Barnett emerges as top dog in tough times

11/06/2009 - 00:00


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Money and power go hand in hand, especially in a global financial crisis.

Barnett emerges as top dog in tough times

A YEAR ago, Colin Barnett was written off as a has-been.

Mr Barnett was a backbencher, occasionally sounding off with forthright wisdom, which was viewed as the parting shots of an experienced campaigner preparing for political retirement.

His pensioning off came so close that a candidate, Deidre Willmott, had been pre-selected for his seat of Cottesloe.

Far from political oblivion, however, Mr Barnett is now the most influential person in Western Australia, belying not only his attempt at retirement but also the initially tenuous grip on government he won in September.

The premier is also the man of the moment. He took the leadership of the Liberal Party on his own terms, so he owes less in the way of favours to factions or individuals than most in his position would.

His only major constraint is the deal with Nationals WA, led by Brendon Grylls, which won him government. But it's not impossible to imagine that the regional objectives of the deal fit with his world view.

Mr Barnett may have been considered unlucky to take over the state on the eve of the global financial crisis but, like any conservative leader, he may well be comfortable with limitations that fiscal restraint provides excuses for.

The so-called GFC not only defines the parameters of his government to a large degree, it has changed wholesale the way in which influence is measured in WA.

In tough economic times, power concentrates where the money is.

In WA, this lies with government and a few fortunate parts of industry where the wheels remain turning despite the global meltdown.

It doesn't take much to summarise this - Mr Barnett and a very small group of ministers, with their advisers, and a number of leaders of very big companies, mainly in resources.

The key ministers are: Nationals WA leader, Regional Development, Lands Minister and State Development and Transport Assistant Minister, Brendon Grylls; Treasurer, Commerce, Housing and Works, Science and Innovation Minister Troy Buswell; and Mines and Petroleum, Fisheries and Electoral Affairs Minister Norman Moore.

If you think this is the same as a year ago, you'd be right and wrong. Yes, all these positions were powerful but they had competition for influence. Cultural issues, intellectual pursuits and sport were very much at the forefront of popular debate.

The premier of the day, Alan Carpenter, spent much more time talking about these things than dealing with questions of government revenue and unemployment.

That brought in a wider group of people to the influential mix. Various arms of government and voices in the community that were quite powerful last year have been silenced by the GFC.

Issues that had been given lip service, such as the approvals process, have now become very important. If Treasury is to have its coffers filled it needs projects getting green lights and construction taking place.

Hence, ministers such as Norman Moore, who is responsible for mines and petroleum, become very important in the spectrum of things. Planning Minister John Day, Environment Minister Donna Faragher, and Transport Minister Simon O'Brien hold nominally influential roles in this respect but it is understood that Mr Barnett and his office are handling many of the big decisions in these areas.

Similarly, in the vital area of energy, the premier is seen as overriding Energy Minister Peter Collier.

With money being more important than ever, Troy Buswell commands respect. His credibility was taken up a notch or two with his first budget, which has also helped cancel out some of the background issues from his failed Liberal leadership last year.

Some believe he may still be able to be a leadership contender if his redemption is complete in a few years' time.

Corresponding directly with this view of money equalling power in the corporate world, those who have the ability to invest remain influential.

In WA the LNG sector is clearly the leader in this respect. Woodside Petroleum and Chevron are among those proposing big projects that will result in vital construction jobs and produce royalties for government.

The influence of these companies is growing and many point to their ability to alter government thinking to their own benefit. Money is not just about investment, it also pays for armies of lobbyists and advisers who can help massage regulation and policy to suit their corporate aims and bolster profits. And so a virtuous circle is created.

The big miners have managed to salvage some credibility despite the collapse of commodity prices, but the balance of influence has clearly shifted to LNG.

One caveat on that is the proposed merger of BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto's Pilbara iron ore operations, which would create a monster enterprise whose power worries even Mr Barnett. However, the state is sure to wring considerable concessions from the joint venture if it goes ahead because few can see much in the way of positive benefit for the community unless additional royalties can be earned.

BHP's cutbacks in nickel certainly weakened its management's influence here, but it has balanced that with promises to maintain investment in iron ore and develop uranium.

Small business is nowhere to be seen in this. Certainly some lip service is paid by government because small business is a big employer and tax payer, but most in the sector are struggling to keep afloat and the strident voices have been muted by the need to dig deep to survive.

This can be noted in the perceived improvement in the standing of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA.

The chamber has a huge small business membership but is mainly viewed as a vehicle of big business.

CCIWA is making headway on issues such as retail trading hours deregulation - a clear win for big companies like Wesfarmers, which owns Coles, and against the wishes of many smaller retailers who prefer to have their competition held at bay.

Back in political circles, those being watched are the up-and-comers who are likely to take the reins in the next cycle when this austere time is over.

On the Liberal side is state Attorney-General Christian Porter, who is seen as a good operator with a strong political pedigree.

One of the few Labor state politicians to rate a mention during WA Business News' research was opposition Treasury spokesman Ben Wyatt, another touted as having future leadership potential.

State Labor is certainly struggling overall, a remarkable turnaround from one year ago.

Despite the government's narrow majority, the opposition is not laying punches and it's been hurt by the loss of the seat of Fremantle to the Greens.

Opposition leader Eric Ripper has gained little traction and Alannah MacTiernan, a recognised performer in the previous state government, is understood to be considering a move to Canberra.

Of course, as we've discovered, a year is a long time in politics.

Mr Barnett is riding high but his long-term influence depends on how much he can achieve in the next 12 months. As a one-man band he will have to work hard to pull off the big-ticket items of state development that will show he can implement visionary policy.

His government may have had a relatively smooth start, but it is seen as a work in progress.

It will be interesting to see if and to whom power devolves as Mr Barnett settles in the premiership. There is also the question of the political alliance and whether the motivations of the Liberals and Nationals continue to coincide as the next election draws closer.


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