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Labor to power ahead

CALENDAR year 2003 is set to be a memorable and self-strengthening one for WA.

And that’s despite the drought across this wide brown land and the predictions of many economists that economic growth in the United States, Japan and Europe is likely to falter further.

A growing number of State MPs over the past 20 years have come to appreciate that if WA’s economy was to diversify beyond basic resource extraction and minimal processing, industry must gain access to markedly cheaper energy – most especially electricity.

Others have concurred and become impatient with WA’s high electricity costs.

Among these were growing numbers of business consultants and project advisers with first-hand knowledge of the international electricity market, who knew that what was happening in WA in this regard was hindering the diversification of the State’s resource-based economy.

That, and pressure from business, meant the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) moved to actively lobby government for reforms.

CCI director Lyndon Rowe, manager of industry and resources Bill Sashegyi, and energy analyst John Rampton each played a key role in pressing for reforms.

Other pro-reformers included a growing number of younger, knowledgeable and increasingly influential former middle level Western Power employees who knew, as one put it, “things from inside the wigwam”.

All were familiar with Western Power’s procedures and statistics and had lost faith

in the current monopoly electricity generation and

retail arrangements.

On top of that, former State Electricity Commissioner Bob Booth’s recently published hard-hitting book Warring Tribes – The Story of Power Development in Australia impacted on many working in this sector. The resultant ground-swell meant growing numbers of informed Western Australians now see year 2003 as the one for perestroika (restructuring), to use Mikhail Gorbachev’s term.

State Scene has met and spoken to many of these people and one quickly perceives their impatience.

Because Premier Geoff Gallop and Energy Minister Eric Ripper appreciated this they convened the Electricity Reform Task Force, which recommended adoption of a competitive market.

One spin-off from this is that 2003 will inevitably become a watershed political year with respect to the outlook and predisposition of business towards Labor.

And in the process, the farsighted and civic-minded predisposition displayed by Dr Gallop and Mr Ripper during 2001 and 2002 will continue to undo the long-term damage of the Burke-Dowding years.

The biggest losers will of course be the Barnett-led Liberals, most of who are trailing the field and by an ever-increasing distance.

Self-strengthening certainly won’t come without a fight, especially in parliament, where former Energy Minister Colin Barnett has nailed his pro-monopoly proclivities, at least in this instance, to the wall.

And because some within Western Power want its monopoly powers preserved they’ve been working behind the scenes, briefing key people to belatedly convince them of its benefits.

However, their cause was severely dented this month with the sudden retirement of ardent pro-monopoly advocate, Western Power’s chief David Eiszele.

Whether he’ll now withdraw from public life is unknown.

He could do many things that impinge on 2003’s self-strengthening process. For instance, he could become Mr Barnett’s formal or informal adviser. After all, Mr Barnett was his political boss for more than five years.

Or he could become a consultant to one of the emerging investment groups now planning to create major electricity generating and retailing companies, and thus become competitors to Western Power.

It’s estimated that investment of more than a billion dollars will be directed into WA’s coal, gas and renewables generating sector between 2004 and 2010.

Mr Eiszele could thus find himself on the side of one or more of those seeking to participate in the about-to-be-created competitive electricity market.

His years of Western Power experience could be harnessed to enhance WA’s 2003 self-strengthening process, which the Gallop-Ripper team is about to launch.

Such a turnaround would certainly further weaken WA’s pro-monopolists.

Interestingly, Liberal MPs are finding their leadership’s stand in this regard difficult to fathom.

The reason is that their party has allegedly been dedicated, since its founder Robert Menzies put its platform into place back in the mid-1940s, to backing free enterprise, while Mr Barnett has resisted reform of Western Power’s electricity monopoly.

He explains that major contradiction by claiming he’s simply promoting current WA State Liberal Party policy, which, strangely, is true.

Not stated, however, is that the author of that policy was Mr Barnett himself, since he cobbled it together just before the last election.

Some believe he should begin devising a fall back position in case he finds himself outnumbered by competitive market backers among party donors and his parliamentary ranks, especially the more independent minded upper house MPs.

The last time a Liberal leader misread their mood on a contentious issue was when Barry MacKinnon pressed for blocking a Labor Government budget in the upper house.

Most there wouldn’t have a bar of it and, soon after, new leader Richard Court emerged.

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