Robert Duffield, The Bulletin, September 12, 1978, pp. 24-26.
Not since the Labor Party of 1954 has an established political group torn itself apart so savagely as the National Country Party of WA has in the past few weeks.
The result after all this self-torture is that the party has cut off its president to spite its parliamentary face. And Lang Hancock now has a new political party to play with.
Its members will be the best and brightest of the former NCP ranks, and because they are bright they will not be “Hancock men.” But the word is that he will continue to finance them because they have had the courage to take an independent stand against the “Court men” in the cabinet: NCP leader Dick Old and his deputy, Peter Jones.
The events leading up to this situation are a book in anybody’s language, although the man most likely to write it is David Oxer, the consultant who has been in both the foreground and the background of NCP strategy since 1975, when the party’s confrontation course was set.
That was the year that Sir Charles Court refused to accept basic policies of his coalition partners on commodity marketing. That crisis meant the resignation meant the resignation of Ray McPharlin and his deputy Matt Stephens from the cabinet and the leadership, and the substitution of Old and Jones.
Old and Jones are as close to the Liberal line as any Liberal. And that’s what the fight has been about since Lang Hancock saw the chance to fuel-inject the NCP into a more independent, more metropolitan-oriented, more free-enterprise, and above all, a less Court-oriented party.
Apart from David Oxer’s previously-developed master strategy for a younger and more virile party, depending for some of its support on the near-city electorates, Hancock had going for him the strong spirit of independence which has always existed in the NCP of WA.
This spirit is best exemplified by Jim Fletcher, narrowly re-elected president of the conventional NCP early this month, but who has since resigned to be administrative leader of the new party. With him have gone Matt Stephens, Hendy Cowan and Edna Adams, leaving the NCP “loyalists” as a very pale band indeed.
The fact is, then, that there are now two country parties, although the new one, so long as it depends on Hancock’s aegis, is likely to choose a new name.
What Hancock had hoped to do was to woo the entire NCP into giving the “bureaucracy” of Sir Charles Court a lot of curry, albeit within the coalition. In the event, Sir Charles warned the rebels that they were no longer within the coalition.
It was not part of the new party’s strategy to sit on the cross-benches for the sake of sitting on the cross-benches. But that is its only realistic position, even though some of its members do not yet seem to accept it.
It is now very possible, however, that the new party could hold the balance of power following the expected retirement of Sir Charles, now 68, before or after next year’s election. At this election the new party hopes to pick up at least three more seats.
The story behind the story is that of a party which cannot make up its mind. “It is probably the most democratic party in Australia,” one sage observes, “but that is also its downfall. It decides everything by committee, but what this means is that one committee may overrule another, so that nobody really knows who’s really in charge.”
That is how it has been over the recent weeks of self-torture. At one point the NCP State council re-elected Jim Fletcher as president; at another Jim Fletcher resigned, because somewhere in the middle his position had become untenable.
There is no secret about what happened in the middle. Bert Crane, who virtually had the casting vote for or against the Fletcher-Cowan move to change the old Jones leadership of the NCP’s parliamentary party, cast it against change and then alleged that he had been offered a “bribe” of $50,000 to vote Fletcher’s way.At first Crane refused to say who had offered him the money, but under parliamentary privilege he said it was Fletcher. The money, Crane said, was for election expenses to help him hold the potentially swinging seat of Moore — one of the key seats in the Oxer strategy of holding NCP areas which have a big metropolitan factor in their make-up.
The Crane allegations did the trick. Now there was no way for the NCP to go except in different directions. Dick Old made a cosmetic plea for party unity, but at the same time Fletcher, Cowan, Stephens and the others were forming the new group.
The future of this group is in doubt. Matt Stephens is known as one of the brightest politicians in the parliament; Hendy Cowan as one of the MPs most committed to the country electorates. Some other electoral councils are rallying behind them and Jim Fletcher, but those of Dick Old and Peter Jones so far are remaining loyal to them.
What many people are asking is: is there room of two country parties in Western Australia?
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- Wake Up Australia: Excerpts Part 1
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- 1982 NYT Lang Hancock profile
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- Lang Hancock complains to Margaret Thatcher about Malcolm Fraser
- 'Phony crisis' seen as 'child of politics'
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- Lang Hancock beats the left at their own game on civil liberties
- Lang Hancock's Favourite Books
- 1977 Lang Hancock Canberoo poem
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- Lang Hancock in 1984 solves Australian politics
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- Australian elections are one of the greatest con games in history
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