12/12/2014 - 05:00

Miscalculation a serious business

12/12/2014 - 05:00


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Young political up-and-comers, and their mentors, should hasten slowly to avoid disaster.

Miscalculation a serious business

The row swirling around the business dealings of Transport Minister Dean Nalder, which led to his loss of the finance portfolio, clearly shows the pitfalls when the lines between business and ministerial responsibilities become blurred.

It also illustrates, unfortunately for Mr Nalder, the political traps that lie in wait for young players. At best he was poorly advised; at worst, he should have known better.

First of all it must be said that the Liberal member for Alfred Cove has a strong background in business, specifically through both Australia Post and the ANZ Bank. That he then decided to enter public life is to be applauded. Parliament is deficient in members with significant business backgrounds.

Far too many MPs are being elected before establishing solid track records in a profession or trade, or community involvement. Parliament on both sides is being clogged with careerists whose sole purpose is to get a safe seat. Sadly, few seem to know what they then want to achieve for their electorates.

So Mr Nalder's election in 2013, with his employment background, was a plus for the Liberals and, potentially, the state. It also should be noted he had a strong pedigree. His grandfather, Sir Crawford Nalder (Country Party), is a former deputy premier, while his father, Cambell (National Party), was a member for Narrogin.

This made Dean Nalder a member to be watched. He was quickly appointed chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, where members can get valuable insight into the operations of the public sector.

Most MPs are ambitions. And they are generally keen to progress as quickly as possible. So when Troy Buswell had his crashing Saturday night drive from Kings Park to Subiaco earlier this year, leading to his resignation from cabinet, it was no real surprise that Premier Colin Barnett turned to the new member, despite his having served just 12 months as an MP.

That's very flattering, of course, and provides a useful pay increase as well. Backbenchers are paid a base rate of $154,223, while ministers get $273,133 (the premier is on $350,425). And no MPs worth their salt are going to knock back an offer of promotion because they are 'not ready'.

Yet that is often the case. Increasingly, MPs are joining cabinet before being fully versed in how government, let alone parliament, works. In fact it is far better for future ministers to have served at least one term in opposition, where they can learn the ropes out of the spotlight, than be fast tracked from the government backbench into the cabinet.

Jumping the pecking order can also be counterproductive. More experienced colleagues who have been waiting for the (premier's) call for higher duties can easily have their noses put out of joint. Some react badly and white-anting of the latest rising star can occur within the ranks.

Whether this was part of Mr Nalder's problems is still the subject of speculation. Certainly as more details came to light of him being part owner of a car leasing firm targeting public servants, and the involvement of some ministerial staff members, it appeared that his office was doubling as a commercial operation. That was hardly the intention when ministers were first given their now bloated staff allocation in the 1980s.

The business interests of ministers came to a head in the 1960s when the bauxite miner, Comalco, sold shares to key federal and state ministers. In WA, premier Sir David Brand, industrial development minister Charles Court, and the wife of mines minister Arthur Griffith, all held shares, arousing much controversy.

The then Mr Court vigorously defended owning shares in public companies, as reported in Ronda Jamieson's biography.

"As to how else a minister can handle his affairs, short of accepting a state where he is so impoverished that he gets around with the seat out of his pants, is something beyond my comprehension," he said.

Pecuniary interest requirements have tightened up since then, with a register of each MP's property, business and share interests (regularly updated) being held at Parliament House.

And it's not just aimed at the business interests of Liberal MPs to take account of possible conflicts of interest in their deliberations. Labor MPs who are also union members have the same requirement to disclose those affiliations, as some deliberations regarding government employment directly impinge on their union's members.

In fact the public sector is far more unionised than private employment, so an expanded government workforce usually delivers more unionists. That, in turn, equates to more clout within union forums and often the Labor Party, including with pre-selections.

The Nalder experience is no reason why potential MPs with a background in business or the professions should shun public life; but they must organise their affairs to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

If there are loopholes, consequences follow; Mr Nalder now knows only too well.


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