The West

How much longer has Rob Johnson got as Police Minister? It’s a question that is being asked openly in Liberal Party circles, with an emerging consensus the answer is: “Not long”.

Mr Johnson, of course, has been a polarising figure for the entirety of the Barnett Government’s 3½ years in office.

He is beloved by many conservatives for his tough-on-crime rhetoric, his uncompromising attitude to hoons, drug dealers, home invaders, paedophiles and other assorted meanies.

He horrifies small-l liberals for exactly the same reason.

He’s accident prone, a figure of frequent ridicule in State Parliament and the press. But he is thick-skinned, stubborn and will not be easily shifted.

The first real expression of discontent from his own side came in March when Federal Liberal MP Don Randall launched an extraordinary attack in the Federal Parliament, labelling Mr Johnson bumbling, weak and incompetent.

“I have friends and associates living in his electorate who tell me they feel offended that he is the Liberals’ choice and cannot bring themselves to vote for him. I share their aggravation,” Mr Randall ranted.

Sources say Mr Randall has told Premier Colin Barnett he believes the Liberals cannot go to the next election with Mr Johnson as the front man of a campaign the Government intends to fight largely on law and order.

It appears an increasing proportion of the Liberal party room now agrees.

Inside State has learned Mr Johnson was eviscerated by colleagues at a party room last Tuesday.

One issue was the withdrawal of serving police officers from Police and Citizens Youth Clubs in the Kwinana and Rockingham area.

MPs said Mr Johnson was berated for failing to stand up to Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan.

Asked to explain why he didn’t do anything to keep the officers in the PCYCs, which run programs for troubled kids by building relationships with police, sources said Mr Johnson retreated into excuses that he could not direct the Police Commissioner. It was interpreted as further evidence Mr Johnson is unwilling or unable to bend the force’s will to the Government’s priorities and raised questions about his strength.

The second issue was his announcement last month that the Government intends to restrict novice drivers under the age of 25 from carrying passengers between 9pm and 5am. The move is a recommendation of the Road Safety Council but some MPs are offended at the restrictions on personal liberty and Transport Minister Troy Buswell is said to be particularly determined that it never be enacted.

An MP sketched a scenario that had a young mother with a sick child late at night. Did the Minister seriously suggest it should be illegal for her to drive the child to the emergency room?”

“Well, she should just call an ambulance,” Mr Johnson said as his colleagues’ jaws dropped.

“There was an audible gasp in the room,” one MP said.

Said another: “It’s the first time at the meeting that they started to turn on him. They haven’t done that at any meeting since we’ve been in Government.”

Another dimension to this story is a belief among party power brokers that Mr Johnson’s seat of Hillarys, which is held by a huge margin of 11 per cent, could be occupied more productively by a younger, more dynamic force.

Namely, Joondalup mayor and WA Local Government Association president Troy Pickard, who has been working his way through the party ranks for years.

And one should not discount the old Paul Keating maxim that it always pays to back self interest because at least you know it’s trying.

“What’s happened, I think, is a few of the ambitious members want him out of the way,” one MP said. “They think there might be an opening. There’s a few of the new breed who wouldn’t mind a spot in Cabinet and they think Johnson, (Education Minister Liz) Constable and (Mines Minister) Norman Moore should go. There’s agitation there. He’s under the pump a bit.”

But conversations across the party suggest this discontent spreads more widely than a handful of ambitious backbenchers. Even some of his Cabinet colleagues are known to be dismayed and the Premier’s reaction to the ambulance comment was said to be telling.

Mr Barnett remains steadfast and unwavering in his support of his Cabinet in public and will brook no criticism of the weaker performers.

Asked about the possibility of a rejig of his ministry before the next election, Mr Barnett told Inside State flatly: “There is no planned Cabinet reshuffle.”

Of course, questions over Mr Johnson’s performance are hardly new.

As one MP pointed out with begrudging admiration, the Police Minister has the hide of a rhinoceros, which, the MP speculated, is why Mr Barnett may be content to leave him in his portfolio a little longer.

“Colin likes his tough-on-crime stuff. It’s better for (the Premier) to have Johnson out there taking the hits rather than him,” the MP said. “(Mr Johnson) just keeps coming out and saying, ‘I’m tough on crime and I support the police and if you don’t agree you support criminals’.”

And MPs in outer suburban electorates say that, for all Labor’s focus on cost of living pressures, the No.1 constituent complaint that reaches their electorate offices is crime: chiefly, hoons and the prospect of violent home invasions.

Above all, Mr Johnson is a survivor and the chatter in Liberal circles is that the most likely outcome is that he runs again in Hillarys and becomes Speaker after the next election.
It would be a bold observer who writes him off.

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