29/10/2008 - 22:00

Advisers gather where power resides

29/10/2008 - 22:00


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THERE has to be some advantage in being the only chink in otherwise wall-to-wall Labor governments across Australia.

Advisers gather where power resides

THERE has to be some advantage in being the only chink in otherwise wall-to-wall Labor governments across Australia.

And while it may be lonely being the only Liberal to head a government, Colin Barnett at least has had a rare chance to recruit a handful of key advisers who, arguably, would not have been available if John Howard was still in power today or the Liberals ruled in major states such as Victoria or NSW.

While the addition of former Howard insider Peter Conran is still subject to the formal process of public service recruiting, his expected appointment to the role of director general of Department of Premier and Cabinet would have been far less likely if the Liberals were in power elsewhere and he was not at a loose end, offering his services as a consultant under the banner of Concept Economics.

As a former secretary to cabinet in the Office of the Prime Minister, Mr Conran hasn't found himself short on employment options.

To a lesser degree the same might be said of several other staffers whose links to Western Australia are relatively weak. On the face of it, the opportunity to work in a Liberal government, even a distant one isolated by the Nullarbor, clearly outweighed the comedown of a job with anyone in opposition.

Two good examples are David Wawn and Eacham Curry. Both have arrived in WA via Canberra to take up important posts as the respective chiefs of staff for Treasurer and Commerce Minister Troy Buswell, and Transport Minister Simon O'Brien, two of the most important cabinet members from a business point of view.

Mr Wawn, who rose to be chief of staff for former federal finance minister Nick Minchin, is seen as potentially pivotal in the new government, viewed as a very experienced pair of hands to help Mr Buswell manage not only a huge workload of important portfolios but also keep a firm hand on the tiller of the previously wayward and occasionally laddish former-opposition leader.

"I think he [Mr Wawn] will be a very influential player in this government," said one Liberal source. "Not because he works with the treasurer, but because he is one of the few senior staffers with experience."

While Mr Wawn won't know much about WA politics, his exposure to finance is seen as a big advantage.

"It's much easier to run a treasurer's office if you have someone who knows how treasuries work," the source told WA Business News.

While there have been rumblings about the conservative credentials of various advisers in the new government, Mr Wawn is viewed as blueblood party stalwart.

"He's what you call a spear thrower, he is a committed Liberal," said a source. "You don't get to work in [former federal minister] Nick Minchin's office unless you are obviously committed to the cause."

Close observers have noticed the influx of Canberra types and acknowledge that, within limits, there are advantages to having a smattering of ready-made advisers whose experience with the machinery of government in Canberra will make the task of getting down to business easier.

And it's a two-way street.

Firstly, as some point out, many advisers simply don't like working in opposition. In addition, Perth is no longer the political backwater it once was, playing host to mining and energy sectors that feather Canberra's nest, and the rest of the nation.

"If you are interested in resources it is much better to be at the epicentre of where the big projects are taking place," said one observer.

"This is still the economic driver so you are going to be involved in stuff that has national impact."

Other influentially placed advisers with experience in Canberra are Colin Edwardes and Dawn Fitzgerald. Both are Perth-based and remained so, in the main, when they worked for Ian Campbell, the former WA senator and powerbroker who rose to head the environment portfolio in the Howard cabinet.

As a candidate for the seat of Kingsley in 2005 and player in the lay party's so-called northern alliance, Mr Edwardes is viewed by some as more of a political appointee by Energy Minister Peter Collier.

However, Mr Edwardes - whose wife Cheryl was a member of Richard Court's cabinet and a shadow minister in Mr Barnett's first term as opposition leader - is experienced as chief of staff to Mr Campbell across several portfolios. His former boss thinks highly of him, believing his past as a public servant in WA has equipped him well for policy development.

Mr Campbell also speaks highly of Ms Fitzgerald, who was a policy adviser and occasional acting chief of staff when he was federal environment minister. Ms Fitzgerald will play a key role as chief of staff to Donna Faragher, the youngest of Mr Barnett's cabinet as environment minister, a role seen as crucial to many in industry frustrated by delays in the approvals process for a wide range of projects and developments.

Another former Canberra adviser is Rachael Turnseck, whose experience includes working with Julie Bishop when she was federal education minister. Ms Turnseck was also based in WA and had experience with other political advisory work. She has left a strategy role with Murdoch University to join Mr Buswell's office as a policy adviser, adding yet another relatively experienced hand to help him with a big workload.

Above all this is expected to be Mr Conran, whose political pedigree includes a role as deputy director general of Mr Court's Department of Premier and Cabinet prior to heading to Canberra.

A lawyer by training, he also worked in the Northern Territory administration and includes native title, resource development and infrastructure among the policy areas he has specialist knowledge.


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