21/12/2011 - 11:15

Barnett faces cost test on stadium

21/12/2011 - 11:15


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Colin Barnett left a nagging doubt about the ultimate cost of the project. And that, in the end, could prove to be the real barbecue stopper.

Colin Barnett left a nagging doubt about the ultimate cost of the project. And that, in the end, could prove to be the real barbecue stopper.

Premier Colin Barnett’s announcement of the precise location of the new 60,000-seat football stadium on the Burswood Peninsula was meant to be a barbecue stopper and enable him to finish the political year on a high. 

But he left a nagging doubt about the ultimate cost of the project. And that, in the end, could prove to be the real barbecue stopper.

The premier has consistently used a figure of $700 million for the stadium itself – minus the underground car park, which had been included initially – and $300 million for improved public transport access, mainly suburban rail. That’s $1 billion all up.

But when pressed on the cost at his recent announcement, he said he had only come up with the figure, effectively to satisfy the media’s curiosity. The ultimate price, obviously, would depend on the actual design of the project and the construction costs that applied at that time. 

If the $1 billion price tag proves to be accurate, Mr Barnett will be seen as a political leader of rare acumen. But experience points to the challenges of containing the costs linked with major public sector structures.

The futuristic looking Perth Arena structure on Wellington Street is testament to that, being subject to massive cost blowouts and construction delays. 

Of course, Mr Barnett will remind critics that planning and construction of the arena started under the previous Labor government, which might explain the opposition’s silence on that issue. 

Until the stadium, the year’s political highlights were few and far between. When asked, the premier nominated the almost $600 million set aside in the state budget to assist non-government organisations in the not-for-profit sector, with a big chunk allocated to cover the pay gap with public servants doing similar work.

 The NGOs had been campaigning on the issue for years and seen experienced staff lured to the public service by superior pay and conditions, or get into the resources sector and head north. They just could not keep staff, with resultant problems for the efficient and effective delivery of services. Hopefully, this can now be resolved.

 The premier has also had some luck. And the question must be asked: How long can this luck hold?

Electricity, gas and water charges for both business and householders have continued to soar, with no apparent dent in the government’s popularity. 

This has occurred at the same time as the treasurer, Christian Porter, has been reporting the best budget surpluses in the country – federal or state. The opposition has said “enough is enough”, but the chant has yet to resonate with a significant audience.

It’s just possible that the chickens might come home to roost next year. The government has flagged increases in electricity charges of about 5 per cent. But that was before the passing of the federal government’s carbon tax legislation. That applies from July 1 next year and will add a further 7 to 9 per cent to electricity charges alone. 

Julia Gillard has promised full compensation for low-income households and pledged that payments will start flowing from April. Nevertheless, there is sure to be anxiety in many households.

 On a personal front, the rehabilitation of Troy Buswell within the cabinet and the survival of Eric Ripper as opposition leader have been the standouts.

 In fact, the Buswell comeback has been of Lazarus proportions. It’s almost two years since his political career was in a shambles because of indiscretions.  But when Mr Barnett tossed him a lifeline back to the ministry just 12 months ago, he grabbed it with both hands and has hardly looked back.

 It was no accident that he took over the emergency service portfolio from Rob Johnson as summer – and the bushfire season – started. 

Mr Buswell has not only a great capacity for work, but also has public relations skills which are crucial in the job, especially as the next election is now only 15 months away.

The other winner is Eric Ripper, whose leadership looked gone for all money this time last year, prompting the youthful Victoria Park MP, Ben Wyatt, to mount a challenge, before backing down through lack of support.

Mr Ripper has both survived the year and grown in boldness, showing he is increasingly prepared to chance his arm to get the Labor message across.

He now continually refers to ‘WA Labor’ to distance his team from the Gillard government and has also bagged several federal Labor policies. 

He opposes the mineral resource rent tax, for example, and has blasted the prime minister for using him as an excuse to deny WA more than $200 million to cover 75 per cent of the costs of native title compensation. 

The money had initially been earmarked by Paul Keating in the mid-1990s and remained in place under John Howard’s prime ministership.

Mr Ripper, who has been either Labor leader or deputy leader since 1996, also won points locally by forcefully putting his state branch’s position at the party’s recent national conference, getting jeered by delegates from other states for his troubles.

Labor members will be watching the opinion polls closely and hoping for a bounce in party support. If it sags further a change to either Mr Wyatt or Rockingham MP Mark McGowan will be considered. But at this stage most Labor MPs see Mr Ripper as a (relatively) safe pair of hands in a tough political environment.

Strange bedfellows

Politics sometimes throws up some strange bedfellows, metaphorically speaking, of course. Take the government’s legislation to regulate prostitution, for example.

 The Liberal MP for Morley, Ian Britza, is a former pastor and therefore been considered an automatic ‘no’ vote on the issue.

But Mr Britza asked to meet some of the practitioners to find out more. It was obviously an interesting meeting, with apparent goodwill on both sides. In fact, the women, from a well-known Burswood establishment, then bought 10 tickets at $150 each to attend a Britza fundraiser at His Majestys, ensuring it was a healthy turnout and a great success. 

The MP says change is overdue and believes there is strong support for the initiatives among his Liberal colleagues, with only a few dissenters. But with Labor’s support for the changes considered doubtful, a majority might be lacking when they come up for debate, probably in the autumn session of Parliament next year.

That is, unless more MPs decide to emulate Mr Britza and speak to the practitioners at the ‘coal face’. Mr Britza says that despite his background he always believed some regulation was required. 

And who knows how the views of some of the doubters could be influenced by a chat under the dim lights in the foyers of such establishments?



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