29/03/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - No bypass yet but watch Barnett

29/03/2005 - 22:00


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Defeated Liberal leader Colin Barnett, like his predecessor Richard Court, promptly resigned from the party’s top parliamentary post after losing to Geoff Gallop.

Defeated Liberal leader Colin Barnett, like his predecessor Richard Court, promptly resigned from the party’s top parliamentary post after losing to Geoff Gallop.

Unlike Mr Court, who moved to thwart Mr Barnett becoming leader, Mr Barnett didn’t seek to block the emergence of the party’s only viable leadership contender, Matt Birney.

But Mr Barnett would have a hard time convincing colleagues he backed his deputy, Dan Sullivan, Mr Birney’s preferred deputy leadership candidate, who the party room rejected by one vote for Paul Omodei.

That said, Mr Birney is now in the same position as Simon Crean when Kim Beazley decided he’d stick around to perhaps fight another day.

This means Mr Barnett can quietly sit back, watch and wait … for the time being.

If an opportunity to have another crack at the party’s top job fails to materialise, he’d then look for fresh pastures.

Why be in a hurry?

Also not to be forgotten was previously defeated John Howard, who replaced John Hewson after he’d fumbled the ball with his so-called Fightback program for a goods and services tax, showing his ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass’ capabilities.

The first sign that Mr Barnett is positioning himself to attempt a Howard-Beazley style comeback will come if, as a backbencher, he begins delivering long-winded speeches on potentially contentious issues.

Although water certainly qualifies he’ll probably never return to it because of his humiliating campaign experience with that uncosted and unassessed Kimberley-to-Perth canal.

State Scene has been assured no hydrological surveys have been conducted across the Fitzroy Valley that was to be tapped for 200 gigalitres annually.

But then again the one thing Mr Barnett enjoyed by temporarily flying that kite was the sense of importance it gave.

For probably the first time in his life he felt he seemed to be calling the shots; an exhilarating feeling, no doubt.

Unfortunately the kite-flying exercise ended with electoral demise in a poll the Liberals could have won.

State Scene’s guess is that he’ll step forward by talking instead about energy, even though here his record is far less illustrious than on water.

As least the canal was, thankfully, never commenced.

But in the energy area, where he’s still confident he has something to offer, he’s made several costly and less-than-illustrious decisions.

There was his flawed sale of the Dampier-to-Bunbury Natural Gas Pipeline for a bloated price of $2.4 billion; thereby helping to ensure that the buyers, Epic Energy, went belly-up with that deal.

Then there was his failure to give the all-clear for Collie A power station, which was initially envisaged as a 600MW unit.

Instead he cut capacity to 300MW, thereby significantly lifting unit capital cost.

And he coaxed Western Power into the now abandoned Windimurra vanadium project headed by controversial Swiss metals trader Xstrata, which left the utility carrying a sizeable annual debt.

These moves were capped by opposing Labor’s industry-wide widely-hailed moves to break-up – disaggregate – Western Power, to finally make the state’s energy sector competitive, as the farsighted Carnegie Report recommended.

Interestingly, Mr Birney crossed the floor to back Labor’s disaggregation moves, so there’s a ready-made difference between the Liberals’ pro-Birney and pro-Barnett factions that could be built on to eventually spark a leadership challenge.

Any number of issues could, of course, bring that on.

For instance, with Labor set to thoroughly overhaul WA’s electoral arrangements and thus boundaries around a Labor variant of the one-vote-one-value principle, Mr Birney – Kalgoorlie’s MLA  – could find himself holding a seat that’s merged into surrounding Labor-held seats.

If that occurred it wouldn’t be long before Liberals number crunchers had calculated his chances of being returned in a newly created Goldfields seat.

With these probably being zip, other Liberal MPs could hardly be expected to go into an election with a leader who was unlikely to be returned.

Worse still, if Mr Birney makes a bungle or two, either in parliament or at a press conference or interview – like Mr Barnett so dramatically did 36 hours before the election with his $200 million budgetary blooper – then all the better for any prospective challengers.

The 15-14 Omodei versus Sullivan vote indicates that if Mr Birney were confronted by a reinvigorated Mr Barnett, especially after a Birney faux pas or two, and uncertainty over his Kalgoorlie seat, a leadership showdown could well go the way of Mr Barnett.

March 2005 is still early days when state election 2009 is 47 months off, so there’s a lot of water still to flow beneath that bridge.

With election 2009 so far off, Liberal Barnett watchers cannot think of a career he’s likely to opt for outside politics.

True, he briefly taught at tertiary level, was an economist with a private sector agency, and spent time as resources and energy minister. Surely that’s all good experience for a high-paying position with a resources company or an academic post.

But those who doubt either path lies ahead of Mr Barnett back their claims by highlighting the damaging effects of his gung-ho approach to the uncosted and unassessed $2 billion canal on any such employment options.

This anti-empirical inclination casts a dark shadow over Mr Barnett’s future beyond politics and gives rise to doubts over whether he’d be sought by a resource company, where the emphasis is constantly on caution, empiricism and feasibility studies.

That, surely, leaves him only with politics, the career he’s undoubtedly most enjoyed, despite not always being readily accepted by colleagues, and where he’s so far failed to reach his ultimate ambition – the premiership.

Few realise it but when he was elected leader in 2001 his majority was just two votes, one more vote than Mr Omodei.

The challenger was rank outsider, Rod Sweetman, who only entered that race to ensure it wasn’t a lay down misere, in other words to make a race of it. Despite seeing himself as the heir apparent, therefore, Mr Barnett almost lost.

Irrespective of that, politics appears to be what he sees himself best cut out for, so don’t be surprised if we see him attempting to emulate a Messrs Howard and Beazley bypass.


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