04/07/2012 - 11:09

Barnett goes for a fresh new look

04/07/2012 - 11:09

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The premier has spruced up his cabinet as the government prepares to go on an election footing.

The premier has spruced up his cabinet as the government prepares to go on an election footing.

PREMIER Colin Barnett had two options when pondering how to handle the opportunity presented by the sudden resignation from cabinet of his right-hand man, Christian Porter, as treasurer and attorney-general.

The first was the minimalist approach: slot in another lawyer MP, in this case upper house member Michael Mischin, as attorney general, and hand the treasurer’s job back to Troy Buswell.

This would have effectively sent the message to his ministers that stability was the name of the game and that it was steady as you go towards the state election due on March 9 next year.

Mr Barnett would have said he had full confidence in his cabinet team. But the instant reaction would almost certainly have been that he had missed a perfect opportunity for renewal with the election just eight months away.

In addition, he would be backing a team that included several members who have said they will not be seeking re-election. 

How effective would they be when giving commitments in the lead-up to the poll? Labor would simply say ‘how can they be taken seriously, they won’t be here for the next term?’  

The other, and personally more difficult, option was to tap ministers who are retiring, not performing so well, or getting on in years on the shoulder, and suggest it was time to make way for younger members from the backbench. Such a move is a gamble, because you can’t be certain how the ministers singled out will react, and how the newcomers will perform. 

The fact that the media inevitably reports the ministers replaced as having being ‘dumped’ (this correspondent included) makes the job that much harder. But sometimes leaders have to make that call, and that is what the premier did this time.

Mr Barnett’s instinct to go for change was the right move. Some Liberals think he should have gone further. He has been in government for almost four years and has lauded it over the opposition for most of that time, despite savage increases in power and water charges.

But the gloss has started to wear off, roughly coinciding with the elevation of Mark McGowan as Labor leader earlier this year.

So Mr Porter’s departure presented the premier with the opportunity for projecting a new look; and he grasped it.

Mr Buswell’s return to the Treasury was no surprise because of his capacity for work and economic and small business qualifications. But he knows that, thanks to the ‘bad boy Troy’ tag linked with earlier indiscretions, he is walking a fine line and will be under intense media and public scrutiny.

The decision to promote Scarborough MP Liza Harvey in place of veteran member Rob Johnson as police minister has raised the most eyebrows. Ms Harvey comes from a small business background and is still in her first term.

That compares with Mr Johnson’s background as one of the most experienced members in the Liberal team. When elected in 1993 he was promoted to cabinet rank by then premier Richard Court, and held senior shadow portfolios after the Liberals lost power in 2001. 

In government again, Mr Barnett not only gave him the onerous police and emergency services portfolios but also made him leader of government business in the Legislative Assembly.

Mr Johnson was dogged by controversy, however. His handling of issues linked with the serious fires that have been a feature of recent summers attracted criticism; so much so that the emergency services portfolio was passed on to Mr Buswell, with whom Mr Johnson clashed in opposition. 

Mr Barnett volunteered that his 68-year-old colleague had been less than thrilled when told after a recent cabinet meeting that he was to be a casualty of the front bench shakeup. 

Mr Johnson reinforced that view, in spades, saying he had been dumped soon after the premier had praised his performance at the Police Union’s annual conference. His disappointment was natural. But MPs like Mr Johnson need to remember the old saying that ‘the premier giveth, and the premier taketh away’.

And if he would like to be speaker in the next parliament to succeed the retiring Grant Woodhams –assuming the Liberal-Nationals alliance retains power –he will need to be seen as a team player.  

The big question now is, how his successor will go dealing with the wily police commissioner, Karl O’Callaghan, and a Police Union that often lacks subtlety in trying to get what it wants. 

One political veteran believes Ms Harvey’s lack of political experience should not be a problem.

“She’ll charm the police hierarchy and the union,” he said. “They’ll find it hard to beat up on a woman. They will be very proper in how they relate to her.”

And the new minister showed she had the political smarts by quickly revealing she had lost her driver’s licence some years ago due to the accumulation of points, and that she had smoked dope. Good to get on the front foot with things like that in any portfolio, but especially police.

Former police sergeant Murray Cowper might have been considered a better proposition as police minister, but the premier obviously believed he should have a fresh role.

Mr Cowper’s promotion to the training and corrective services portfolios will be a challenge, especially in juggling the competing interests of the resources and building and construction sectors for skilled workers.

Government upper house leader Norman Moore’s retention in the fisheries and mines and petroleum portfolios when he is retiring next year – as is the just-replaced education minister, independent and close Barnett ally, Liz Constable – can be attributed to his considerable support in the party room, and the fact he has handled the two key portfolios successfully.

In addition, the resources sector especially would prefer he stay in the job until the election.

Dr Constable was said to be disappointed at leaving the cabinet, but the fact she is bowing out in March after almost 22 years in politics made Mr Barnett’s move more understandable. 

Unlike Mr Johnson, she was prepared to cop the decision without making a fuss. Her support for the Liberals has been crucial in the finely balanced parliament,  

Mr McGowan says the shake-up is the sign of a government in disarray. But if Mr Barnett had applied the minimalist approach, Mr McGowan would have said he had missed an ideal opportunity to get rid of the dead wood in his cabinet.

The public will have the casting vote next March.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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