Ever since questions about the credentials of the Member for Darling Range, Barry Urban hit the public domain a week or two ago, I’ve been asked a number of times why Premier Mark McGowan hasn’t acted more swiftly and remove Mr Urban from Parliament.
While I have no specific knowledge of how the Premier and his team are thinking about this issue, one thing for sure is they – like any government – would be doing all they can to nip it in the bud so they can again take control of the public information agenda.
Irrespective of which Party is in power, a government derives no benefit from allowing a relatively minor issue like this one to bubble along and distract from the messages it wants (and needs) “clear air” to sell to the voting public.
As well as it having an impact on the overall perception of the government of the day, unresolved issues like this mean any time a Minister holds a press conference or takes a radio interview to announce an otherwise positive decision that may have taken months or even years of work to prepare, the message they want the public to hear inevitably gets sidelined by questions about the other, much less positive issue.
It is therefore very clearly in the interest of every member of any government to deal with small but potentially negative issues like this one as quickly as possible and move on.
And on the local front, unfortunately for Mr Urban, it almost doesn’t matter what happens next – even if he is able to prove he has not falsified any details of his career or academic history, the perception that will stick will be that he chose to wear medals that were bought rather than earned and that will cast a shadow over everything he says and does from now on. Even as a mere local member, in the medium term at least, everything Mr Urban says will have a shadow of doubt cast over it. Furthermore, when he says something that is the slightest bit inaccurate (that’s a “when” not an “if” because we all make honest mistakes sometimes), there will be suspicions thrown around about his motives and honesty.
Sadly for the current Member for Darling Range, the universally accepted principal that in politics, perception is reality pretty much means that Mr Urban’s Parliamentary career is over.
So, this begs the question: why has the Premier done little more (in public) than wring his hands and repeatedly tell Parliament that he is disappointed in his Member?
I’ve heard a number of people ask that question and then speculate about why the Premier might be taking the path he was. Some of the possible motives floated included:
- Mr McGowan is in a difficult spot. By being seen to not do much, he looks a bit… well, impotent. If he had taken the path of publicly calling for Mr Urban’s resignation, he would have looked strong and decisive but by doing so would have also confirmed he had been sailing with a fraudster on board for the last 8 months – which is obviously not something any Captain wants to admit to.
- There have been suggestions that Mr Urban has some heavy-hitting union friends who could make life hard for the Premier if he had acted too swiftly.
- And of course, the Premier has said on a number of occasions that Mr Urban has made some mistakes as a new Member of Parliament and isn’t coping very well. From all accounts Premier McGowan is a decent human being and regardless of all the political motives to move on, it might just be as simple as Mark McGowan having compassion for Mr Urban and genuinely trying to give him some time to work through his options and future as an MP.
One or more of those suggestions could certainly be the case, but the Premier has given a few clues to Parliament about at least one more reason he hasn’t been seen to order Mr Urban out of Parliament.
Late last week, hapless Opposition Leader Dr Mike Nahan called on former Premier Colin Barnett to resign from the House. As any government under pressure would do, the Premier jumped on the opportunity to reverse the blowtorch and put some heat on the obvious division bubbling away on the other side.
While neither that tactic or division in the Liberal Party is news to me, I did find something Premier McGowan said particularly poignant:
“Talking about divided cabinets, I note today the Leader of the Opposition’s suggestion that the member for Cottesloe should leave Parliament. That might actually infringe on some rules in this place. Members are supposed to be able to exercise their duties as members of Parliament without pressure to be forced to resign from this place. Maybe that is an issue that should be investigated, the Leader of the Opposition trying to force the poor member for Cottesloe out of this place…”
That statement from former Lawyer and now Premier, Mark McGowan gave us a very big clue about at least one of the reasons he has decided to go gently into Mr Urban’s goodnight – the legality of anyone forcing a MP to resign.
And as you would expect from someone with Mr McGowan’s credentials, he is indeed correct. Both The Criminal Code and Electoral Act make it illegal to assert undue influence on Members of Parliament to do anything in particular, which presumably includes resigning or remaining a Member of the House.
When we combine that knowledge with this statement the Premier made earlier in the week about Mr Urban:
“I am advised that the Labor Party office is seeking further details from the University of Leeds about the member for Darling Range’s qualifications”
it is clear that Premier McGowan believes he can’t legally remove Mr Urban from Parliament and the most appropriate consequences – if any – should be delivered via the lay Party of the ALP rather than the Premier or his office.
As an outside observer, my best guess from here is that if the allegations against Mr Urban are found to be correct, the ALP (as opposed to the Parliamentary Party) will move to disendorse him.
Technically, this would leave Mr Urban with the choice of staying on as an independent with no support from either side of the House, or perhaps more sensibly, voluntarily resigning from Parliament altogether and trying to cope with the challenges of finding a new job after such a high profile fall from grace.
For clients of Squeaky Wheel, this article aims to provide a few important insights:
- The value of strategy. If the suggestions we’ve made are validated, it demonstrates that the current government – or at least Premier’s office – is thinking ahead and exemplifying how to make moves that don’t put you in a no-win corner in the future.
- The value of not reacting in a knee-jerk way. When a crisis occurs of course time is an important factor. But Premier McGowan and his team have taken some time to work on their strategy, play out their possible moves and chosen a path that gives everyone the opportunity to turn a very bad situation into a reasonable outcome.
- Compromise. Many people with a regulatory problem struggle to see an acceptable solution other their own. Rigidity makes for a terrible negotiation and this example demonstrates a willingness on behalf of the Premier to trade off a bit of short-term pain for a longer term solution that he can be proud of. When new clients approach Squeaky Wheel, we try to ask what the ideal outcome would be, what the unacceptable outcome would look like and where they would be prepared to accept as “middle ground” if we can’t get exactly the outcome they desire.
Darren Brown was a Ministerial Chief of Staff in the Barnett Government, political commentator and is now a registered lobbyist for Squeaky Wheel – contact him now if you would like more information about how we might be able to help you with your business goals.