01/11/2005 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Share affair may belt Labor

01/11/2005 - 21:00

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A view has begun to emerge around State Parliament and the major political parties that the Gallop government is approaching a fork in the road.

A view has begun to emerge around State Parliament and the major political parties that the Gallop government is approaching a fork in the road.

If it turns southwards it will be headed for the slippery slope to inevi-table defeat at the next election in 40 months. If northwards, it has a better than even chance of being re-elected, since the coming statewide redistri-bution is likely to markedly enhance its re-election odds.

Dr Gallop’s claim that the Kucera shares affair was a “stuff-up” not a “cover-up” has been interpreted by many who are in the know as further evidence of a refusal to confront his government’s slap-dash approach where near enough is seen to be good enough.

The opposition’s revelation of a re-run of that affair by Planning Minister Alannah MacTiernan is seen as simply further reinforcing this assessment.

Both affairs were followed by Dr Gallop publicly pooh-poohing the idea of moving towards the installation of seat belts in school buses following the near-catastrophic smash near Mandurah.

Many children in that bus are alive because someone insisted that such belts be installed.

In that case, all Dr Gallop had to say was that his financially flush government would look to funding, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, or some such formula, all parents and citizens committees that had themselves resolved to install seat belts into special-purpose buses being used by their schools.

Such a move would have put the onus on to parents, rather than leaving it as a bureaucratic decision, and responsibility and would thus have encouraged families to embark on a parental self-help approach.

Instead, Dr Gallop referred to some vague statistical evidence that few had ever heard of and we were all expected to trust his interpretation of those figures.

Such off-hand responses – “stuff-up” not “cover-up” and “the statistics show” – indicate that October 2005 may well come to be remembered by Labor strategists as the month their party began resembling the Court-led coalition government when it failed to act on the mortgage brokers scandal, which ultimately lead to its ignominious demise in February 2001.

Perhaps a brief recap is in order here.

Press reports that unequivocally indicated all was not well in the state’s minuscule capital market began appearing early in the life of the second Court government.

But the then fair trading minister, Doug Shave, sat tight.

Stories, however, continued to appear, with many carrying ever-starker examples of Perth’s fast moneymen having been less than prudent with retirees’ money.

Relatively soon after this, opinion polls began turning around and the whopping Court government victory in the December 1996 election began looking like an ever-distant utopia.

Mr Court could, however, have saved the bacon even a year out from the February 2001 election.

All he had to do was to act resolutely by firstly dumping Mr Shave and giving the agency within his Fair Trading Ministry that allegedly regulated finance brokers one almighty shake-up.

But nothing of the sort happened.

A pointless inquiry followed, which the public understandably saw as evading resolute action.

Mr Court, Mr Shave and the full cabinet sat on their hands, hoping they’d taken the right turn at the fork whereas they’d in fact taken the wrong one.

What followed was that voters increasingly saw the mortgage brokers’ affair as a scandal with deserving battlers being ignored and financially dudded.

This widespread outlook, plus the Court government’s inability to grapple with the Greens’ skillful, and possibly exaggerated, campaign highlighting South West logging put Labor into power.

Dr Gallop may well be counting on similar luck as well as electoral forgetfulness, or another round of tactical opposition blunders, to help get him through election 2009 in 40 months’ time.

If that’s so, it may be fatal.

Once governments slump deeply in the polls it’s difficult to reverse the slide.

Moreover, such slumps tend to invigorate oppositions, which then find the raising of funds far easier.

Dr Gallop should ask his numbers men to closely inspect last election’s results and they’ll find he retained power by just more than 1,000 votes. Yes, that few; it was that close.

The reason for that dismal Labor performance was, of course, that the premier promised in the 2001 campaign that there would be no tax hikes; an undertaking he promptly dishonoured.

Taxes escalated in 2001, 2002 and 2003, with the predictable slight trimming of taxes shortly before the February 2005 election to help get over the line.

Colin Barnett’s $2 billion Kimberley-to-Perth canal and his fumbling of his election costings were an unexpected bonus that went on to save the day for Labor.

Another opposition bungle that also helped save Labor’s bacon had come well before the election with the Liberals foolishly dumping upper house Liberal MP Alan Cadby, someone who was never comfortable with the opposition’s insistence on rural vote weighting.

Little wonder Labor’s first move after the election was the prompt reconvening of parliament to bring in its version of the long sought after one-vote-one-value redistribution with Mr Cadby’s backing.

But the dumping of Mr Cadby had resulted in a huge slump in Liberal votes across several northern metropolitan seats that were overlapped by Mr Cadby’s upper house seat.

And last week State Scene learned that there was yet another stroke of exceptional luck that was even more crucial in keeping Dr Gallop in power.

Unbeknown to us all at the time, late last year a staffer from a senior Liberal MP’s office casually walked into Mr Barnett’s parliamentary office and told one of his staffers that a family member of the now dumped Mr Kucera owned Alinta shares.

The way State Scene hears it this insightful but unassuming staffer urged that the Kucera portfolio be more closely looked at by Mr Barnett’s boffins.

But nothing happened.

Imagine if that investigation had been conducted shortly before the election, not nine months after the election with new opposition leader Matt Birney picking up all the kudos.

And imagine if the findings had been disclosed to the media just after Mr Barnett’s now famous $2 billion canal-will-be-dug campaign speech.

In other words less than a fortnight out from February’s election.

Which issue would have drowned out which issue?

No, we don’t need to be imaginative.

All we need do is think back to the way a candidate so adroitly used the findings at the 2001 election on former Geraldton Liberal MP Bob Bloftwich, who was a shareholder in Kingstream Steel, which was planning a $1 billion-plus steel mill at Oakajee just north of Geraldton.

Mr Bloftwich’s political career promptly went down the chute, along with several other Liberal MPs who believed they held quite safe seats.

Dr Gallop, Mr Kucera, Ms MacTiernan, indeed the entire Labor government, can thank their exceptionally lucky stars that that Barnett staffer, last year, ignored the tip-off given about the Kucera family’s share portfolio.

If it had been otherwise Mr Barnett would today be premier, something he’d been dreaming of for years but failed to achieve because of a constellation of silly misjudgments and some very bad advice on how to campaign and failure to combine with many in his parliamentary team.

To count on that happening at the next election would itself be a silly misjudgment, indeed.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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