01/02/2012 - 11:26

McGowan challenges on state role

01/02/2012 - 11:26

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Mark McGowan made a genuinely intriguing comment last week when he criticised the premier for being a “1970s interventionist”.

Mark McGowan made a genuinely intriguing comment last week when he criticised the premier for being a “1970s interventionist”.

READERS of the popular press might be forgiven for thinking the next election will be fought on the issue of air-conditioning.

Mark McGowan has continued to play on Premier Colin Barnett’s earlier comments that air-conditioning is not a necessity in Perth.

Maybe the heatwave conditions in the city last week made it inevitable that Labor would continue to pursue this line of attack – and that the press would latch onto it.

It also plays into Mr McGowan’s claim that he, unlike the premier, is in touch with the mood of the community.

That explains his focus on the cost of living, which the Labor leader says, “is the number one issue facing West Australians and it will be the number one issue of (next year’s) election”.

Critics of Mr McGowan have disputed his ‘common man’ claims, but personal attacks do nothing to advance quality political discourse.

Nor does Labor’s continued criticism of the premier’s new offices, currently being installed in a historic building behind Parliament House in West Perth.

Labor has characterised the new offices as an expensive indulgence for Mr Barnett, with the latest attack focusing – would you believe it – on the fact they will be air-conditioned.

The new offices will serve all future premiers, not just the incumbent, and they should be designed and fitted out accordingly.

Apart from personal attacks, another unfortunate trend in modern politics is the creation of new ministerial portfolios to signal areas of interest.

Mr McGowan has taken this to a new extreme in opposition, with the creation of several new portfolios including ‘economic reform’, ‘cost of living’ and ‘suburbs.

This looks like a superficial gimmick. Labor would do itself a lot more credit if it delivered meaningful policies in these and other areas.

In particular, Mr McGowan needs to ensure that ‘economic reform’ is a constant process that is ingrained across all portfolios, and not just a slogan. When asked last week exactly what economic reform meant, he pointed to one of the former Labor government’s most significant achievements – the introduction of more liberal liquor licensing rules in WA.

The new rules have led to many changes, including the opening of dozens of small bars across Perth that have proved to be very popular.

This is a great example of economic reform. It involved the government removing unnecessary and outdated restrictions, which allowed the private sector to pursue new business opportunities.

And it has done more for the vitality and vibrancy of the city than any number of government-led, taxpayer-funded civic building projects.

The introduction of more liberal retail trading laws in WA would create similar outcomes.

Warming to the theme, Mr McGowan proceeded to characterise himself as more free market than Mr Barnett saying: “Unlike the premier I am not a 1970s interventionist”. 

“Business needs to get on with business,” he said. “Government must set the policy framework but not interfere in individual investment decisions.”

Mr McGowan’s comments raise a valid issue, which this newspaper has written about several times.

As premier, Mr Barnett has a habit of injecting himself, and his government, into a central role in commercial matters.

The proposed Oakajee port and railway development north of Geraldton was an early example.

Originally conceived as a purely private sector project, Mr Barnett chose to invest taxpayers’ money in the port component.

Another example is energy policy, and Mr Barnett’s repeated advocacy of remerging energy utilities Verve and Synergy.

It’s a stance that puts him at odds with every business group in the state, yet it keeps on being raised as a panacea for the very complex policy challenges facing that state in that area.

A third example is the Browse gas field development; like Oakajee, it is a complex issue with a mix of commercial, regulatory, environmental and social issues.

This has not stopped Mr Barnett being actively involved and advocating particular development options, even though the private sector owners of the project are themselves divided over the best way forward.

Mr McGowan’s focus on this issue should give rise to stimulating debate about the role of government, and that is to be welcomed.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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