While there was no shortage of bad poker faces among Liberal ministers unsuccessfully trying to not gloat about Labor’s unfolding leadership drama on Monday, the thinkers among them would have to be worried about what has transpired in the state opposition over the last few days.
The first concern for the Liberals is that Mark McGowan got a lot of media coverage out of the ordeal. Indeed, one of the questions in a late night national radio quiz asked callers to name the two players involved in the showdown.
This might not seem like much, but in opposition it is genuinely very difficult to get free media coverage of any kind – evident by the numerous non-WA callers who had no idea who Mark McGowan is. The event has certainly given the McGowan brand a much-needed boost.
Secondly, he won. But he didn’t just win – he stared down his challenger without the need for a vote. Like two wild bulls squaring up to fight for the affection of the heard, Stephen Smith took a good look at the incumbent, put his tail between his legs and ran away without any blood-letting.
Sure, David Attenborough would be more eloquent, but the fact is in nature, everyone likes a winner and Mark McGowan can now rightfully claim to be one.
Lastly and perhaps the most significant thing that should be scaring the Liberal thinkers is the way the whole ALP appeared to unite and pull together in a time of crisis. Backbenchers lined up on talkback radio, front benchers came out to declare their support – they worked like the well-oiled machine tax-payers (aka voters) expect of a government.
Compare that to the way the Barnett-Birney-Omodei-Buswell-Barnett Liberal opposition constantly knifed each other before Colin Barnett was revived and brought back from retirement to re-take the leadership only weeks before the Carpenter government fell in 2008.
And think about the way the whole state ALP caucus united (in public at least) behind their rather uncharismatic leader who then publicly thanked them for their loyalty. Contrast that with the way Colin Barnett has routinely contradicted a number of his own backbenchers and senior ministers all through this term.
Given there has long been noise suggesting Colin Barnett still holds the Liberal leadership simply because there is no one else and Liza Harvey was elected deputy only weeks ago without having the reassurance of actually winning the position, there’s a lot to be said for the value of Mark McGowan being seen to have faced a credible challenger and winning.
Whether the public has an appetite for internal political shenanigans or not, the fact is that the sometimes brutal path to parliamentary leadership is necessary to build both the character of the individuals involved and the public’s confidence that the person who finally gets to wear the sheriff’s badge is strong enough to stand up under fire.
A case in point are the so-called “Primaries” in the lead up to the US presidential election. Every four years, those running for the candidacy of both major parties spend several months tearing each other apart on a very public stage.
While to many that process appears to damage both the candidates and the parties they hope to lead, the end result is two presidential candidates who have been tried and tested in the most difficult of circumstances and earned the full support of their respective parties going into the election.
If a week is a long time in politics, next year’s state election is a millennium away and of course, a lot can happen in that time. Mark McGowan might not be at the pointy end of the ALP by this time next year.
But if he is, this week’s drama will have made him a stronger and more capable adversary to Colin Barnett (or Mike Nahan or whoever holds the Liberal reigns at the time), despite many punters thinking the whole thing looked like just another lame rendition of Lord of the Flies.