09/01/2015 - 15:12

Alliance put to the test

09/01/2015 - 15:12


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Simmering tensions between the Liberal and National parties within the State Government are threatening to come to a head next month. The issue? Local government reform.

Simmering tensions between the Liberal and National parties within the State Government are threatening to come to a head next month. The issue? Local government reform.

Premier Colin Barnett has considerable political capital invested in this issue. The big question is : how far is he prepared to push?

The Liberals have been pussy footing on their reform commitments since then Local Government Minister, John Castrilli, announced the intention to significantly cut the total of 139 councils throughout the state to achieve greater efficiencies.

Thanks to pressure from the Nationals, who have proved themselves to be the ultimate pragmatists on this and other issues, country WA was removed from the reform strategy. This left just the 30 metropolitan councils in the firing line.

Mr Barnett and the government have backed and filled on this issue for five years. Now he wants to debate legislation on new boundaries for the City of Perth when Parliament resumes next month. But the initial signal from his governing partner, the Nationals, was that they were far from committed to supporting the plans.

This earned the interesting, and understandable, response from the premier as to why the Nationals were sticking their noses into metropolitan issues. After all they have no city members, and only miniscule voter support in Perth itself. The clear inference from Mr Barnett's  comments was that the alliance partner should be supporting government legislation. 

It's not the first time the two parties have been at odds over an issue. In the past, however, the problems have been swept under the carpet. This time that might not be possible.

One of the first areas of difference was deregulation of shopping hours. While Mr Barnett was all for it, his alliance partners were dead against change. It was only when Mark McGowan became Labor leader in 2012 and spearheaded a new opposition approach, that reform was achieved.

Now, however, there are increasing signs of cooling relations within the alliance.

The Liberals were far from impressed when the Nationals ran a candidate in the Vasse by-election last October to replace former treasurer Troy Buswell. Vasse has traditionally been a Liberal stronghold, and Labor decided to stay out of the contest. What should have been a walk up start for the Liberals turned into a full-scale, and costly, campaign which the Liberals won, as expected. But both parties spent a total of well over $200,000 in the process.

Then there was the difference over the funding of isolated Aboriginal communities in the north. With the commonwealth's decision to discontinue its financial contribution, Mr Barnett responded by saying WA could not fill the spending gap. He said some would have to close, attracting strong criticism.

The fear expressed was that many displaced Aborigines would move to the fringes of northern towns, accompanied by the fear of social unrest.

Enter Nationals leader - and regional development minister - Terry Redman - who said some Royalties for Regions money could be diverted to keep the communities open.

Such a move would presumably be good for the indigenous people, and also avoid potential social disharmony in the towns. The real winner would be the Nationals, because the royalties program was their brainchild, and Mr Redman would get the kudos for a spending initiative which would avoid potential social problems.

This prospect simply highlights the brilliant politics behind the campaign for the adoption of Royalties for Regions in the 2008 election campaign. What is appalling public policy - it removes essential flexibility in the framing of the annual budget - is now enshrined in legislation. The Liberals, and any future Labor government, can only remove it at their peril.

The Liberals and Nationals have traditionally joined forces to govern, because the Liberals generally fail to win enough seats to rule in their own right. Not so this time, however.

Mr Barnett's party now holds 31 seats in the 59 seat assembly. The Nationals hold seven, and there are 21 Labor members. That means the Liberals could govern without the Nationals and push their  policies through. Great in theory, not so good in practice.

One problem is that you never know when the party representation will change. For example North West Central MP Vince Catania was originally a Labor man, but jumped ship and joined the Nationals. Others could do the same.

In addition Mr Barnett has a number of disgruntled backbenchers on his own side. Some are former ministers who have been bruised by the way they were dumped, and they blame the premier. Among those to distance themselves from their leader are former police minister, Rob Johnson, and former corrective services minister, Murray Cowper. Could their votes be guaranteed in a showdown? Best not to put that to the test.

On local government reform, the premier clearly needs the Nationals in the tent. The clock is ticking.




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