17/01/2006 - 21:00

How to judge the Gallop government?

17/01/2006 - 21:00


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It's not often that a political announcement genuinely catches everyone by surprise, but Geoff Gallop’s decision this week to step down as premier and retire from politics certainly falls into that category.

It's not often that a political announcement genuinely catches everyone by surprise, but Geoff Gallop’s decision this week to step down as premier and retire from politics certainly falls into that category.

Dr Gallop was at the peak of his influence, having won re-election for a second term of office only 12 months ago.

He was secure in the job, had a stable ministerial team and was considered highly likely to win a third term if he chose to continue for that long.

Perhaps even more surprising than the decision to retire was the reason. The last time most journalists saw 54-year-old Dr Gallop was in late December at his annual media Christmas drinks.

He appeared to be his normal self, enjoying a drink and a few laughs at the Victoria Park croquet club and looking forward to a holiday in the UK, where he was expected to catch up with his good friend, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Dr Gallop served as premier for five years. He came from academia and his bookish, intellectual style was always apparent. His period as premier was characterised by an unprecedented economic boom.

The strength of the economy created a benign environment for the government, which enjoyed rapid growth in employment and record low unemployment.

The strong economy, including higher property prices and higher mining output, also underpinned rapid growth in tax revenue.

This made it possible for the government to achieve record budget surpluses and maintain the state’s triple-A credit rating despite big increases in spending.

As head of the government, Dr Gallop was a decent and honourable man who provided stable, diligent leadership.

What he didn’t provide was the vision, the passion and the drive that would elevate his government above the pack.

Many people often asked what the government really stood for. What were its great achievements?

When asked, Dr Gallop would usually refer to goals like sound economic management and a desire to improve health, education and the environment.

As a slightly left-of-centre Labor leader, Dr Gallop also had a keen desire to make Western Australia a fairer, more equitable community.

The state’s current economic boom, and the associated growth in jobs and wages, made it easier for Dr Gallop’s government to score goals.

The boom also disguised weaknesses in the Gallop government. One of the biggest changes it adopted after coming to power in 2001 was to reverse the Court government’s industrial relations reforms.

That left WA out of step with the rest of the country, including other states that are run by Labor governments.

The reality is that the WA industrial relations system offers much less flexibility than other states.

Employers have voted with their feet by transferring in large numbers to the federal IR system, where it is much easier to negotiate individual workplace agreements.

The government has also been weak in its response to militant unions, particularly the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

Its industrial relations policies fuelled suspicion about the behind-the-scenes influence of union leaders.

They were also a throwback to an earlier era, when people equated workplace flexibility with workplace exploitation.

Dr Gallop’s staunch opposition to uranium mining was also a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s.

Uranium mining was one of the few issues that put fire into the former premier’s belly, which was unfortunate for the state because now is a time to have a mature and robust debate about uranium mining.

Another weakness, and a source of frustration for many business people, was the maze of planning and environmental approvals.

Dr Gallop was obsessive about ‘due process’, which helped to distance him from the dark days of WA Inc but frustrated many people trying to work with the government.

While state development ministers Clive Brown and Alan Carpenter established a rapport with industry and have sought to facilitate eco-nomic development, other ministers were putting barriers in the way.

WA has prospered despite these policy weaknesses.

Should the world economy slow down and commodity prices weaken, the government would be under far more pressure than Dr Gallop ever faced.

Ultimately Dr Gallop was a cautious, even timid premier who didn’t want to upset key pressure groups. He relied heavily on his long-time chief of staff Sean Walsh, who reinforced Dr Gallop’s natural caution.

The challenge for Dr Gallop’s successor is to look beyond the pressure groups and to focus on the big picture opportunities for the state.


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