Vote 1: Reformed Chair Sniffer


The performance of the WA Liberal leader Troy Buswell has been so weird, dislikeable and inept that it is difficult to believe it is not all a deliberate work of comedy.

Let’s rewind. Buswell was elected leader of the WA Libs in January, already with a record of sexism, boorishness and questionable honesty.

Nevertheless, the Liberal Party bravely launched a TV commercial promoting Buswell as the alternative premier. The ad boasted the very latest in 1970s production values, complete with Buswell’s hands coming in and out of shot.

But the advertisement was quickly forgotten when allegations surfaced that Buswell had sniffed the chair of a Liberal staffer back in 2005. At the time of the incident, he was already Deputy of the WA Liberal Party.

Buswell’s first effort in crisis management was to deny the allegations 13 times in a single press conference. In the midst of the denials, Buswell was asked by a reporter "was it humour, was it sexual?" He did not answer the question, but an ill-timed involuntary lick of the lips and a nervous shuffle did him no favours.

One day later and Buswell not only admitted what he had previously described as "unsubstantiated, anonymous rumors", but broke down in tears over the issue.

Other senior figures in the Liberal Party stepped in to offer support. Brendan Nelson said that Buswell was "remorseful" and had "changed his behaviour". The President of the WA Liberal Party, Barry Court, said that he had seen people at his Victory Life Church "change daily" and he was sure that Buswell had "realised the error of the ways".

The problem with the "reformed man" line is that it reinforces the idea that the chair-sniffing was part of a pattern of behaviour. It is doubtful whether "reformed chair sniffer" is a characterisation that will sit well with voters.

Some Liberal MPs publicly backed the leadership of Buswell. Others admitted there was simply a lack of talent to replace the seat snuffler, apparently unaware of precisely how poorly such comments reflect on the rest of the WA Liberal Party.

Meanwhile, the chair sniffing has gone viral on blogs and airwaves, bringing unusual international attention to Western Australian politics. Everything from leading US political blog Huffington Post to London’s Daily Telegraph to The Peninsular: Qatar’s Leading English Daily have reported on Buswell’s strange activities.

The standard reaction is one of amazement and distaste.

On Insiders on the weekend, Annabel Crabb described chair sniffing as "unspeakably bizarre", while Andrew Bolt thought it was the downright weirdness of the deed that had "really freaked people".

On Monday, Buswell narrowly survived an attempted leadership spill only to be met with further denunciations by senior colleagues, including former leaders Matt Birney and Paul Omodei.

There have also been new revelations from the unfortunate woman whose chair was the subject of the sniffing. It appears that Buswell allegedly sniffed on two occasions about 10 minutes apart. While sniffing he is said to have groaned and made noises indicating sexual satisfaction.

Assuming it is not some actual fetish on display, Buswell’s actions seem those of an insecure attention seeker.

A complete lack of social and political judgment has made Buswell an object of ridicule. Here is a bloke who would do anything to get a laugh, no matter how offensive or stupid.

Keeping Buswell as leader seems beyond desperation. Politicians can come back from buffoonery, embarrassment or personal crisis, but Buswell is regarded with what seems an irredeemable level of general derision.

If Buswell and his colleagues stop to sniff their own parliamentary seats at this juncture, they might find the aroma unpleasantly acrid. The WA Liberals look set for electoral obliteration.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.