24/09/2008 - 22:00

Challenges await Barnett

24/09/2008 - 22:00

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THE formal swearing-in this week of the Barnett ministry marks the start of what should be an exciting period of government in Western Australia, though there will be no shortage of tough challenges.

Challenges await Barnett

THE formal swearing-in this week of the Barnett ministry marks the start of what should be an exciting period of government in Western Australia, though there will be no shortage of tough challenges.

One of the biggest opportunities for the new premier is that he comes to office with only a loosely defined policy agenda.

The late change in Liberal Party leadership combined with the early election meant that Mr Barnett simply didn't have time to put together the sort of detailed policy agenda normally considered mandatory.

Offsetting this advantage is the burden of holding together a delicate alliance of Liberals, Nationals and independents.

The Nationals have been remarkably successful in winning influence that far exceeds their state-wide support.

Nationals leader Brendon Grylls has secured support for his Royalties for Regions policy but there is little detail on how this will be implemented.

It accords with the desire of many Perth residents to see greater development around the state, particularly in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions.

Mr Barnett has even floated the concept of Dubai-like cities in the Pilbara; and while this may be superficially appealing, it is the kind of statement that could come back to bite the new premier.

The Pilbara is the engine room of WA's surging economy and that is likely to continue as new iron ore and gas projects proceed.

The region has attracted extra investment in housing and social infrastructure, but that spending is coming off a very low base. Readers should remember that most Pilbara mining towns, and Port Hedland, were in dire straits as little as five years ago.

The dramatic changes in the Pilbara were highlighted this week by Rio Tinto's announcement that nearly $300 million will be spent upgrading the town of Pannawonica, in tandem with the nearby $1 billion development of new iron ore mines.

Port Hedland and other towns in the region are also attracting big dollars, but how much will have to be spent before these towns become attractive destinations?

Many people refer to Queensland, which has a string of substantial towns and cities along its coast, and ask why WA can't be the same.

For a start, north Queensland has a far more attractive climate.

Its cities have evolved historically, to service farming and tourism industries. It's another matter entirely to try to foster the growth of new cities

Advocates of development in the north are also fond of referring to life in towns like Newman and Tom Price in the 1960s and 1970s, when work was based on traditional hours and before fly-in, fly-out become widespread.

The world has changed since then. Many spouses have their own careers, and people expect higher standards of health care and education.

It's very difficult to meet these expectations in a remote city.

The Kimberley is another region with bright growth prospects. The lifting of the ban on GM crops, and GM cotton in particular, holds the best hope for big investment in the area.

That will attract more workers and residents, and will require spending on social and economic infrastructure, but let's not kid ourselves.

Perth is home to most Western Australians because it has a great lifestyle, services and climate, and regional cities will never be able to match that combination.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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