The Barnett government seems to have slipped up in its efforts to strike a balance between decisive leadership and due process.
ONE of Premier Colin Barnett’s great strengths is the firm, decisive leadership he displays.
Mr Barnett is a no-nonsense politician with a clear agenda for promoting development around the state, and doing so in a responsible manner.
He has made clear that he will champion major projects, from the expansion of the Ord River irrigation area in the Kimberley to the Oakajee port in the Mid West and the City Link development in Perth.
Some of his causes are controversial. In particular, Mr Barnett has strongly supported the development of a gas-processing hub at James Price Point near Broome, to the point where he activated a compulsory acquisition process to overcome a potential roadblock related to native title claims.
He has pointed out to critics of this move that the compulsory acquisition process is mapped out under federal government legislation. And the native title claimants in the area voted recently to accept a settlement that made the compulsory acquisition process redundant.
Oakajee and James Price Point are, of course, new port developments.
Managing the state’s historic ports is arguably a much more challenging task, because all of them – from Esperance and Albany to Bunbury, Fremantle, Geraldton and Port Hedland – have grown up in the midst of commercial and residential areas.
Almost any move to expand the capacity of these ports or open them up to new commodities creates friction with the residents and business owners who live and work nearby.
The losers are often exporters and importers, who are keen to trade with the rest of the world but are constrained by lack of port access.
Lead miner Magellan Metals is an obvious example. After the lead pollution scandal at Esperance, it was accepted by all parties that the management of lead exports needed to be tightened. That occurred, yet Magellan has continued to suffer from what is almost a phobia around lead exports.
It has been blocked from exporting for what can only be considered technical breaches of its regulations, and nobody in government wants to speak out in support of the company, not even ministers in a pro-business, pro-development government.
Now we have the strange situation where aspiring iron ore miner Cazaly Resources has been told that it can’t export iron ore through Fremantle.
The relevant minister, Troy Buswell, has, of course, been in a personal relationship with local MP Adele Carles, who spoke out against the proposal soon after it became public.
The premier has stood by Mr Buswell, saying there is no conflict of interest, and that may be so; but it still raises questions about the decision-making process.
Cazaly was proposing to use enclosed containers to transport the ore by train, in concert with a rotary unloading system. There would be no iron ore stockpiles, like the residents of Port Hedland can see over their back fence.
Nor would there be the stench from the live sheep trade, which is a blight on Fremantle. That’s the same live sheep trade that could have been transferred to Kwinana if the government had allowed private company James Point Pty Ltd (a consortium that includes building magnate Len Buckeridge) to proceed with its long-standing plan to build a new industrial port.
The James Point port would not only remove the foul odours from Fremantle, it would also take hundreds of trucks off the roads in and around Fremantle.
Another decision that has left business groups uncomfortable was the Environmental Protection Authority’s halting of a coal mine proposal near Margaret River, without going through a normal review process.
This has prompted the Chamber of Commerce & Industry WA, the Chamber of Minerals & Energy and the Association of Mining & Exploration Companies to lodge appeals, not over the merits of the decision but over the process that was followed.
The industry groups have called for three things – consistency, transparency and sound evidence to back any decision.
Surely that isn’t unreasonable for any government agency, or indeed any minister.