22/02/2012 - 11:09

Barnett should stick to basics

22/02/2012 - 11:09


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The premier should concentrate on the job at hand rather than worry about possible Labor candidates.

The premier should concentrate on the job at hand rather than worry about possible Labor candidates.

PREMIER Colin Barnett is at his best when explaining his plans for the state’s economic development and how the benefits will be spread. Smart one-liners aren’t his forte; in fact they can be more trouble than they are worth.

That’s why his quip that the Labor Party’s line up of new candidates for next year’s state election will “consist of retirees and ex-union officials” was unwise, despite it having an element of truth.

First of all it showed that he was devoting time worrying about who the Labor Party could throw up as candidates next year. Some might think he has more serious immediate affairs of state to attend to. 

Secondly, once again his choice of words has the potential to get a group of voters offside, including probably many inclined to support his government’s re-election. He’s done it before, such as advising that he did not believe home air-conditioning was now considered an essential item for Western Australians in summer. He subsequently said he regretted the comments.

That the new Labor line-up will consist of a number of ex-union officials is undeniable. Left wing powerbroker and United Voice secretary Dave Kelly is earmarked for the safe seat of Bassendean, and Unions WA secretary Simone McGurk has emerged as the favourite to contest Fremantle against the former Green, Adele Carles, who is now an independent.

The reference to ‘retirees’ related to the emergence of former Labor minister and senior police officer, Bob Kucera, to seek a political comeback in the marginal Mt Lawley seat, now held for the Liberals by one-time City of Perth deputy lord mayor, Michael Sutherland.

Mr Kucera will turn 68 in November. He retired at the last election after his seat of Yokine was abolished and failed to get a berth in then premier Alan Carpenter’s ‘dream team’ of candidates. New Labor leader Mark McGowan believes he would be a strong contender in Mt Lawley.

There are two points worth making here. One is that Labor’s John Tonkin was 69 when elected premier in 1971. Also, Sir Charles Court (Liberal) was 70 when he stepped down from the state’s top job in January 1982. No-one seriously doubted their capacities.

The second is that there is an increasing number of retirees – presumably aged 65 and older – who vote, let alone those still in the workforce after turning 65. They are unlikely to be impressed by the insinuation that they might be past it. And perhaps a few older MPs might be more in tune with the needs of retirees than some of the current crop, who have limited life experiences.

Mr Barnett was also quick to point out that Labor’s candidate in Morley is again expected to be Cottesloe resident and television journalist Reece Whitby. Kim Beazley’s daughter, Hannah, has been tipped for Labor endorsement in Riverton.

Liberal nominations for the prize seats of Churchlands (held by retiring independent Liz Constable) and Alfred Cove (held by another independent, Janet Woollard) close on March 21. Dean Nalder, the son of a former deputy premier, is favoured to get party endorsement in Alfred Cove.

But regardless of whom the Liberals select, Mr McGowan would be unwise to seek to emulate Mr Barnett and come up with a ‘one-liner’ reaction. Any response would be better left to a colleague, Treasurer spokesman Ben Wyatt, for example.

Jobs growth dilemma

AT a time when governments should be doing all they can to both help create new jobs, and provide the right climate to support existing employment, the limitations in how administrations operate is being revealed for all to see.

Take for example the latest employment figures. They were considered to be good news for the federal government – the national workforce increased by 46,000 during January, cutting the unemployment rate marginally to 5.1 per cent.

It provided some timely sunshine for the government, which had been absorbing decisions by major employers such as the banks, including ANZ, and Qantas, to cut their workforces by thousands over the next few months.

The commentary suggested that the growth in employment last month would reduce the prospect of further interest rate cuts designed to encourage employers or potential homebuilders to borrow more and stimulate the economy.

What seems to have been forgotten is that the employment figures are a guide to the position that existed last month. The clear inference is that job growth will continue to hold up. However, the anecdotal evidence points to a deteriorating labour market, especially in the three south-east states, which is likely to kick unemployment up. 

More than 80 per cent of the new jobs last month were created in just two states – WA (unemployment rate 4.3 per cent) and Queensland (5.4 per cent). The rest of the country contributed fewer than 6,000 new jobs.

Of course WA and Queensland are the resources rich, export-oriented states. They are propping up the balance of payments, thanks to strong prices, and also helping to maintain the high Australian dollar, which presents its own problems, especially for the manufacturing states in the south-east. 

Enter the Commonwealth Grants Commission. Because of WA’s relatively strong financial position, it will now be expected to accept a significant reduction in the proportion of revenue generated by the goods and services tax returning to the state – from about 70 per cent to just 60 per cent. That’s a cut of about $400 million a year. 

WA is obliged to kick in an increased share for the struggling states under the commission’s equalisation scheme. No argument about the principle.

But the proposed cuts are significant at the same time as the demands of the state’s population – growing faster than previously forecast – place increased strains on the WA budget for more schools, hospitals, roads, rail, power, water and port developments. The contributions to other states make it harder to adequately satisfy these demands, let alone fund the infrastructure for expansion in the resources sector.

One of the shortcomings of the Howard government was its failure to allocate more of its strong surpluses to capital works in the resources sector, which would have helped companies increase export earnings. And the Gillard government looks to be following suit.

The temptation for Canberra is to throw money at the struggling manufacturing sector to save jobs. If the money has no strings attached with regard to trade-offs to lift productivity, the risk is it will just go down the drain, while every taxpayer foots the bill.

In the circumstances, to reallocate such a high proportion of ‘surplus’ GST money from WA, when it could be invested to further the productive capacity in the world-competitive resources sector and increase export income – and employment – makes little sense.

Inevitably there will be a day of reckoning. And it won’t be good news, especially at the federal level.



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