25/01/2012 - 10:57

Fresh start gives Labor opportunity

25/01/2012 - 10:57


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A strong opposition is one of the key ingredients in making a good government, no matter who is in power.

A strong opposition is one of the key ingredients in making a good government, no matter who is in power.

THE state Labor Party has enjoyed an unusually smooth leadership transition over the past couple of weeks.

Former leader Eric Ripper bowed out graciously, seemingly relieved that he no longer had to carry the burden of trying to make inroads against an effective and popular premier.

New leader Mark McGowan launched into the role with gusto, rolling out his family, making himself available for photo opportunities, and conducting interviews.

And that was all in the days before he was formally elected leader, on Monday.

Mr McGowan has been adept at playing the media, delivering catchy quotes that play to the apparent concerns of the community at large.

For instance, one of his first comments, after being anointed leader, was this: “I can tell you this, I have an air-conditioner at my house. I have the internet on at home. I don’t regard them as luxuries.”

That was in reference to earlier comments by Premier Colin Barnett, who suggested that air-conditioning was not a necessity in Perth, and that people should cut back on pay TV subscriptions if they are financially squeezed.

Both suggestions were perfectly reasonable (especially if Perth had more environmentally sensible houses), but they have been judged out of touch with community aspirations and therefore politically inept.

It’s not surprising that Mr McGowan wants to play up to populist issues like this, and that he has performed for the cameras and the mass media.

That’s part of modern politics, but it doesn’t define leadership; nor is it sufficient if Mr McGowan wants to build credibility as an alternative premier.

Indeed, he should take note of the fact that Mr Barnett has become Australia’s most popular premier – judging by national opinion polls – without being a ‘media tart’.

The WA community sees through superficial performers very quickly and craves leaders of substance; leaders who can carry some gravitas and articulate an agenda, a vision.

To his credit, Mr McGowan appears to understand this. He could take some lessons from one of his political heroes, former prime minister Bob Hawke, who led one of Australia’s most successful reformist governments.

Hawke – with help from ministers like Paul Keating, John Button and, crucially, WA farmer Peter Walsh – led a government that dispensed with many traditional Labor beliefs.

His government cut government spending, deregulated markets, scrapped middle-class welfare, and forced struggling industries to restructure.

The Hawke government did this in a way that made people comfortable with change, rather than scared.

If Mr McGowan wants a few pointers on the issues that concern the business sector in WA, a good starting point would be the Chamber of Minerals & Energy’s pre-budget submission.

It highlights key issues facing the state, in areas as diverse as taxation, land access, industrial relations, local industry participation, the environment, people and skills.

CME chief executive Reg Howard-Smith spoke for many in the business community when he said the biggest constraint to growth in WA was the lack of a strategic infrastructure plan.

“The current portfolio by portfolio approach to infrastructure planning and investment is not sustainable for the kind of growth the state is experiencing,” he said.

CCI chief executive James Pearson has also called on Mr McGowan to state a willingness to address the big issues facing the state, including the high cost of doing business, and meeting the rapidly increasing pressure on infrastructure and skills as the state expands.

Curiously, he singled out retail trading, in particular Labor’s opposition to Sunday trading, as an area that needs attention.

Further deregulation of retail trading hours would be a good move, but has more symbolic than substantive impact relative to issues like energy policy and budget policy.

The state doesn’t have an energy policy, despite numerous discussion papers being released.

And budget policy is one of Colin Barnett’s weak spots, with rising debt, excessive growth in spending, and minimal tax relief.

The challenge for Mr McGowan, if he wants to be seen as a credible alternative premier, is to highlight government weaknesses and, critically, develop superior alternatives.



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