26/06/2007 - 22:00

Liberals a decade too late

26/06/2007 - 22:00


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For months there’ve been whispers that a well-heeled group inside Western Australia’s Liberal Party has been head hunting Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA and former state treasury chief, John Langoulant.

Liberals a decade too late

For months there’ve been whispers that a well-heeled group inside Western Australia’s Liberal Party has been head hunting Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA and former state treasury chief, John Langoulant.

And some see another CCI employee, policy director and one-time student union leader, Deidre Willmott, as a possible candidate.

There are even whispers Mr Langoulant has leadership potential.

Here it’s worth recalling that another from the business servicing sector, Colin Barnett – once with the Confederation of WA Industry and later the Perth Chamber of Commerce that merged to form the CCI – was similarly billed in 1990 when he gained Liberal leader Bill Hassell’s seat of Cottesloe.

Let economic historians decide if Mr Barnett met expectations with his many and varied decisions and moves.

Among their considerations will be his failure as energy minister to heed the Carnegie Report’s advice to ensure WA acquired a competitive energy sector to help make the state internationally more competitive.

For reasons best known to Mr Barnett he interpreted that to mean selling off the government-owned Dampier to Bunbury Natural Gas Pipeline to Epic Energy, leading to the emergence of a private gas access monopoly.

And there was his other sell-off of the then government-owned Alinta retailing arm, along with the government-owned southern gas distribution pipeline network, thereby creating another big private gas access monopoly.

As a result, possible Alinta retail competitors haven’t entered the domestic and industrial gas retailing markets since Alinta simultaneously gained a stranglehold over the southern pipeline network.

This means potential competitors, who are compelled to use the Alinta network, were being placed at a huge, indeed, untenable, disadvantage.

It was crucial that the Dampier to Bunbury pipeline and the southern gas network remained publicly owned for competition in gas provision to emerge, as the Carnegie Report urged.

Clearly Mr Barnett thought otherwise, or simply couldn’t resist the temptation of $2.4 billion for the sale of the former, and nearly $1 billion by selling Alinta retailing plus the latter.

Selling Alinta retailing alone would have fetched markedly less than $1 billion, probably below $100 million.

Put differently, Mr Barnett gained a monopoly price for both publicly owned monopoly assets, but the energy-consuming public must pay – in perpetuity – for those monopoly premiums since competitiveness is absent.

To top all this off, when Epic went belly up for overpaying for the Dampier to Bunbury pipeline, Alinta Ltd bought it, meaning two strategic monopolies were wrapped into a double monopoly under one roof.

Another Barnett economic legacy is his come-what-may plan, announced just before last election, to build an open Kimberley-to-Perth canal through the cyclone-prone North West. While Mr Barnett claimed the cost would be $2 billion, experts calculated the project would cost closer to $14 billion.

Some even doubt whether his proposal would have delivered more water to thirsty Perth users than would have evaporated along the way, as the water trickled steadily southwards down the open canal.

Then there’s his strange love affair with Labor’s 1920s crusade to scrap the upper house. Mr Barnett’s version of this crusade is to criticise that chamber, claiming it faces abolition if it doesn’t change its practices towards something he’s advocating.

However, he ignores drastically needed reforms to his chamber, the Legislative Assembly.

Although neither Mr Langoulant nor Ms Willmott should be linked to such unusual decisions or crusades, these may well pass through some minds if moves for their recruitment firm-up.

Another aspect of this Liberal proclivity to turn to the business service sector for parliamentary recruits is the fact that it’s a public admission that those Liberals now in parliament aren’t entirely up to the job ahead.

In other words, there’s been a distinct lack of foresight and planning during the past decade or more in attracting credible candidates.

And this despite so many safe seats being handed – for reasons best known to hard-nosed party powerbrokers Ian Campbell and Senator Chris Ellison, plus their local number scrambling activist mates – to less-than-impressive individuals who are now MPs.

Here, Mr Barnett may also be judged as partly responsible, since he was deputy Liberal leader from May 1992 until February 2001, and then leader until early 2005.

Historians will therefore probably also assess his role in the Liberal Party’s failure to find and recruit quality candidates over those crucial 13 years.

Labor power broker and attorney-general, Jim McGinty, can be criticised for much but not for ignoring Labor’s longer-term interests.

Significantly, Mr McGinty recruited Labor’s present leader and now premier, Alan Carpenter, way back in 1996 when the latter was an ABC television presenter.

And it wasn’t until 10 years later – early 2006 – when Labor suddenly found its similarly recruited leader, Geoff Gallop, to be deeply depressed, that Mr Carpenter moved forward.

And to reiterate this, Dr Gallop was similarly recruited and became leader in October 1996, when Labor was shocked to discover from secret polling that its then leader, Mr McGinty, was so unpopular that Labor would be electorally decimated at the next election.

Dr Gallop, who gained Labor’s safe Victoria Park seat way back in June 1986, was head-hunted well before then by Burke government minister Bob Pearce, who told Brian Burke of Dr Gallop, then a Murdoch University academic and left-of-centre Fremantle City councillor.

There are other similar cases that show the Liberals are permanently shortsighted, if not blind.

But, back to their present predicament.

Here we are, 18 or so months out from election February 2009 and moves have picked up pace to find possible leadership material.

The first thing to be said to the little group within their party is that they’re about 10 years too late.

All that they’re now doing should have begun in at least 1996; that’s how Messrs Burke and McGinty operated.

In other words, forget the coming 2009 election. Start planning for 2013 and beyond, which is  Labor’s way.

The present signs are that the Paul Omodei-led Liberals are headed for a scorching defeat. Some foresee a party wipeout.

There are several reasons for this, not least Mr Barnett’s failure to counter the Nedlands-Dalkeith-Cottesloe Liberal clique’s moves to unseat former Liberal upper house MP, Allan Cadby, so that their favourite, Peter Collier, could enter parliament.

Mr Cadby understandably returned their career-destroying ‘favour’ by voting for the McGinty electoral redistribution bills that now make it so much tougher for Mr Omodei to topple Mr Carpenter’s McGinty-directed government.

And there’s also the deplorable lack of credible, visionary, and knowledgeable candidates across Liberal ranks.

Looking for a saviour, or two, when an election is virtually on top of you isn’t the way to become the party of government.

Party candidates and other planning needs to be more like the planning that competent and far-sighted governments undertake in military affairs – defence forces must be adequately manned, properly trained and well-equipped so as to be forever ready for war.

And military forces must have adequate reserves so they can be promptly beefed-up with quality recruits in emergencies.

Recruiting and equipping fighting forces on the very eve of war is a sure way to defeat and subjugation by nasty external enemies.

What needs to be said is that any party that’s been around for as long as the WA Liberals and can’t unseat the McGinty-Carpenter government should seriously consider giving up politics.

And the reason is that that government is far from been farsighted and visionary.

Like the WA Liberals, it’s quite mediocre.

Just look at the ad hoc and costly way it’s handling the water question, the high cost of urban land for first home buyers, overspending on services, exorbitant state taxes, and much more.

All the signs are that if the John Howard-led Liberals are toppled, as presently expected, WA’s Liberals will no longer be able to put-off an objective root and branch assessment of their deplorable condition.

And when that happens let’s hope that belatedly looking for saviours isn’t seen as a solution to its endemic problems.


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