Thursday, March 8, 2012

Murray for Murray-Welington? Maybe...

Hearts raced and beads of warm perspiration formed on foreheads yesterday at Liberal Party HQ as the process to assemble the committees to select Lower House candidates for next year's State election got underway.

Yeah ok. I over-cooked that one. It really wasn't anywhere nearly as exciting as that.

However, among the staplers, Australian flags and sun-faded photos of the Queen, there was one observation that QBF readers might be interested to hear - the delegates chosen were only to form selection committees "for incumbent seats where there is a single nomination."

Translation: Every current Lower House Liberal MP will be officially endorsed as a Liberal Party candidate within a month - except the second-term Member for Murray-Wellington, Murray Cowper.
As reported in the West Australian newspaper in February, Mr Cowper will be the only sitting Liberal MP to face a challenger for pre-selection in the lead-up to the March 2013 election.

While challenges of this kind aren't completely foreign to Australian politics, they are fraught with danger and because of that, usually made to go away in a quiet backroom deal before they get out of hand. That very real risk is why it's interesting that the Liberal Party Executive has chosen to delay the pre-selection for the seat of Murray-Wellington to some as yet undefined future date.

I appreciate that it's a dangerous time for Members to speak to the QBF, but a particularly courageous and somewhat concerned Liberal Member told me this week that he thought this delay would end in tears. To paraphrase him: the longer an incumbent and his challenger are left in a boxing ring without a referee; the more likely it is to get bloody.

As a keen student of human behaviour, my guess is that anyone who has to wait around without knowing if they have a job for the next four years while everyone around him gets a royal ascent would be thinking hard about, if not developing a "plan B". While Mr Cowper is in Parliament biting his tongue and trying to play it cool, his challenger will be spending his time pointing out why he is a better bet for the Liberal Party than the incumbent. It’s pretty difficult for someone singing their own praises to not be critical of their opponent at some point.

In politics, lying on the ground while you’re being kicked in the head is not a good strategy if you’re trying to sell your worthiness as a tough community leader. If this pre-selection drags on, Mr Cowper will soon be in the unenviable position of having to decide whether or not to respond to his challenger's criticisms and be seen to start a messy public brawl.

With that in mind, perhaps the Liberal powerbrokers’ strategy is to lock away all the uncontroversial seats in an attempt to shield them from stray friendly fire during the inevitable showdown for Murray-Wellington. Or maybe it's nothing more than a plain old-fashioned error of judgement along the lines of "let's just deal with the easy stuff first".

But probably not. I reckon there's been some thinking done about this one.

Given the Premier's incessant devotion to the avoidance of bad media, I wonder what could possibly motivate him to not overrule the decision to delay the Murray-Wellington pre-selection and thereby give his tacit acceptance of the risks floated above.

Having increased his majority at his second successful election in 2008, Murray Cowper is by most measures, a successful local member. However, the Premier evidently doesn't think much of him. As a former Dan Barron-Sullivan devotee, there's still not much love shared between the Member for Murray-Wellington and the Premier. This animosity was hoisted up in lights when Colin Barnett overlooked Mr Cowper and chose to promote the first-term Bill Marmion into Cabinet after Troy Buswell’s temporary fall from grace in 2010.

And it's not only the Premier who isn’t super-cosy with Mr Cowper - there's a fair few members within the wider Parliamentary Liberal Party who see him as a bit, umm, how can I be delicate, clumsy. I know there are others on the front bench befitting this description but in the seven years but since he left his job as a police officer, Murray's enthusiasm has regularly overtaken his intelligence. He's not alone in that regard either but partly because of his imposing externalities and partly because of the speed at which he usually runs into brick walls, when he crashes shrapnel tends to spray widely.

Don't get me wrong, I actually think that he's a genuinely nice guy with some really valuable experience. We've had a couple of conversations over the years that have uncovered a thoughtful, dedicated and principled man - just what I want in my Parliamentarians. But we've also had some dooseys that have shaken my confidence to the core.

One such conversation was just after he had fed an unnecessarily nasty Labor attack on one of his Ministerial colleagues in Parliament. I clearly remember our very heated conversation at the fern garden end of the ground floor corridor in Parliament House. I challenged him to stop and think about what he had just done by facilitating the public bludgeoning of one of his own. I guess the upside to this story is that he proved his local member credentials by telling me his willingness to damage the Government was "because it was in the best interests" of one of his constituents. He argued that he was a strong local member and that meant he would do all he could to help the people who voted for him. When I snapped back with the rhetorical point that he might find it easier to help his constituents if his Party remains in power, he looked a little bewildered and genuinely remorseful.

To see such a physically large, angry guy stop in his tracks and realise the folly of his actions was I must say, a little endearing. Don't get me wrong, I didn't want to give him a hug or anything, but I reckon that was an example of nothing more than a good intention poorly executed - and to me, that's not a hanging offence.

But sadly for Mr Cowper, his over-zealous desire to do good has been far from endearing to many of his Parliamentary colleagues. He is somewhat famous for his many attempts to break a big story under Parliamentary privilege during his time as Shadow Minister for Police only to find out sometime later that his untested source wasn't quite on the money.

Speaking of money, there's also the little issue of the $30,000 that his Parliamentary colleagues lost when they agreed to personally chip in and help him defend his reputation in a he-said-she-said legal fight against one our local newspapers. After much debate and deliberation, the Party Room agreed to help fund the case out of their own pockets and it's an understatement to say many were extremely upset when something happened to convince Mr Cowper to drop the case and cut his losses, or those of his colleagues as it were.

Then there's the little things like this recent email interaction with a constituent over his lobbying to increase the speed limit on the Forest Highway (I replaced details that could identify the constituent with 'X'):

To Minister Buswell & Murray Cowper MP

I remember when on large roadside billboards in meter high black letters there were two words SPEED KILLS sponsored by the Government in the interests of road safety.
Both of you are no brainers as your research shows most people drove just under 110 km/h so when it goes to 110 km/h they will then be travelling at just under 120 km/h.
The rate of survival in a smash at that speed is about 5% & for the sake of vote catching by you two morons peoples lives are going to be at risk.

[some irrelevant ranting removed]

The faster one drives the more likely one will be killed in a smash basic laws of physics.

All of you three fools should have to be on the FESA meat waggon for 6 months seeing the horrors they endure cutting mangled & dead bodies out from smashed vehicles & perhaps you would then lower the freeway limit to 90 km/h.

[some irrelevant ranting removed]

From: "Cowper, Murray" <>
To: X
Sent: Sunday, 4 March 2012 3:14 PM

Dear mister X
How many fatal and serious crashes have you attended over the past 30 years.
If you can beat 113 don't bother responding,
Murray Cowper
Senior sergeant 6141
Sent from my iPhone
Hmmm, I wonder just how genuine Mr Barnett was when he said he would support Mr Cowper's tilt at re-nominating.

My advice to the Party - bring on this pre-selection and make sure Murray Cowper wins or you will endure a messy public fight and may well end up having to negotiate the next hung Parliament with angry Nationals and a vengeful “Liberal Independent” Member for Murray-Wellington.

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