Premier Alan Carpenter has finished the year sounding upbeat, despite all of the ministerial and corruption crises gripping his government. Mark Beyer and Mark Pownall report.
IF anyone in Western Australia should be looking forward to a summer holiday and a break from the rigors of their day job, it is the premier, Alan Carpenter.
The past 12 months has been an extraordinary time for Mr Carpenter, who started the year as state development minister and unexpectedly assumed the top job after the shock retirement of his predecessor, Geoff Gallop.
The surprises continued through the year but in nearly all cases they have been adverse.
The government has been rocked by a succession of corruption inquiries, which graphically exposed former premier Brian Burke’s lobbying influence and led to the forced resignation of two ministers, “rising star” John D’Orazio and Burke acolyte Norm Marlborough.
The government has also been dogged by controversy surrounding former education and training minister Ljiljanna Ravlich and former indigenous affairs minister Sheila McHale, who were both demoted in the recent ministerial reshuffle.
Despite the gravity of these issues, Mr Carpenter said the government was doing well.
“Those issues are all significant and are important, but the broader picture is much more important…and that is the economic performance and the delivery of infrastructure and government programs into the community, and we have done it well,” he said. “The big picture is undeniably good.”
Mr Carpenter, who was openly critical of The West Australian during the year, believes the popular media misses the point.
“A lot of the stuff that fascinates the media on a day-to-day basis is just a sideshow for ordinary people,” he told WA Business News.
“The main essence of what they are interested in is how their own lives are going, and their lives are going pretty well.”
Mr Carpenter is able to rattle off WA’s impressive economic statistics with ease – an economic growth rate that hit 14 per cent, unemployment at “unimaginably low” levels and private business investment at record levels.
He said the government’s main role was to maximise the opportunities flowing from the resources boom, and on that score he gives himself a tick of approval.
“I reckon the reason we are still getting strong support in the community is that they know, they can see we have got a good long term agenda and it’s paying off.”
When asked about his relationship with the state’s business community, Mr Carpenter said he’d be disappointed if it was not a good relationship.
“I hope they see me as someone who is interested in furthering the state’s economy, and someone they can respect and deal with openly and honestly; but I don’t know, I don’t run surveys on it,” he said.
The premier was surprised by the findings of this week’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry of WA survey, which reported a consistent deterioration in support for the state government.
The CCI survey gave the government a tick for economic management and capital works but was critical of its performance in 14 other key business areas, including red tape, education training, and tax reform.
Perhaps of most concern is the fact that this survey shows the government’s relationship with business has been deteriorating since Labor took office.
Mr Carpenter said he “runs a discount” through most surveys and opinion polls to filter out the predictable findings.
Despite the CCI survey results, he believes Treasurer Eric Ripper – who has copped a lot of flak over the lack of big tax cuts – is also viewed positively.
“There is a pretty positive response to Eric in the business community, maybe I’m wrong, that’s my perception.”
Mr Carpenter said the number one priority for his new ministerial team was strong economic growth, because this provided the capacity to deliver better social and community policies.
“My view is that the economy and the business community and industry is the secret of your success,” he said.
“You have got to have a strong economy.
“As soon as the economy becomes your problem, then every other problem is blown up 10 times.”
The premier denied that his decision to give up the state development portfolio meant he was stepping away from having a key role in economic policy.
“I am still involved in the economic development of Western Australia and I think that’s important.”
Mr Carpenter pointed to his retention of the trade and investment portfolio, which effectively makes him the salesman for the state – though he bristles at the suggestion that this or other decisions make him any way a follower of Queensland Premier Peter Beattie’s strategies.
He prefers Victoria’s Steve Bracks as role model.
A second priority is to diversify the state’s economy.
“There has got to be more than, more gas and more rocks, and I have to maintain a bright light on innovation and change and diversification of the state’s economy,” Mr Carpenter said.
“I sincerely believe if we pull that off it will be beneficial for WA for 50 to 100 years.”
Mr Carpenter’s focus on economic diversification was reflected in his decision to take the science and innovation portfolio from Francis Logan, who has been promoted to the key state development portfolio.
He cited the government’s investment in the Australian Marine Complex at Henderson, which is starting to become a hub for marine, defence and oil and gas contracting, as evidence of its commitment.
Biotechnology, medical research and marine science were other targeted sectors.
The premier said a third priority for his government would be climate change, which for the first time has become a separate portfolio. It has been assigned to new Environment Minister Tony Macrae after Mark McGowan was promoted to education and training.
Mr Carpenter said a fourth priority was a better performance by his ministers.
“The ministers have to demonstrate they are focused, hard working, disciplined and competent,” he said.
But he accepts that ministerial problems will crop up in future.
“You have got to deal with them as quickly as you possibly can, and as well as you can, and then refocus everybody on the main game.”
He's also determined to remain focused on the main game.
“It’s sometimes hard to see past the daily issue, or the daily crisis, but you have got to, you can’t let that block your vision of the future.”
Mr Carpenter’s vision revolves around infrastructure provision and policy reform that will support sustainable growth, without being “put off by all the flak that flies around”.
While the business community is not always pleased with the government’s approach, Mr Carpenter said he had to strike a balance between competing goals.
“One of the criticisms I get internally is that I’m too oriented towards economic issues and the business community,” he said.
“We are getting criticism from the environmental movement because we are seen to be too brown.”