best to end the Liberal Party’s historic hold on the electorate.

Independent for Curtin, Kate Chaney at a supporters meeting in Claremont Quarter.Credit:Duncan Wright

Kate Chaney is the granddaughter of Sir Frederick Chaney, minister for the navy in the Menzies government and later lord mayor of Perth. Her uncle, Fred Chaney Jnr, was a minister in Malcolm Fraser’s government and deputy leader of the federal Liberal Party under Andrew Peacock. Her father is Michael Chaney, former Chancellor of the university of Western Australia, former chair of NAB and current chair of Wesfarmers.

Kate Chaney herself has quite a CV: corporate lawyer, MBA, Aboriginal affairs and sustainability manager with Wesfarmers, and director of innovation and strategy at Anglicare.

And just like prominent female independent candidates in bayside Melbourne and Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Chaney wants to get rid of a sitting Liberal MP.

In her case, it’s backbencher Celia Hammond, former vice-chancellor of Notre Dame University, who was originally backed to represent Curtin by Cormann and The Clan, to the great annoyance of Bishop.

Chaney’s biggest problem in this bluest of blue-ribbon Liberal seats is that last year, she says, she awoke at 4am and decided she had to explore the political system. She joined the Labor Party.

She says she attended only one breakfast where Labor’s Penny Wong was the guest speaker, and decided “it was just more of them same us and them”. Still, she knows it will be used against her.

Surrounded by supporters wearing her aqua-coloured t-shirts (“not teal, aqua”), she says she never imagined seeking a political career, but having worried for years about inaction on climate change, she decided when approached “if not me, then who”.

Which might well be Scott Morrison’s own mantra as he seeks to restore the Liberal brand in a state that appears from some angles to have almost forsaken it.

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