29/08/2014 - 05:16

Cracks in Liberal-National alliance

29/08/2014 - 05:16


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The state coalition alliance partners may revert to the squabbling siblings of old if Nationals members feel their needs are being ignored.

Cracks in Liberal-National alliance

The public disagreement between Premier Colin Barnett and National Party leader Terry Redman over Chevron's $30 billion Wheatstone project at Onslow is the most serious sign of tension in the governing parties since their election six years ago.

Mr Barnett has been quick to downplay the issue, but it is apparent that Mr Redman is far from happy, as is the local National MP, Vince Catania.

The row was sparked by the premier's decision to free Chevron of an earlier commitment to house Wheatstone project workers in the Onslow townsite, which would require a daily 50-kilometre round trip.

Mr Catania blew the whistle on the action, accusing the US-based oil and gas giant of turning its back on a state agreement commitment to build a village in Onslow and also "fully fund" the upgrading of the local airport.

Mr Barnett had approved the change in his role as state development minister, prompting Mr Redman (who is regional development minister) to accuse him of being captured by his close links with Chevron.

The company defended the move on safety issues linked with the long daily drive, and noted that it would be pumping $250 million into the area for infrastructure and 50 new houses.

Friction within the Liberal and National parties in government is not new. What is surprising is that it took so long for a major blow up to occur in the current government

Relations were relatively harmonious during Sir David Brand's record 12-year term (1959-71), but that changed quickly when Sir Charles Court became premier in 1974. Less than a year into his term the coalition split. Short-term Nationals minister Matt Stephens claimed Sir Charles had said to him: "Matt, be reasonable, see it my way."

Peace was eventually restored, but only after the Nationals lost the deputy premiership.

There was another flare up in 2000 when Nationals leader Hendy Cowan accused the Liberals under Richard Court of being city centric. When some Liberal ministers bristled at a cabinet meeting in Moora, Mr Cowan challenged them to go out and announce the coalition government was over. They declined.

The recent friction represents a challenge for Mr Barnett. Liberal hardliners would be quick to point out that, with 31 MPs in the 59-seat assembly, the party could govern in its own right. But the premier knows such a majority is rare, and the two parties generally need each other to run the state.

The other potential downside of going it alone is that the Liberals might not be able to count on the votes of all 31 MPs in parliament. So why take the risk?

Until now, Mr Barnett has been wary of crossing swords with his alliance partner. For example he has soft-pedalled the issue of amalgamating country shires, concentrating instead on consolidation in the metropolitan area. And he tolerated the Nationals' opposition to extended shopping hours.

But the question now is, how far are the Nationals willing to be pushed on issues directly affecting their own constituency before they decide enough is enough?

Expenses gamble

Governments and their ministers are expected to make decisions without fear or favour. They must also ensure they are not compromised in the decision-making process.

Which makes Racing and Gaming Minister Terry Waldron's continued stoic defence of senior public servant Barry Sargeant's visit last year to inspect gambling operations at Macau, courtesy of James Packer's Crown Perth, all the more puzzling.

The trip was mentioned in an earlier Political Perspective (July 14), but more details have come to light in response to a question from Labor frontbencher Mick Murray.

"Mr Sargeant travelled as chair of the Gaming and Wagering Commission and in his role as the regulator of gambling in Western Australia," Mr Waldron replied. "It is completely appropriate for him to be better informed on challenges that meet that market on which he has to make rulings from time to time."

And important he remains at arm's length from the industry on such issues.

Mr Waldron also revealed that: "It is common practice on the part of casino regulators to require casino operators to meet the costs of casino-related regulatory activities that fall outside the normal day-to-day process."

He said Crown Perth had regularly met such costs, including under the previous Labor government.

Referring to his approval of Mr Sargeant's expenses-paid trip, the minister added: "In this case I thought it was in the best interests of the state."

Money is tight in the government sector, but Mr Waldron was unable to tell parliament the amount that had been saved by Crown's "generous" gesture. Mr Murray was subsequently advised the cost was between $6,000 and $6,500, hardly enough to "break" the Treasury.

Mr Sargeant's integrity is not questioned. But the government should clearly be funding such trips, rather than sending invoices to the major player it is required to regulate.


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