11/04/2013 - 13:13

Barnett maintains rage, much to Labor's chagrin

11/04/2013 - 13:13


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Barnett maintains rage, much to Labor's chagrin

Four and a half years ago, when Colin Barnett became premier of Western Australia, he surprised a few people by being quite chummy with Australia’s newly elected prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

Mr Rudd had won a sweeping victory over John Howard in late 2007 and looked set to hold the keys to The Lodge for some time to come. Mr Barnett had what seemed like a tenuous grip on power after negotiating government with the Nationals.

The then-new WA premier needed some early wins, and decided that getting Canberra to financially support pet projects such as the expansion of the Ord and the development of a port at Oakajee was in his political interest.

The result was a number of joint announcements and a general love-in that must have frustrated the federal Liberals at the time.

But four years is a long time in politics and the landscape has been completely re-rendered. Instead of being in the lowlands with his fingers in the dyke, Mr Barnett is sitting atop a very high peak watching Labor, both federally and in this state, trying to avoid inundation.

In retrospect it was an imperfect match, anyway; the time for opposing ideologies to cosy-up is fleeting.

The capricious government led by Mr Rudd soon burned that bridge with its moves to take over the nation’s public health sector; failure to curb union excesses in relation to its new industrial relations laws; undiplomatic efforts to introduce uniform national occupational health and safety laws; deaf ears to WA’s pleas with regard to the GST distribution; eventual announcement of a mining tax.

The seeds of discontent had been sowed by late 2009. Mr Rudd was gearing up for an election campaign and needed domestic policy wins after his failure to secure international agreement on climate change objectives at Copenhagen.

Just as Mr Rudd was feeling insecure (now we all know how much), Mr Barnett was starting to feel comfortable. WA had barely faltered through the GFC and his slim majority based on a political deal turned out to be very workable.

So the two sides went to war, blaming each other for everything that had gone wrong.

While Mr Rudd has since departed, knifed by his own side, his replacement, Julia Gillard, has done little to console Mr Barnett or voters.

His re-election last month was an emphatic statement by the WA people. Mr Barnett cheerily told WA Business News in a face-to-face interview last week that no governing coalition has won as clear a majority since 1917 when a world war created a different set of circumstances.

Mr Barnett’s stocks are unlikely to be higher and Ms Gillard’s lower, so watch him take advantage of the high ground to add to the pressure on Labor.

Not only has he got the states’ rights argument and many disasters created by an inept federal government to focus on but also, unusually for a state premier, he can also play a diplomatic card.

The WA government has been lauded for its efforts to connect directly with China, a trading partner that has been overlooked by Ms Gillard (her visit there in the past few days a very rare exception). In discussing his plans with WA Business News, Mr Barnett highlighted the issues around agricultural exports and how much the federal Labor government had upset the Saudi Arabians with its policies.

All of this makes Mr Barnett look worldly and wise in contrast to Ms Gillard, who has failed to significantly undermine her direct rival Tony Abbott, who is arguably just as weak in some of these areas.

Watch Mr Barnett help his federal leader in exploiting Labor’s problems for the next few months.



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