06/02/2013 - 11:49

Government unwise to ignore rail

06/02/2013 - 11:49


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State Labor is aiming to trade on its reputation as the party that cares about public transport.

State Labor is aiming to trade on its reputation as the party that cares about public transport.

THE formal start of the state election process, the issuing of writs that signals the beginning of the WA Electoral Commission’s official timetable, could not have come soon enough for Premier Colin Barnett. He will be hoping the electorate will now start focusing on his agenda, rather than Labor’s.

The past few weeks have not been happy ones for the premier. Apart from the row over the accuracy of his costings given on FM radio, he has been under pressure over his views on Labor’s proposed rail line to Ellenbrook in Perth’s north-east, alleged abuses of the caretaker provisions of government and, more recently, just what he said to James Packer – and when – over the planned stadium at Burswood.

It has been a concerted tactic by Labor, which starts the campaign well back in the polls. It knows Mr Barnett’s strong approval ratings are a problem for its chances. If his credibility can be dented, Labor could get back in the race.

The media coverage generated by Labor’s planned expansion of the metropolitan rail and road network has been another plus for the opposition. This was achieved by stretching the announcement of the initiative over several days, maximising the media attention.

In doing so, Labor leader Mark McGowan has been playing to one of his party’s traditional strengths – public transport. Labor takes credit for both the Joondalup and Mandurah rail links, although it must be said a start on the southern line was made under Richard Court’s coalition government in 2000.

But Labor grabs the credit. And the current Liberal-National alliance has done little during its four-and-a-half-year term to publicly change that perception. The row over the future of Wheatbelt lines reinforces that view.

Politicians forget, at their peril, that trains are popular with voters. Approaching the 1989 poll, when a beleaguered Dowding Labor government was searching for a vote-winning announcement, former NSW premier Neville Wran, who was acting as an adviser, is said to have offered: ‘Give ’em a train, they love trains’.

Labor then decided to run with the northern surburbs commitment, and the line has been hailed a great success.

Mr Barnett’s problems over Ellenbrook started when Labor’s Alan Carpenter promised the line in the 2008 campaign to help one of his senior staffers, Rita Saffioti, who was running in West Swan. Mr Barnett, only days into his second stint as opposition leader, said a Liberal government would match that commitment.

Ms Saffioti won the seat and Mr Barnett became premier. He then said it was only ever an issue to be looked at in the second term of a Liberal government, before it slid off the agenda despite regular reminders from the new Labor MP. Far better for the premier to say that “we looked at the patronage for a train from Ellenbrook when we got into government and it did not justify such a big investment – at this stage.”

Mr Barnett will now urge voters to look at the bigger picture, including his own, more modest light rail plan. He would be unwise to ignore Mr Wran’s advice, however.

Self-interest test

THE motives behind Julia Gillard’s decision to set September 14 as the federal election date have been assessed from every possible angle. The only issue not in dispute is that her decision ends the uncertainty.

But was it also designed to head off any possible leadership challenge by Kevin Rudd? Or was it designed to try and lock in Tony Abbott as the Liberal leader, at the expense of Malcolm Turnbull? Or did she believe it in the national interest to provide certainty, especially for business?

It could be a combination of these things, or none of them.

A good rule of thumb in assessing the decisions of governments and politicians has been offered by the former Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, who established a reputation for his hard-nosed approach to political decisions.

Mr Keating entered federal parliament at the age of 25, after first fighting a rough-and-tumble contest to win Labor endorsement for the safe seat of Blaxland in Sydney’s western suburbs. But he learned much about politics and the Labor culture from J T (Jack) Lang, a former NSW premier who was drummed out of the party in 1942 for his radical approach, but welcomed back – thanks to Mr Keating’s insistence – in 1971.

The former prime minister said that, in seeking to understand the reasons for key decisions, Mr Lang had told him: “Son, always put your money on self-interest. It’s the only horse in the race you can be confident is really having a go.”  

So whatever Ms Gillard’s reasons, according to the self-interest, the overriding factor must be that it will be to her advantage. We will hear lots about ‘Labor values’ in coming months. Perhaps it is designed to hammer home issues such as upgrading primary and secondary education, and a major improvement in services for the disabled.

They are programs that are hard to argue against, but they have to be paid for; and that is the prime minister’s challenge.

The other factor flowing from Ms Gillard’s decision is that she has effectively made her government the first fixed three-year administration in Australia’s history. No previous prime minister has nominated the election date so far in advance.

That fact is not all that surprising to voters in states such as Western Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, where fixed four-year terms apply.

WA voters are learning to adapt to their first fixed-term election, but the campaign seems to be prolonged because it comes at the end of the summer holidays. Late November or early December would be a much better time.  

Hopefully the three-state experience will lead to fixed federal terms too. But don’t expect them to emulate the states and push for fixed four-year parliaments. Australians roundly rejected a referendum for maximum four-year terms in 1988, with only 33 per cent of voters supporting the move.

Maximum three-year terms are provided for in section 28 of the Constitution, so setting a fixed three-year term would still meet the Constitution’s requirements.

Sure, it would take away the element of surprise in naming the election date, which can be handy for the prime minister, but over a five-week campaign that factor is harder to sustain. And most alert oppositions aren’t that surprised when a prime minister or premier makes the trip to their respective government houses to ask for the parliament to be dissolved.

The latest Newspoll gives the coalition a 56 per cent to 44 per cent lead over Labor in two party-preferred voting intentions. Closing that gap is the ultimate self-interest test.


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