After returning to Opposition and electing a new Leader, Marc Bean, one has to ask what this means for the PLP now, and what direction are they heading?
While the influence of the Leader over the party (members and supporters) is an open question, I do think that the Leader does have a good degree of influence in as much as they help shape the general direction, ideologically, of the party, as well general parliamentary strategy (both in appointing Senators, the Shadow Cabinet, and in more general terms). Whether the Leader is able to maintain the entire party, convincing them of the new ideological direction, or if the Leader will see some elements of the party become distant or even break away altogether, remains to be seen.
Mr Bean is relatively new to our politics, first coming to prominence as a Senator under Dr Brown, later winning the by-election created by Dr Brown’s resignation, and subsequently becoming the Minister of Environment, Planning and Infrastructure Strategy under Ms Cox and retaining his seat in the recent general election. Due to his relative lack of experience I was quite surprised that he was elected Leader, although I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had been made Deputy Leader at this time.
Nonetheless, he is now Leader, and it may prove useful to get a clearer understanding of what he stands for, and what this may mean for the PLP over the next period.
There are two observations that I have of Mr Bean at the moment.
One is a matter of parliamentary problems, the other is that of ideological direction.
The first is that he may have difficulty commanding the PLP’s parliamentary group.
The revelation that the parliamentary group met in advance of the special delegates conference – contrary to the PLP’s constitution, at least in spirit – and selected Mr Terry Lister as their preferred Leader (Mr Bean, and a few others apparently abstained from the vote), would indicate that Mr Bean does not hold the confidence of the parliamentary group at this time, despite public appearances.
While the stakes are not so high at the moment, with the party being in the Opposition, Mr Bean will have to act with some skill to prevent factional challenges and schisms in the party.
The first test of his leadership will be the selection of a Speaker for the House of Assembly. With the OBA only having a slim majority, neither party wants to reduce their parliamentary power by losing an MP in the form of the Speaker (who only votes to break deadlocks).
The OBA is not stupid, and for all their talk of wanting a ‘new way of doing business’, they will have observed the potential to stir factions within the PLP that the above noted incident presents. Furthermore, they can see an opportunity to undermine the PLP Leader’s authority, reduce the effectiveness of the PLP as Opposition AND present the appearance of bipartisanship.
I would expect the OBA to offer the Speaker position to a PLP MP, one whom they feel would be unhappy with the election of Mr Bean as Leader. The obvious contender here would be Mr Terry Lister, but one cannot rule out another contender, most likely someone who plans to retire at the end of this parliamentary session and so feels he/she has nothing to lose in terms of political capital.
If Mr Bean can prevent factional problems (of which the question of the Speaker will only be the first test), and if he proves himself an able strategist, then the PLP can become an effective Opposition, he can rebrand and rebuild the PLP in his own vision, and, theoretically, could bring down the Government and initiate an earlier than expected general election and come back to power.
If he loses a member to the Speaker position this all becomes so much more difficult, and his authority will be increasingly questioned. I would expect him, in this case, to limp on and try to re-establish his authority, but with a likely leadership challenge in the run-up to the next ‘regular’ general election in approximately 2017.
The next question that will face Mr Bean – and which is of particular interest to me – is what does he represent in an ideological sense? In what direction will he take the PLP?