30/09/2010 - 00:00

Barnett on top at half-way mark

30/09/2010 - 00:00


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Despite major hikes to household expenses, Colin Barnett’s first two years as premier of WA have put the government in a secure position.

The Liberal-National alliance government led by Colin Barnett has just completed two years in office. Which means it has had enough time to start to leave its own mark on the lives of Western Australian voters.

The most tangible sign is reflected in opinion polls. The latest Newspoll shows the government is riding high. And the premier is widely regarded as doing a good job.

On a two party preferred basis, 57 per cent of voters support the Liberal-National alliance, compared with 43 per cent for Labor. The difference is even more marked in the preferred premier ratings. Mr Barnett has 61 per cent support, compared with just 17 per cent for Eric Ripper.

Combined, the results point to the government looking pretty secure.

Which is surprising, considering the thumping increases in household water and power charges, with the promise of more to come. That’s usually enough to strain the goodwill voters feels for any government.

The threat of tighter water restrictions over the summer months in Perth and the southwest will further test the government's standing.

As well, some of Mr Barnett’s less experienced ministers have struggled – an issue that will obviously be getting his close attention over the next few months.

The global financial crisis, which hit at about the same time as the change of government, was obviously an unforeseen challenge to the new team's strategy. It not only put a brake on growth. Unemployment jumped, and the record Budget surpluses that Labor treasurer Eric Ripper enjoyed, disappeared.

With it went the chance to introduce sweeteners, with one exception. That was a $100 million payroll tax concession to business. Useful as it was, it applied for just one year as a cushion to the GFC.

Mr Barnett has been a stand out in the leadership role. He has drawn on his previous eight years experience as a senior minister in Richard Court’s government, and four roller coaster years as opposition leader, culminating in his 2005 election loss to Geoff Gallop.

All that has left him battle hardened and worldly wise. And the circumstances in which he succeeded Troy Buswell as Liberal leader on the eve of the 2008 election, combined with the victory, gave him enormous authority in Liberal ranks.

So he had no hesitation in demanding Mr Buswell’s resignation earlier this year after yet another indiscretion from the talented but accident-prone treasurer. The premier has also won general approval for refusing to roll over to accommodate federal government decisions he deems to be against WA’s best interests.

He has received solid support from ministers such as Kim Hames, who has been a surprise packet in health, John Day in planning and attorney general Christian Porter.

But there are some problems areas that Labor has sought to target. Local government spokesman Paul Papalia has been dogging his opposite number John Castrilli in parliament. The experienced Michelle Roberts has also been niggling education minister Liz Constable, and Graham Jacobs has yet to get on top of the increasingly sensitive water portfolio.

The National Party ministers have generally performed well. Brendon Grylls has been throwing money around under the Royalties for Regions program like confetti. If that doesn't win general support in the bush nothing will. But he has had to withstand a concerted probe by Labor into his dealings with billionaire and the National Party’s major benefactor, Clive Palmer.

Labor’s Mark McGowan has alleged that the relationship with regard to Mr Palmer’s iron ore developments in the Pilbara is too close. He says the Queenslander has won financial concessions for which he is not entitled. Mr Grylls, and Mr Barnett, disagree.

Agriculture ministers rarely win wide approval in the bush, and Terry Redman has his critics. He also has some major restructuring on his plate, such as with the Forest Products Commission. But so far he seems to be doing a competent job.

So too does Terry Waldron, who is responsible for sport and recreation, and racing and gaming. One of his key challenges will be sporting venues. Major plans are afoot to upgrade Perth Oval as a venue for soccer and rugby. But the issue of a new stadium for Australian football can't be kept on ice for much longer. It will be a hot potato for not only Mr Waldron but also the government as a whole. Voters will demand action this time.

With clear signs that the state's finances are turning around, helped by a strong exchange rate and high iron ore prices, Mr Barnett's budgetary pressures will ease. The challenge for him then is to decide whether he can afford some relief to taxpayers, especially those on struggle street. Business would also demand concessions.

Probably of more immediate concern is his promised pre-Christmas Cabinet reshuffle. Topping the list will be what to do with Troy Buswell. There are two schools of thought. One is that Mr Buswell has too much talent to be left malingering on the backbench. Even though it's unlikely he would regain the treasurer’s job, his supporters say he must be promoted.

Mr Buswell’s detractors say he is too accident-prone. How many chances should he be given? He would be a ticking time bomb and it would be only a matter of time before he’s at the centre of another controversy. And that would be at the government’s cost!

The premier would also be weighing up whether to infuse some new blood onto his front bench. If so, first term members such as Mike Nahan (Riverton) and Liza Harvey (Scarborough) would come into contention, along with the government whip John McGrath (South Perth).

The government’s problems seem miniscule when compared with those facing Labor, where the key issue is leadership. As the Newspoll showed, Eric Ripper is struggling to lay a glove on Mr Barnett, despite the big hikes in household charges. Mr Ripper was a successful treasurer, leaving the state's finances in sound shape. But being opposition leader is a different ball game, something Colin Barnett acknowledges.

Mr Ripper will be hoping for a strong Labor win in Saturday’s Armadale by-election to replace Alannah MacTiernan, who quit in an unsuccessful attempt to enter federal politics. A big Labor vote would strengthen Mr Ripper's position.

So the months leading up to Christmas will be eventful for both sides.

But it would be wrong to think Mr Barnett’s second anniversary represents the half way mark in the usual four year term. Thanks to Labor’s ill-fated early 2008 election, Mr Barnett will enjoy a bonus six months in the job.

He doesn't have to face the people again until early 2013, which means his first term could last a record four and a half years!

• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV's state political reporter.





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