09/09/2010 - 00:00

Colin Barnett’s defining moment

09/09/2010 - 00:00


Save articles for future reference.

As the premier prepares for the 2013 state election, he needs to strike a delicate balance to avoid ongoing hostilities surrounding James Price Point and state spending.

Colin Barnett's decision to seek compulsory acquisition of James Price Point, north of Broome, for an LNG precinct is easily the most significant in his first two years as premier.

And it could emerge as the defining moment in the first term of the Liberal-National state government.

It's not that the government hasn't made tough or unpopular decisions, such as the sharp increases in household power and water charges.

But in moving on James Price Point, Mr Barnett has entered territory that has bedevilled previous governments, and sometimes split the community.

The premier has two overriding motives in his determination to push ahead with the issue. The first is to establish an on-shore processing facility for Woodside's Browse Basin project in Western Australia. He ridiculed the previous government as incapable of making a decision on the site for a facility for the Japanese company Inpex, and blamed Labor for the company’s decision to base its operations in Darwin. He couldn't afford the same charge being levelled against him.

The second is the opportunities that the project offers the Aboriginal people. A wide-ranging benefits package worth about $1.5 billion over the expected 30-year life of the project has been negotiated with Woodside.

It's seen as the best chance so far of getting big numbers of indigenous people in the south-west Kimberley off welfare and into meaningful jobs. It could be the avenue into vastly improved opportunities and standard of living for thousands of Aborigines, and turn their lives around.

The goals are laudable. It's how to achieve them that has aroused the controversy.

Good progress was made last year when a heads of agreement was signed on the general principles under which the project would proceed, and the benefits that would flow. These included economic opportunities, stronger environmental protection, home ownership, and more emphasis on training and education.

But talks on the detail of the agreement stalled. Deadlines were extended three times, and eventually the premier ran out of patience.

The initial hostile reaction to compulsory acquisition was no surprise. It produced comparisons with Charles Court's decision in 1980 to forcibly assist with exploration at Noonkenbah, overriding Aboriginal objections that the area contained sacred sites. The television coverage was stark and the strong police presence painted the government in a bad light.

The opposition has accused the government of using bullyboy tactics, and the unions are threatening to get involved, although in what way is not quite clear at this stage. And celebrity protestors, including popular entertainers and actors, are expected to join the action.

The acquisition process is clear-cut. First, negotiations over six months with registered native title claimants to see if agreement on the use of the land can be achieved. If not, the matter is referred to the Native Title Tribunal, in a process that is expected to take a further six months.

Mr Barnett has flagged that he will be closely involved in the negotiation stage. In fact he's expressed confidence that agreement can still be reached by negotiation.

The Kimberley Land Council representing the indigenous interests is not so sure. In fact its head, Wayne Bergmann, said reaction against the acquisition move was so strong, he had doubts whether they would be interested in any negotiations at all.

To say events have reached a delicate stage would be an understatement. And they could go either way.

Both Mr Barnett and Woodside have said the benefits package remains, and in fact may even be tapped into early as part of the emphasis on improving education standards. That's a sign of goodwill, and the resolve to ensure local communities share in the spoils from the project.

But they also run the risk of being seen to railroad the indigenous groups into agreeing that James Price Point, which as Mr Barnett has stressed is unallocated crown land at the moment, is handed over.

Woodside says it's working on a $1.25 billion work program on the Browse project, and hopes to make a final decision on the venture, said to involve a $30 billion investment, in the second half of 2012.

Mr Barnett will be hoping that amicable relations with the local groups will have been restored well before then. The last thing he’d want would be ongoing hostilities as he prepares for a 2013 state election.

Public buildings cost

How much should the government spend on public buildings, especially showpieces such as Parliament House?

The issue has surfaced following revelations that a refurbished legislative council chamber could cost more than $300,000.

Labor’s Mark McGowan has accused the state government of “exorbitant” and “wasteful” spending, especially while householders are being forced to meet “massive” increases in power and water charges.

The issue was put to the premier. He said he lacked the detailed knowledge of the spending on the upper house chamber. But he was clearly annoyed by the opposition’s tactic.

“We are probably the most important regional economy in this country,” Mr Barnett said. “And I don’t think the people of Western Australia want the state to be dumbed down that we don’t have our major public building – the parliament – up to the standards of parliament elsewhere in Australia, or in the South East Asian region.

“Let’s start to think a little bit bigger and let’s be proud of our state, and have great public buildings and great public institutions.”

It’s an interesting point. Those with long memories will remember the saga of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s. The cost blowouts were a nightmare for the NSW government. It resorted to an ‘Opera House lottery’ to help pay for a voracious monster, which has turned into a tourist icon.

Closer to home, there is the experience of the Belltower in the late ’90s. Then premier Richard Court had to find a home for the British bells which had been donated to the state. They’d been lying around so long as to constitute a major embarrassment.

After the initial ambitious plans were greeted with cries of protest, including from his deputy premier Hendy Cowan – who said the regions were being shortchanged – they were scaled back.

Now a frequent comment, especially from visitors, is that while the design is fine, it’s far too modest. If WA is really the state on the move, it should have been reflected in the scale of buildings such as the Belltower.

It’s a balancing act with costs, as Mr McGowan implies. If a government gets it wrong, it will be punished at the polls.

But if a state is confident about its future, that should be reflected in the quality of its major public institutions.

• Peter Kennedy is ABC TV's state political reporter.





Subscription Options