08/02/2005 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Water plan Barnett’s bridge too far?

08/02/2005 - 21:00


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Liberal leader Colin Barnett has aspired since at least 1990, the year he entered state parliament, to become premier.

Liberal leader Colin Barnett has aspired since at least 1990, the year he entered state parliament, to become premier.

It has been his single overriding desire for the past 15 years.

That more than anything explains his announcement, at the height of the present uninspiring election campaign, that he’d belatedly joined former Labor water resources minister Ernie Bridge’s pre-1990 crusade for the tapping of Kimberley water and its shipment southwards.

In political campaigning circles the highlighting of a single issue that sparks disproportionate media hype, and hopefully generates widespread electoral approval, is called an OBI.

This two-vowel three-letter term isn’t derived from Alec Guinness’s Star Wars screen name – Obi-Wan Kenobi – but rather from campaigning jargon, one big idea (OBI).

Some local councillors, and state and federal politicians, look for possible OBIs to help elevate their profiles above rivals, especially as elections approach.

“OBIs are part of the fanfare and hype of campaigning,” a long-time campaigner told State Scene last week.

For instance, former Labor leader Mark Latham opted for an OBI by highlighting the traditional practice of reading to one’s children.

The fact that it wasn’t an original idea didn’t seem to matter.

Once the issue was raised the media focused upon him, and many voters even wrote laudatory newspaper letters praising Mr Latham’s rediscovering of something generations of parents had known and practised.

Note – all this came at no cost.

Clearly OBIs, if shrewdly used, are the cheapest way of gaining thousands of dollars of free publicity by briefly opening one’s mouth at the right moment and on the right issue.

Clearly Mr Barnett had resolved to copy Mr Latham by announcing that, as premier, he’d tap a Kimberley aquifer and give the go-ahead for construction of the world’s longest aqueduct to move water southwards.

And, like Mr Latham’s reading OBI, the Barnett Kimberley aqueduct plan (KAP) also wasn’t original since it was basically lifted from Mr Bridge.

What makes Mr Barnett’s hard-and-fast commitment to a plan particularly difficult to comprehend is his decision to ignore the far closer Yarragadee aquifer situated between Bunbury and Augusta.

The answer is, in part, because during 2004 two Tenix Group engineers quietly briefed State MPs, including Mr Barnett, on how and why Tenix would like to tap the far more distant, and thus more costly, Kimberley aquifer.

Add to this that Mr Bridge became an instant cult figure 15 years ago after promoting the piping of Kimberley water southwards.

Clearly, when the Tenix/Barnett KAP was coupled with the tried and tested late-1980s Bridge OBI, it was something Liberal campaigners couldn’t ignore with an election on the horizon.

Even though far more costly, the Tenix/Barnett KAP thus had the features of an ideal pre-election OBI.

Moreover, and this is crucial, proposing to tap Yarragadee aquifer only promised a loss of votes across all south west upper and lower house seats, which is why neither Labor nor the Liberals are commenting on this rich, relatively close, and far more economically accessible water source.

Notwithstanding the fact that by embracing Tenix’s more costly KAP Mr Barnett has at least briefly succeeded in portraying himself as a visionary like Mr Bridge, and may have brought himself closer to attaining his 15-year-old premiership dream.

And that’s one in the eye for Dr Gallop, who has unkindly nicknamed the Opposition leader Mr Grumpy because of his generally dour and uninspiring demeanour.

The Barnett OBI has clearly unsettled Dr Gallop, who last November announced that Labor had earmarked $5 million for a feasibility study of the tapping and shipment southwards of Kimberley water.

Dr Gallop could therefore hardly publicly allege that the Tenix/Barnett KAP was outlandish, or he’d have to promptly wind-up his costly feasibility.

Put bluntly, Mr Barnett’s OBI ploy completely wrong-footed Labor’s strategists.

His headlong rush for an unassessed commitment to tapping Kimberley water has stupefied Labor and they’ve been unable to devise media counter-strategies.

State Scene isn’t paid to privately or publicly advise either side on how to conduct election campaigns.

But now that the 2005 campaign is drawing to a close it’s timely to reveal the thrust of several chats with some of Mr Barnett’s Liberal colleagues, who were surprised at Labor’s inability to credibly and effectively counter the Tenix/Barnett KAP.

What amazed them is that Labor never highlighted a succession of less-than-illustrious Barnett infrastructure commitments during his time as energy and resources minister.

By far the gravest was his short-sighted sale of the Dampier to Bunbury Natural Gas Pipeline (DBNGP) for $2.4 billion to Epic Energy.

If it had remained publicly owned its short-sighted buyers, who overpaid by about $700 million, would not have lost nearly a billion dollars by having to dispose of it last year.

Epic’s overpayment meant it couldn’t expand the DBNGP’s capacity as required, nor could it meet peak gas demands, the major reason for last February’s power blackouts.

All this meant Western Australians suffered.

Mr Barnett’s decision to sell-off the DBNGP underlies much of the state’s present energy predicament and higher than necessary gas transmission costs.

Secondly, he halved the output of the Collie A power station – from 600MW to 300MW – thereby lifting unit cost per megawatt; a burden Western Power is carrying.

And finally he nudged Western Power in command-economy style into Xstrada’s and PMA’s vanadium project east of Geraldton, which has now been shut down costing Western Power a huge $20 million.

In light of this wobbly record with infrastructure projects its heartening to see the Coalition’s potential deputy, Nationals leader Max Trendorden, quietly put a lid on the Tenix/Barnett KAP by withholding unqualified backing.

Mr Trenorden’s capping of the Tenix/Barnett KAP was done by saying the determining factor would be the cost of water at the Perth end of the proposed aqueduct, with a whopping $1.20 per kilolitre, or about twice the present domestic water cost, being a “reasonable benchmark to aim for”.

The Trendorden capping is partly due to Nationals ministers’ understanding Mr Barnett’s modus operandi as a minister.

Mr Trenorden’s predecessor, Hendy Cowan, had observed him carefully during the Court-Cowan governing years, so the Nationals appreciate his various proclivities, having watched him embarking on the DBNGP-Epic, Xstrada and Collie A station deals.

If Tenix can’t guarantee to the minority Nationals in government that a whopping $1.20/kL is attainable, we’ll be able to forget this costly election driven OBI and return to tapping less costly sources of water and continue devising more economical and less wasteful usage.


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