09/05/2012 - 11:17

Barnett’s leadership skills in focus

09/05/2012 - 11:17

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A poor Newspoll result has brought some lingering issues to the surface for the state government.

A poor Newspoll result has brought some lingering issues to the surface for the state government.

PREMIER Colin Barnett will be hoping for a bump in his approval rating following the state budget, to be handed down by Treasurer Christian Porter next Thursday,  May 17.

If the result is not a significant improvement on the poor Newspoll result referred to in last week’s column, then the premier and his government could have a real problem.

Since the poll, the premier’s staff and the backroom operators in Menzies House have been examining whether this is a one-off dip or the beginning of a trend.

As the saying goes, ‘One swallow does not a summer make’.

Whatever it is, it is a warning that deserves serious consideration and remedial action to make sure more serious problems aren’t on the horizon.

Last week’s column referred to Newspoll as startling because it wasn’t just a drift of a few percentage points; it was a double-digit drop following a relatively benign start to the political year.

It bucked the trend of previous polls where the premier’s approval rating remained strong even when he was announcing substantial increases in power and water prices. 

It was also recorded when Mr Barnett was maintaining his own popularity by constantly reminding voters of the failures of the hapless federal government.

But herein lies the rub. In three years, and less than a year out from the next election, it’s the first time the premier’s performance has emerged as a potential problem.

The problem for Mr Barnett is that a continued slide in his approval rating may give further currency to growing grumblings within his own ranks.

The first is the unresolved disaffection towards the premier’s office that has become nearly endemic across ministerial offices and which is impacting on the government’s performance.

Those who are less than enamored with the premier privately reflect that maybe the electorate and the media are beginning to get a sense of what they have been dissatisfied with for so long.

Premiers have become increasing presidential over the years, and so have their staff in exercising their own perceived power and influence, especially with their ministerial colleagues.

The only exception to this rule is if you are a National Party minister, or one of their staff, who remain largely untouchable under the current alliance arrangement.

Dare it be said, but Mr Barnett’s growing critics from within Liberal ranks, and ministerial offices, are likening his leadership style to that of Labor under Kevin Rudd.

One of the key areas of disaffection among ministerial offices is the perceived lack of knowledgeable and constructive consultation on major decisions and announcements.

This is a problem that has been around since the earliest days of the government, but is now being discussed more widely and openly.

Part of the criticism is a result of the revolving door of staff through the premier’s office. With the departure in recent weeks of the likeable deputy chief of staff Richard May, only two original senior staff remain from when Mr Barnett took office.

Other ministerial offices have also had trouble retaining staff, which suggests a wider dissatisfaction across the executive arm of government.

While ambitious young professionals view a stint in a ministerial office as good for the CV, those in business know how damaging high staff turnover is to performance and reputation.

Resentment has also lingered at the premier’s decision to pay his chief of staff, Brian Pontifex, nearly twice the average pay of other chiefs of staff, despite not being Mr Barnett’s first choice when filling the vacancy.

Ministerial offices have grown tired of the constant behind-the-scenes criticism of their performance and that of their ministers, even if, on occasion, it is justifiable.

Ministers are also frustrated at the premier’s habit of publicly contradicting them on decisions or issues of policy; leading to a perception of a lack of confidence in his team and poor public perception.

The most recent example was the premier’s follow-up to his energy minister’s handling of the government’s decision to allow Alinta Energy to raise its domestic gas prices by 8.3 per cent.

Peter Collier had been at pains to justify the government’s decision in light of the financial pressures on Alinta. The minister had done well, only for the premier the next day to rewrite the script by trying to tell journalists that the government wasn’t responsible for the price increase.

In the past Mr Barnett got away with this behaviour because it added to his authority as leader. 

Often intervention was considered necessary in trying to assist his relatively inexperienced team deal with the challenges of government.

But today, rather than looking like he is taking control, it is only providing the opposition and the media with the opportunity of painting him as autocratic, undermining his team and ultimately out of touch.

It also continues to reinforce a perception that after three years his team is still not up to the job.

This is not helped by a growing perception, especially among some business sectors, that if you are not a big end of town miner dealing with the Chinese then the premier and the government aren’t all that interested.

Mark McGowan and his team have picked up on these issues and are managing to make them relevant to an electorate that believes that, each time the Reserve Bank hands out interest rate relief to householders, the state government is ready to claw it back through increases in taxes and charges.

All of which is providing rich pickings for the opposition and making Liberal backbenchers extremely nervous.

There is no suggestion that these issues are as terminal as they were for Kevin Rudd, and Mr Barnett remains clearly the Liberals’ all-round best performer and their best chance at re-election.

To be successful next year he needs to step up and show greater confidence in his own team by allowing the good performers the space and support to do their jobs.

He must make sure that he doesn’t leave the electorate behind by continuing to be swept up in the agenda of the mining sector and the next big debt-funded infrastructure project.

Paul Plowman was formerly Premier Colin Barnett’s director of communications and is now a corporate and government relations consultant.

• Peter Kennedy’s column will return next week.

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