03/06/2010 - 00:00

Barnett shrugs off Buswell brouhaha

03/06/2010 - 00:00


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IT ought to be a horror story for the state government.

Barnett shrugs off Buswell brouhaha

IT ought to be a horror story for the state government.

Its top parliamentary performer, one of its most influential ministers and a near lone-champion of spending cuts becomes the victim of a scandal involving an extra-marital affair with a representative of the hard left opposition.

Premier Colin Barnett, clearly lacking in options, takes up the reins of the biggest ministerial portfolio, increasing both his workload and the potential for risky mistakes that could offer his key opponents the break they need.

Yet, so far, it’s been a breeze.

Some suggest the strength of the departmental team (see page 15) has allowed Mr Barnett to navigate the difficult political waters, comfortably retaining control of his government during his first 18 months despite requiring a deal with the Nationals to deliver a slim majority in parliament.

There is also the view that Mr Barnett has a natural political instinct, aided by some long-term advisers and close confidantes, such as staffer Narelle Cant.

Many others, however, believe it is Mr Barnett’s unusual rise to power – drawn back into leadership at the brink of retirement – that has allowed him a free hand to govern without the usual internal bickering of political parties. He owes few favours and even former enemies acknowledge he saved the party. But that, of course, can change, especially as the premier seeks to reshuffle his cabinet with an ex-treasurer in Troy Buswell sitting on the backbench harbouring ambition.

Despite the massive embarrassment of his departure, Mr Buswell believes he did nothing wrong in a parliamentary sense and is clearly positioning himself for a return to power. In this he may have the support of fiscally conservative Liberal supporters, who believe his energy is required to provide some balance at cabinet level.

“Troy managed to stop government expenditure growth,” said one supporter.

“He told his cabinet and ministerial colleagues they could not have any more money.

“Colin (as treasurer) can’t do that because he has to keep everyone happy to retain his leadership. We need the reformer back in Troy.”

While this is not exactly a lone voice there are plenty of others who think Mr Buswell is a serial offender incapable of mending his ways.

‘‘Troy’s office was always difficult to deal with; he was a maverick,’’ another observer noted.

Government watchers seem to be divided on who will take up the treasurer’s role. The leading choices appear to be the steady hand of experienced campaigner John Day and the up-and-coming talent of Christian Porter.

Mr Day is thought to be close to the premier and has proved adept at handling the planning portfolio, where he has driven considerable reform efforts without much political pain.

Mr Porter, a lawyer, is viewed as a future leader of the party who is performing well as a relative newcomer to politics. However, there is a broad school of thought that his leadership credentials need to be tested in a tougher role than that of attorney-general.

A successful stint as treasurer, pitted against both opposition leader Eric Ripper, a former treasurer, and one of Labor’s own up and comers, Labor Treasury spokesman Ben Wyatt, would improve his standing as future leadership material.

Whether or not such a test ought to happen so swiftly, though, is another question.

Many believe Mr Porter has plenty of time to develop his leadership credentials.

The vacuum created by Mr Buswell’s departure has allowed for the introduction of Bill Marmion to cabinet. A newcomer to parliamentary politics, Mr Marmion is highly regarded and has had a close relationship with Mr Barnett, working as his parliament secretary for the past 18 months.

While it is early days for Mr Marmion, a former public servant with an engineering and management background, he is viewed as a star that is likely to rise quickly in the ranks of cabinet.

Another leader worth mentioning is Mines and Petroleum Minister Norman Moore, an experienced minister with a strong advisory team who is seen as something a key powerbroker in the government.

Despite a long history of differences with Mr Barnett, Mr Moore has backed the premier and left any potential internal division without a natural leader.

Mr Moore, though, is thought to be unlikely to run for parliament again, having been first elected an astounding 33 years ago.

In Labor ranks, the key contenders for future leadership remain Roger Cook and Mr Wyatt, though some are impressed with the fledgling potential of Peter Tinley.

At agency level it is interesting to see how other director-generals or their equivalents have fared.

There has been press speculation about the future of under-treasurer Tim Marney, whose contract is due to end soon. However, it is considered unlikely that the position would change given the turmoil created by Mr Buswell’s resignation from cabinet.

Structural reform has increased the power of Environmental Protection Authority head Paul Vogel.

With the EPA’s importance in the approvals process for any project, large or small, and a relatively junior minister in the portfolio, some government watchers think Mr Vogel has a position of significant influence. Pro-development observers might suggest this is not the type of influence they want to see in a conservative government.

WA Planning Commission chairman Gary Prattley is another key bureaucrat. Appointed by this government, he has the advantage of an influential minister in Mr Day, who is pushing for reform of the state’s property development processes.



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