18/07/2014 - 05:34

Big leadership calls ahead

18/07/2014 - 05:34


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Opinion polls have always presented a dilemma for political leaders, with the temptation to comment when they are favourable almost impossible to resist;
but polls can be fickle.

Big leadership calls ahead

During his time as premier, Richard Court's frequent reply to requests for a comment on the polls was along the lines of 'Polls come, and polls go', followed by some carefully chosen words.Brian Burke's minders would attempt to deflect inquisitors by saying: 'Brian doesn't comment on opinion polls'. But Mr Burke did enjoy being a commentator, as well as premier. And often his responses were treated seriously.

When faced with unfavourable polling in the lead up to an election, leaders generally say that 'the only poll that counts is on polling day'. Comments of that nature are code for acknowledging that they are in trouble.

How much trouble Colin Barnett thinks his government is in so far out from an election is unknown at this point.

Nevertheless, the latest Newspoll on state election voting intentions, which shows the coalition and Labor running neck-and-neck on a two-party preferred basis, has attracted plenty of reaction. That's because the coalition's support at 40 per cent contrasts sharply with the 53.2 per cent when it won office in 2008.

For its part, Labor continues to languish at 27 per cent, while the Greens have jumped to 17 per cent.

Also of significance, with an election still almost three years away, is that Labor's Mark McGowan leads Mr Barnett by seven points as preferred premier.

As noted in Political Perspective two weeks ago, the great uncertainty is whether Mr Barnett intends to stay on as premier and lead the coalition into the 2017 election. He has indicated he will make that call with about 12 months of the term to go.

But a combination of Mr Barnett's low approval rating, and speculation that first-term MP and minister, Dean Nalder, is being touted as a possible replacement, has shaken the leadership tree.

Deputy Premier Kim Hames suddenly trailed his coat, saying he will wait to decide his future until he knows what his leader's plans are. Dr Hames is an experienced minister, and there's no substitute for experience. What will now be assessed is whether he has genuine leadership credentials.

Should Mr Barnett call 'time', is Dr Hames the best equipped to lead his party in the quest for a third term?

The hardheads know that is a big ask. The last premier to lead his party to a third term was Labor's Peter Dowding, in 1989. Mr Dowding had been leader for a year after replacing Brian Burke. But he only lasted 11 months before being dumped for Carmen Lawrence.

The record shows the fate of premiers who come to the job mid-term is not good. That's why the Liberals will be anxious that Mr Barnett rebuilds the party's support in the polls over the next 18 months, regardless of whether he stays or goes.

No comment required on that one.

Japanese history

The visit to Perth and the Pilbara by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was a clear reminder just how quickly economic fortunes can change. In 1957, such a visit would not even have been on the radar of his grandfather, Nobuseke Kishi, who, as Japanese PM, signed the original trade agreement with Australia.

The significance of Mr Abe's western sojourn, fleeting though it may have seemed, clearly reflects his country's massive investment in Western Australia's resources sector and reliance on the Pilbara's iron ore and North West Shelf LNG.

But many have forgotten just when Japanese money started flowing into the state in such huge quantities. The answer is directly linked with the lifting of the iron ore embargo by the Menzies government in 1960.

That decision followed significant lobbying from WA, once it was confirmed that vast reserves of high-grade ore existed in the Pilbara.

Leading the charge for change were new Liberal premier David Brand, his industrial development minister Charles Court (later both knighted), and pastoralist and explorer Lang Hancock.

In fact Sir Charles and Mr Hancock had worked closely in the late 1950s on a strategy to open up the north-west. They later had a major falling out when Sir Charles declined to back Mr Hancock's plan to develop his own mine, preferring to rely on companies with proven track records.

In the early 1960s, the government also granted exploration licences for oil and gas on the North West Shelf. The big players weren't interested. The only applicant was a small Victorian company named Woodside, led by Geoff Donaldson, a wartime friend of Sir Charles. The rest is history.

The significance of WA's emergence as a resources-rich state should never be lost on our political leaders – Labor, Liberal, National and Greens. And a thorough understanding of the sector should be a prerequisite for becoming premier.

Fortunately Mr Barnett – backed by his years as resources minister in Richard Court's government – understands the industry. Mr Abe's visit shows why his successors, whether Liberal or Labor, must understand it as well.


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