26/11/2008 - 22:00

Beware unintended consequences

26/11/2008 - 22:00


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AN easily overlooked aspect of most political manoeuvres is that of unintended consequences.

Beware unintended consequences

AN easily overlooked aspect of most political manoeuvres is that of unintended consequences.

The most recent case, highlighted in this column last week, was the emergence of Nationals WA's stranglehold over parliament, which has meant a party that was backed by about 5 per cent of the state-wide vote now holds the balance of power in both chambers.

This was the unintended consequence of Labor's 2006-07 redistribution bills, which drastically slashed non-metropolitan seat numbers. (The widely anticipated outcome of the redistribution was a long-term tenure for Labor.)

But the Nationals, rather than vanishing, shrewdly countered, by firstly seeking expert advice - including from one-time Flinders University politics academic, retired professor Dean Jeansch - on how best to respond.

And respond they did, by forcefully highlighting to rural voters the need for a 25-per cent slice of WA's mining royalties bonanza earmarked for spending outside Perth - the Royalties for Regions plan.

It quickly became evident on election night that with Labor and the Liberals polling so dismally - each attracted well below 40 per cent of the state-wide vote - the Nationals were headed for balance-of-power status.

Little wonder that next morning Colin Barnett and Alan Carpenter were phoning Nationals leader, Brendon Grylls, to arrange power-sharing talks.

And the stakes of the subsequent political bidding war were high, since they'd decide who became premier.

The vote-pulling power of the Royalties for Regions plan and the dismal Labor and Liberal electoral performances meant Mr Grylls found himself in a win-win position; quite the opposite to what the main booster of the redistribution bills, Jim McGinty, had envisaged.

Today, Mr Grylls and two Nationals sit in cabinet - not in coalition, but in partnership - giving them the advantage of semi-independence while reaping all spoils of office, including three chauffeur-driven ministerial cars and Mr Barnett's belated commitment to Royalties for Regions, something the premier had earlier dubbed a stunt.

But there's another far more important unintended consequence - this time for the Nationals - not highlighted by Labor or Liberal politicians or media commentators.

Many State Scene readers will know that farmers, Nationals WA's electoral backbone, are strongly opposed to mining and thus exploration across WA's farmlands, which are within what's generally called the South West Land Division.

This short-sighted and self-centred stance by farmers has in the past been, if not ignored, then accepted by most Western Australians.

However, with a cast-iron deal now in place where the Barnett-Grylls partnership government will hand over 25 per cent of all mining royalty revenues, can such contradictory self-serving persist?

If yes, then what we have is a tiny segment of the population that electorally controls the South West Land Division demanding, and getting, a 25 per cent slice of mineral royalties for its purposes while at the same time blocking mining exploration and exploitation within that division's boundaries.

With the Nationals now reaping 25 per cent of all royalties to spend in the bush, surely it's time the South West Land Division, their electoral base, was opened to exploration and mining.

Among other things, that would further boost royalty revenues.

If not, why not?

In addition to the serious matter of equity there are many other reasons WA's farmlands should finally be opened to revenue and employment generating exploitation.

- These lands have easy access to the ports of Esperance, Albany, Bunbury, Fremantle and Geraldton.

- Much of the infrastructure for exploitation of newly found deposits is already in place, including a long-standing railway network, roads, electricity and piped water.

- The Wheatbelt is undergoing rapid depopulation - inland Western Australians, like Australians elsewhere, are moving in droves to the coast.

It's not so far off when WA will have fewer than 2,000 wheat farmers; a quarter of a century ago it was five times that.

The rural voters who so strongly backed the Nationals' Royalties for Regions catch-cry should therefore back mineral exploration and mining.

State Scene realises that saying this is likely to upset some in Nationals ranks, but it's perhaps worth adding that I, like so many Perth suburban dwellers, hail from a farming town, Wyalkatchem, so have seen what was once a sizeable settlement declining to below a quarter of what it was a handful of decades ago.

Watching that unfold hasn't been pleasant.

The problem all farming towns have is that those living in and near them ultimately depend on grain output and sheep.

With farms becoming ever larger and farmers ever mechanising, population drift to the coast inevitably follows since employment opportunities are diminishing.

Clearly mining activity would help by at least slowing down that trend.

But try getting past the farmers' veto for access to farmland for exploration.

State Scene recalls the Wyalkatchem area at the turn of 1950s and 1960s, where some extractive activities - harvesting of salt from a lake south-west of the town, and gypsum excavation from lake beds to the north - was practiced.

Output was road freighted to Wyalkatchem and railed to Perth.

Briefly during the 1960s some local gypsum was processed in a facility near the town, since farmers saw value in spreading it on paddocks.

Interestingly, in both cases extraction was possible because the deposits were on non-farmland, on reserve or public tracts.

Wyalkatchem's farmers, like their colleagues across the Wheatbelt, invariably opposed farmland being geologically surveyed for mineral potential, which explains why virtually no mineral extraction and processing existed, not only around Wyalkatchem but right across the Wheatbelt.

If such a strong stance by farmers, their associations and the National Party had mellowed after World War II, the Wheatbelt may well have offered employment opportunities in mining and related mineral processing activities.

It's worth noting that the Wheatbelt has been shown to have deposits worth extracting, including talcum in Three Springs, oil and gas in Dongara and environs, and gold at Lake Grace.

Gold has also been found near Katanning.

Gemstones are known to exist in undetermined quantities in the Dowerin area, there's high quality quartz near Gabbin, and platinum near New Norcia.

What else the Wheatbelt holds remains unknown because of long-standing farmer opposition to exploration.

Lack of farmer interest in non-farming activities meant towns like Wyalkatchem lacked employment diversity, and remain reliant upon two non-minerals commodities - grain and sheep.

That's one reason people have been leaving over the years.

Do the Nationals want the Wheatbelt to be studded with ghost towns?

With their Royalties for Regions program now in place it's perhaps time they reconsidered their opposition to mining across WA's farmlands in light of the unintended consequence.

If that doesn't happen the Nationals will be reaping two-bob each way, which is hardly just, when they're so willingly accepting mineral royalties derived from other regions.


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