The former West Australian premier, Mr Richard Court, calls it lateral
thinking. His former deputy, Mr Colin Barnett, calls it treachery. Others see it
as a bizarre dodge conceived in panic evidence of the demoralised and
desperate state of Australia's conservatives in the wake of their election
defeats in Western Australia and Queensland this month. On Wednesday Mr Court
persuaded a narrow majority of the surviving State Liberal MPs to elect him
Opposition Leader, but only until the Federal election later this year. Then he
would stand aside in favour of Ms Julie Bishop, now a Federal backbench MP
serving her first term in Parliament and who has no ministerial experience.
It is hard to decide what is sillier: the plan or the devious but hamfisted
manner in which it has been executed. Mr Court's rationale for hanging on for
the best part of a year as a lame duck Opposition leader that is how it will be
seen, however piously he denies it is that this will enable Ms Bishop to serve
out her Canberra term before contesting a State seat. The aim, he admits, is to
avoid the need for a Federal by-election for her seat of Curtin, something that
the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, is anxious to avoid. Mr Howard's concern is
understandable in this political climate, but hardly a sufficient justification
for delaying the urgent work of rebuilding the West Australian Liberal Party
after its election humiliation.
Nobody denies that Ms Bishop is a politician with potential. A lawyer, she
is bright and well thought-of in Canberra. Yet even admirers suspect that Mr
Court is offering her a poisoned chalice. Sensibly, she has not yet formally
committed herself to his plan. There are good reasons for hesitation. The State
Liberal leadership is not within a badly beaten former premier's gift. Before
the Court scenario could become a reality, Ms Bishop would have to win Liberal
preselection for Mr Court's State seat of Nedlands (which her Federal seat
encompasses), win a by-election, and then persuade the party room to choose her,
an untested newcomer, as leader.
None of these steps can be taken for granted, especially not in the ugly
climate created by Mr Court's secretive machinations and by what his deputy of
nine years, Mr Barnett, has publicly denounced as a betrayal. It has not helped
that a Perth newspaper was able to reveal Mr Court's plan before many of his
fellow Liberal MPs had heard about it. Mr Court won Wednesday's leadership
contest against Mr Barnett by only 17 votes to 13. How confident can Ms Bishop
be that her mentor could deliver the votes to her many months from now? The
element of surprise has already been squandered.
A final point, on which Ms Bishop might like to consult Mrs Joan Kirner and
Dr Carmen Lawrence. Why is it that the boys offer leadership to a woman only
when they reckon the cause is lost?