26/11/2009 - 00:00

Canberra candidates for Willmott vacancy

26/11/2009 - 00:00

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GOVERNOR Stirling Tower's reputation as a haven for the national Liberal Party faithful appears secure following two key state government staffers' decisions to step away from high-profile roles.

GOVERNOR Stirling Tower’s reputation as a haven for the national Liberal Party faithful appears secure following two key state government staffers’ decisions to step away from high-profile roles.

The tower, at 197 St Georges Terrace, houses the Department of Premier and Cabinet, as well as several influential ministerial offices, many of which attracted former Canberra-based staff members of the former Liberal federal government.

With Deidre Willmott stepping aside as chief-of-staff for Premier and Cabinet, and Paul Plowman believed to have offered his resignation as head of the Government Media Office, recruiters’ eyes are again turning interstate, where the Liberal Party has been out of power at every level for at least two years.

While there has been much speculation about proposed new laws to further restrict the ability of former government employees to become lobbyists, insiders are adamant that Ms Willmott’s departure relates directly to a growing potential for conflict of interest due to the expanding legal work of her husband, Michael Lishman.

WA Business News reported this week that the four-year-old firm he co-founded with fellow corporate lawyer Ian Cochrane, Cochrane Lishman, is expanding in the New Year into the energy sector by recruiting Jon Carson, a senior partner from rival firm Blake Dawson.

This is likely to result in more contact with the state government over energy policy, which could create a conflict of interest.

Ms Willmott is taking a role overseeing major projects, where the perception of that conflict was less likely to arise.

The chief-of-staff vacancy has created a lot of talk about those available to fill such a critical position at an important time for the Barnett government, which still has almost three years to run.

Locally, an obvious candidate is former Court government staffer Richard Ellis, who is understood to be a confidant of Mr Barnett’s. Mr Ellis currently works for ExxonMobil and was previously state director of the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association.

However, the rumour mill has thrown up the names of strong contenders among the Liberal diaspora left without a home following the end of John Howard’s 12-year reign.

One such name is Stephen Galilee, currently an account director with communications firm shac communications. Mr Galilee has worked at a senior level for the prime minister, opposition leader and several ministers, including as chief-of-staff to the then federal minister for industry, tourism and resources, Ian Macfarlane.

Mr Galilee has direct experience with WA and Mr Barnett because he worked on the election campaign here last year.

Another name floated by insiders is Ann Duffield, former chief-of-staff to former immigration minister Phillip Ruddock. She has returned to Perth, it is understood, for family reasons.

Former federal staffers are well represented in the Barnett government, with the most prominent being Premier and Cabinet director-general Peter Conran. Also in his department as a policy adviser is Tjorn Simba.

Others are understood to include Treasurer Troy Buswell’s chief-of-staff David Wawn, Transport Minister Simon O’Brien’s chief-of-staff Eacham Curry, Energy Minister Peter Collier’s chief-of-staff Blair Stratton, Water Minister Graham Jacobs chief-of-staff Damian Callachor, and Agriculture Minister Terry Redman’s chief-of-staff Scott Mitchell.

Mr Plowman’s move and motive are less clear, as is the exact role of any replacement, should it occur. Mr Barnett confirmed he had received an offer of resignation from Mr Plowman but asked him to give him time to consider the issue.

Mr Plowman’s background is in communications and lobbying and his role with the Liberals would allow him rare space in business that was, until last year, dominated by former Labor staffers and politicians. Former state Liberal Party chief Paul Everingham is considered the market leader as a result of the political changes.

New laws being drafted under the guidance of former Director of Public Prosecutions Robert Cock are expected to reflect federal guidelines prohibiting government staffers from working as lobbyists for 12 months, rather than three as is the current position.

Some think this will further reduce the appeal of for political players working in government

The GMO is, in many respects, the last element of the traditional WA government’s structure in terms of Premier & Cabinet, in that it stands outside direct control of the premier.

In the past year, Mr Barnett has restructured this department to reflect a more centralised control of government. Some suggest this is the prime ministerial model applied by John Howard and Kevin Rudd. It is also used in Victoria.

This is likely to result in some of the GMO’s functions moving to Premier & Cabinet, while media could become a direct responsibility of Mr Barnett.

“I think there has always been issues surrounding the GMO,” Mr Barnett said.

“The functions will continue but maybe under a different structure, for example some of the roles such as government advertising, media placement, monitoring of media and the like, they might be subsumed under the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

“Some of the roles in terms of coordination of media may well go into my office ... but those decisions have not been made yet.”

Mr Barnett said he has had discussions with Mr Plowman over the possibility of heading the restructured media office.

Executive pay

IN Canberra, the government succeeded in pushing through legislation limiting executive payouts without a Senate-imposed sunset clause it says would have made the whole scheme unworkable.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who proposed the initial amendment, acknowledged the numbers were against him as the opposition, which initially backed his proposal, had performed an about face.

But he maintained there was still an important principle at stake.

Senator Xenophon wanted the government to come up with a better bill when the sunset clause expired.

The Corporations Amendment (Improving Accountability on Termination payments) Bill 2009 aimed to empower shareholders to reject excessive termination payments not in the interests of the company, shareholders or community.

The measure followed a public outcry over excessive golden handshake payouts to some departing executives of companies that had not been performing well.

Assistant Treasurer Nick Sherry said the government in the House of Representatives had rejected the Senate amendment and it should now be reconsidered.

The amendment would have had the effect of requiring shareholder approval of any termination payment of almost any sum, even those contractually agreed.

“This is unworkable,” he said.

“The government has introduced this bill to improve corporate accountability and in doing so it struck an appropriate balance between empowering shareholders and providing companies with adequate certainty.”

Liberal frontbencher Helen Coonan said the opposition would not insist on Senator Xenophon’s amendment.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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