09/06/2011 - 00:00

Barnett scores a D for delivery

09/06/2011 - 00:00


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Colin Barnett’s Liberal-National team increasingly looks like a government unable to make the big decisions.

COLIN Barnett and his Liberal-National alliance government might be comfortably ahead in the polls, but that is no excuse for the complacency that has surfaced in its recent parliamentary performance.

Three issues emerged during the review of last month’s state budget. In each case the responses from the premier and his ministers left questions unanswered. They should have been better prepared, with answers pointing to a clear government strategy.

The first was the election campaign ‘promise’ to build a railway line to the northern Perth suburb of Ellenbrook, to match a similar promise made by then Labor premier Alan Carpenter.

Ellenbrook is effectively a leafy standalone subdivision. What has increased its profile has been the fact that the area became an electoral battleground for the new seat of West Swan, which borders the marginal seat of Swan Hills.

When Labor promised to build the line, if re-elected, the Liberals undertook to match it – or so it seemed. Certainly Frank Alban, now the Liberal MP for Swan Hills, produced a campaign advertisement promising the line would be built.

Labor claims Mr Barnett also promised the line would proceed. But the premier insists he said a Liberal government would ‘look at the issue’ if it won a second term. This begs the question, how did Mr Alban manage to advertise that it would be built, and why wasn’t he corrected if his claim was contrary to party policy? But politics is an end game, and Mr Alban won the seat.

All this is independent of whether building the line stacks up economically. Presumably Mr Alban’s undertaking didn’t do him any harm in his campaign to win a tough seat, but what price credibility?

The second issue surrounds the future of Royal Perth Hospital. That has been shrouded in doubt ever since Mick Reid was commissioned to review the state’s hospital needs early in the term of Geoff Gallop’s Labor government.

Professor Reid recommended in 2004 that a new tertiary hospital be built in the southern suburbs. That is now happening with construction of the Fiona Stanley Hospital in Murdoch. He also proposed that Royal Perth Hospital and Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital be consolidated, on the QE11 Medical Centre site at Hollywood.

There were sound reasons for such a move. Financially, tertiary hospitals are a bottomless pit, costing a fortune to run, a point Professor Reid made very strongly.

Labor gave the impression this recommendation had been accepted, but nothing was written in stone – a loophole the Liberals successfully seized on at the last election with the slogan ‘the Liberals will save Royal Perth Hospital’ prominent outside polling booths in the marginal seat of Mt Lawley.

Michael Sutherland, of course, won Mt Lawley for the Liberals, and the stance on RPH would have been a good vote winner.

But three years on, the government still has no plan for the future of the hospital. Presumably advice from the Treasury would be that the state can’t afford an extra fully functioning tertiary hospital.

So if the central city is to continue to have a hospital, RPH will have to be scaled down; but by how much? The ball is in Health Minister Kim Hames’ court, but an answer still seems a fair way off.

And then there is the sports stadium. Sports Minister Terry Waldron told Parliament’s estimates committee that the new stadium could be built by 2018, or possibly 2017. That’s still six years away. What’s the problem? Why the continued delay?

The harsh reality is that fewer fans go to local AFL games than watched the 1955 WAFL grand final. In 56 years Perth’s population has more than trebled, but football attendances have failed to match that growth. One reason, apart from cost and the closed shop deal that prevails, is the cramped facilities fans are expected to endure at the game.

So why isn’t the government acting? Is it the cost of $1 billion plus? Twenty-five per cent of the big revenue growth area – mining royalties – is committed to the Royalties for Regions program. So there’s only limited budget flexibility, especially after transport and health commitments.

Mr Barnett has given an assurance that details on the location, likely cost and timetable will be revealed ‘about mid-year’. That’s any time now. It’s a hot potato and there will be plenty of critics no matter what’s decided.

But voters don’t like being fobbed off. Is this becoming a government that can’t make big decisions?

Voelte lauded

THE wisdom of appointing American executives to head-up Australian companies was seriously questioned with the performance of the ‘three amigos’ who presided over the collapse of the Telstra share price and locked horns with the Howard government.

But that’s been turned around by Don Voelte, who has just stepped down after seven years as CEO of Woodside Petroleum. He oversaw phenomenal growth in the company, which now boasts a workforce of 3,800.

The political reaction to his contribution was contained in an illuminating publication compiled by The West Australian, where he has been a board member.

Here’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard, even though Mr Voelte says he’s unhappy about some of her policies: “If no-one doubts where you stand, then you’ll always retain a relationship of respect in the long term ... in Canberra and in Australia generally.”

Premier Colin Barnett: “ ... people have come to see Don Voelte more as an adopted West Australian than the Nebraskan he proudly remains.”

Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson: “In my view you could not find a businessman with more integrity, foresight, courage or determination.”

Former Liberal minister Fred Chaney singled out Mr Voelte’s role “in bringing the company into becoming an important partner in Australia’s reconciliation journey”.

Former prime minister John Howard noted that he “well understood the need for our nation’s resources to be used for the benefit of all Australians”.

Mr Voelte responded in kind, praising Mr Barnett and former Labor premier Geoff Gallop, who he described as an “outstanding premier and person”.

And he also had kind words for Wesfarmers boss Richard Goyder, and his opposite number at Rio Tinto, Sam Walsh.

What is undeniable is that the Nebraskan has positioned Woodside skilfully during his years at the top, and won the respect of both sides of politics.

Regardless of whether he’s applying Dale Carnegie’s strategy from How to Win Friends and Influence People, Mr Voelte’s style has been a winner. It should provide a template for all executives to follow, especially in their dealings with governments.

Mr Voelte certainly wasn’t regarded as a soft touch. But politicians knew where he – and his company – stood.


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