06/06/2012 - 10:58

Libs in crisis management mode

06/06/2012 - 10:58


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Spotfires are springing up all over the place for the state government; not quite the calm control needed as an election nears.

Spotfires are springing up all over the place for the state government; not quite the calm control needed as an election nears.

AFTER ruling the roost with little opposition for almost four years, and generally showing sound judgment while dispensing some harsh medicine, Colin Barnett and his government are going through a difficult patch.

Some of the problems are of their own making, while others have cropped up unexpectedly. But they should have been better handled, especially as Western Australia is entering an election countdown period.

There’s an old maxim in politics that governments ‘batten down the hatches’ in their last year in office; that is, they seek to have potentially troublesome issues off the agenda well before the election campaign starts so voters then can focus on their promises for the next term, not the issues that remain unresolved. 

That’s why the increase in the price of electricity was held down to 3.5 per cent in last month’s state budget, compared to the whopping 57 per cent jump over the past three years. With the extra hit on power prices on July 1, thanks to the Commonwealth’s carbon price, Mr Barnett wants the state to be the small target, with any criticism directed at Canberra. 

The first challenge to the government’s credibility was over the Liberal Party’s Leaders Forum, for which the participants pay $25,000 annually. Among other things, they have a number of lunches attended by the premier or senior ministers. 

It all sounded rather sinister. If you want the ear of the state’s leaders, it will cost you $25,000; otherwise don’t bother to apply.

Obviously participants in the Leaders Forum expect to get some consideration. And unions do the same with the Labor Party, as does Queensland businessman Clive Palmer, who has virtually bankrolled the National Party.

But the Liberals seemed to come off second best to the Labor Party, which had the ‘Leader’s Fund’, the John Curtin Foundation in the 1980s, and the leather satchel stuffed with cash under one minister’s desk, also in the 1980s.

Notwithstanding that, I did see the premier at a Perth Football Club lunch in March at Lathlain talking to a number of people, including one who said later Mr Barnett had agreed to open his association’s new offices later in the year. That lunch cost $65 a head.

Then there was the selection of former Victorian Liberal Party official Simon Morgan for the new northern suburbs seat of Butler, against Labor’s John Quigley. Mr Morgan, 32, got plenty of publicity, but it was the wrong sort. 

Mr Morgan ran a blog four years ago that was hostile to Victorian Liberal leader, now premier, Ted Bailleau, who later labelled him a traitor and accused him of treachery. 

Mr Barnett could have emulated former prime minister John Howard, who had no qualms in sacking then minister Ian Campbell in 2007 for not being more upfront on a meeting attended by former Labor premier Brian Burke. But Mr Morgan is still there and the premier is now committed to campaigning for him in next year’s election, although probably without much enthusiasm.

The list goes on. The government’s backflip on its promise to build a new wing at Royal Perth Hospital – a factor in winning the vital seat of Mt Lawley in 2008 – won’t go down well.

And the premier’s strong reaction to a letter from the principal of the John Curtin College of the Arts, who expressed disappointment over the government’s failure to commit to extra funds to help rebuild the ageing school, caused more controversy.

This has been topped off by the Housing Industry Association’s concern over a sharp drop in building approvals in April, with new building laws copping the blame. What doesn’t help here is that the HIA and its members are natural allies of the government. They would think twice before being critical and even then, would be inclined to pull their punches.

And then the premier comes under fire over his failure to give the all-clear to businessman Len Buckeridge’s campaign to build a private port at James Point, south of Fremantle. 

The source of the criticism? Not a Labor MP but Liberal MHR Don Randall.

It’s hardly conducive to battening down those hatches.

Naming bungles

REMEMBER the Golden West Bridge across the Swan River? And what about the unit of decimal currency called the Royal? And more recently there was the Heath Ledger Theatre complex? 

They all have one thing in common – they are names foisted on the community by various governments. The community rebelled, and the names were subsequently changed.

The Golden West Bridge was announced by then deputy premier John Tonkin in February 1959 as the name of the new bridge over the Swan River at the Narrows. It was widely seen as aping the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and Western Australia already had a popular soft drink, Golden West. The name was quietly dropped and the ‘Narrows’ was confirmed.

Then prime minister Robert Menzies announced the ‘Royal’ as the new basic unit before the introduction of decimal currency in February 1966. He was an unabashed Queen’s man but the nation was not convinced. The name was changed to ‘dollar’.

Premier Alan Carpenter announced the new theatre complex in Roe Street would be named after the WA-born actor who had died suddenly in the US. But Heath Ledger had not ‘trod the boards’ in Perth, the local theatre industry wasn’t impressed, and neither was the new Liberal premier, Colin Barnett. It became the State Theatre complex, with the Ledger name retained for the main auditorium.

Two names that have won general acceptance are the Fiona Stanley Hospital, after the 2003 Australian of the Year, and the Graham Farmer Freeway, after the champion footballer. But there are reservations about using the names of living Australians.

The point is that governments of both political complexion name public structures and initiatives at their peril. And the announcement of Elizabeth Quay for the Perth Waterfront project is no exception. Regardless of the standing of the monarch, it was one thing for Sir Charles Court’s government to name the Queen Elizabeth II Medical Complex in Nedlands in the 1970s, but Mr Barnett has really chanced his arm with Elizabeth Quay in 2012, despite the link with the Queen’s diamond jubilee.

And why knock on the head a proposal to invite suggestions from the public for the name of the new $1 billion sports stadium project at Burswood? It would give voters a sense of involvement, and it’s possible a widely acceptable name might emerge. 

Government would still have the last word.

‘Packer’ or ‘Crown’ stadium are the early possibilities, even though casino owner James Packer has said he won’t be putting any money into the project.



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